“What's actually going on here?”

A round table talk from the “Berlin bleibt! #3 – Werkstatt Mehringplatz” publication

The lower half of the historical neighbourhood of Friedrichstadt, from Checkpoint Charlie in the north to Hallesches Tor in the south, is a very heterogeneous urban area. Although it belongs to Kreuzberg, it's often perceived as part of Mitte, certainly in part thanks to the countless modern, high-cost buildings found north of Franz-Klühs-Straße. South of this line are mostly residential buildings hovering over Mehringplatz, the majority of which were planned as social housing in the late 1960s. As for the residential and commercial situation, half of the square is in the hands of the public housing corporation Gewobag, and the shops on the east side are busy, while the KMAntenne youth centre, the Gewobag's neighbourhood parlour and the neighbourhood management remain important contact points, responding to the neighbourhood's challenges with specific offers for its residents of all ages. For a long time, the west side was owned privately, and small businesses were closing down one by one. In view of the terrible structural neglect, the tenants' initiative Mehringplatz West was founded, its members voicing their concerns with protests and discussions. Since the beginning of February, the west side has been owned by another public housing company, HOWOGE. Mehringplatz has often been stigmatised in the media as a deprived area without naming its structural problems. More than 5,000 residents live here. Burdening people's everyday lives are the construction site, which has been going on for ten years, littering and drug-related crime. Nevertheless, Mehringplatz is a lively urban area, and many residents and initiatives are committed to making their neighbourhood liveable despite the difficult circumstances.

Stella: We want today's conversation with you to open up some insight on how we want to live and work together around Mehringplatz in the future. Keywords: Infrastructure, right to the city, housing situation, youth and culture. What are our visions for Mehringplatz? What positive developments do we want? And how can we support each other?

Volkan: Let's just pretend that today is 5 May 2031, and that almost everything you've been working towards to improve the situation at Mehringplatz has been realised. What does Mehringplatz look like now? What shops, cultural activities and meeting points are there?

Mareike: I would like to see Friedrichstraße 1 through 3, the complex where the KMA is located, renovated in the next four years and the Kurt Schumacher School completed. I would also like to see the planned new buildings on the AOK car park completed in 2031, so that young adults have the chance to move out of their cramped living environment and still stay in the neighbourhood, close to their families. Especially when you live under rather precarious conditions, you need a strong network. We are the neighbourhood with the most children in the entirety of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, but there are no paediatricians, no speech therapists, no occupational therapists, no child and youth psychologists. I would like to see a centre where young parents can find all these services. Short distances – I think that is very important in our neighbourhood.

Hendrikje: There should be a flower shop again. But if you don't have money, you don't buy flowers. What I really wish is that the young people who now meet in groups outside, dealing and brawling, all have a job and earn money so that they don't have to deal any more. As far as the AOK car park is concerned, I have a different focus from Mareike. I have something in mind for people who are looking for larger flats. At most, there are currently only three-room flats here, and that's simply not enough for families with four or more children. And there has to be a better sense of community. Unfortunately, the communities are very segregated: Turkish, Arab, Kurdish, Spanish, Eastern European and German. The neighbourhood management has been trying to change this for many years, but it just doesn't work.

“I am sometimes bothered by all the critical reporting about this location. When I imagine I'm a young person and I read that, so negative and deficit-orientated, it only makes it harder to get out of this vicious circle.” Gülcan Yapici

Erik: Well, I think subcultures form automatically. When a lot of people from one nation come together, they usually join together and tend to stay together.

Hendrikje: Sure, I understand. But that doesn't promote neighbourly help. You only ever look after your own group, and that way, you only learn what you already know. You don't learn what the other neighbours think.

Stella: And you, Gülcan, what are your hopes for 5 May 2031?

Gülcan: To me, as a parent representative of the Kurt Schumacher primary school, the completion of this construction site is of course the most important thing. But there are also not enough offers for primary school pupils in general, and there is no upper secondary school. As far as I know, the closest one is the Leibniz school on Gneisenaustraße. In particular, we need to better recognise the potential of the younger generation living here. I am sometimes bothered by all the critical reporting about this location. When I imagine I'm a young person and I read that, so negative and deficit-orientated, it only makes it harder to get out of this vicious circle. After all, it is inevitable that I will only have low qualifications if society thinks that of me anyway. This creates a two-class society. For comparison: just a few hundred metres away is the Clara Grunwald primary school – it has a completely different population than ours. There are a lot of German parents who apply to change schools relatively quickly, because they fear that their child will not get adequate support here. But one can only praise the Kurt Schumacher school – that is, the staff and the work they do there. The pupils get a very good education. Nevertheless, there is this segregation that fosters a two-class society. My vision is that interculturality is recognised as a potential and a value.

Mareike: The selection already takes place at the kinderladen. They already say: I can't send my child there because there are too many children of immigrants. My daughter was in a hippie kinderladen, and there was also the problem that many parents didn't want to send their children to the neighbourhood primary school because they feared there were disadvantages. For me, this is a new kind of racism.

Erik: Again about 5 May 2031: My dream is for decriminalisation to have taken place. For me, drug crime is the main problem here. And I don't mean the 12- to 14-year-olds who make a racket, but the 30-year-olds who look like they're on drugs, yelling and drinking beer already at nine in the morning. I would also like to see the neighbourhood become more colourful, not just endlessly grey blocks. I also think more people from other countries should come here instead of always from the same one or two nations. So that we have a real multiculturalism here. And the playgrounds have to become playgrounds again. One example: I live on Wilhelmstraße. When I go down here, there's a football field that you can't even get into. They fenced it off because it was supposed to be redone, but years later, it hasn't happened, and no one can play there.

Stella: You say drugs are a problem. Why isn't there more detached youth work? Would that be a specific demand from you?

Erik: Yes, maybe. But you can't get a grip on it with social workers alone. It's a social problem, and not only here. You have to get to the root of the problem instead of just scratching the surface.

Volkan: There is no place where junkies can inject themselves safely?

Erik: No, it happens everywhere here. Stairwells are especially problematic.

Stella: I heard that there used to be security people hired by Gewobag to walk through the stairwells and that the problem has gotten worse since they are no longer there, right?

“The concern about whether rents will remain stable depends very much on the ownership structure.” Ulrike Hamann

Erik: Yes, there used to be. There were also people hired to clean the stairwells two or three times a week. But they had to deal with unbelievable shit for only ten euros an hour or so. If I were a cleaner and saw something like that, I would also think: Why should I do that?

Gülcan: Theodor-Wolff-Platz is also so utterly unhygienic, and I don't know how to solve this problem. There was once a cleaning campaign by the Galilei primary school, but only for a few weeks. A little later you couldn't go there anymore because there was food lying around everywhere. Of course, this has to do with the users of the square, but also with a lack of interest on the part of the city.

Volkan: We've just heard a lot of insight from neighbourhood residents. Time for a bit of an outside perspective. Ulrike?

Ulrike: Okay, I'll look at Mehringplatz from Kotti [Kottbusser Tor], because a lot of things are similar here. From the outside, Kotti has always been considered a problem area. This is usually attributed to the migration experience that 80 percent of the people here have, to low income and so on. But, as you know from your neighbourhood, there is still a lot of solidarity. And that was what we wanted to make clear with “I love Kotti” – that we like living here, despite all the problems. First we said: Our most important problem is the high rents and racism. These are the issues that unite us. We can talk about everything else. And if I think about 2031 – what does Kotti look like? What does Mehringplatz look like? Then I would hope, on the one hand, that the rents have remained stable and that all those who wanted to stay have been able to. On the other hand, that the tenants have a say in what is done to the buildings, how services are provided and how the commercial spaces are allocated. It is not unimportant who rents which shops to whom. The same applies to the public space, for example, the issue of where to put benches and how we can spend our time there. But for that, we first have to win a few battles that are already underway. The concern about whether rents will remain stable depends very much on the ownership structure. For example, many of our homes are owned by Deutsche Wohnen. We've always said that if the rent we've paid over time has covered the cost of these houses, then we should own them. Therefore, one of the most important struggles is the socialisation of housing companies like Deutsche Wohnen. We also need a reform of social housing. There's less and less social housing because the social obligation is being lost.

Stella: I would like to chime in here. There are also examples of how goals have been achieved through initiatives. Hendrikje, maybe you could tell us about the tenants' initiative Mehringplatz West.

Hendrikje: Our flats belonged to a private real-estate fund for years. It only wanted the rent and never did maintenance or investments. Even the lifts didn't work for a long time – a real problem with high-rise buildings, of course. The rents were getting higher and higher with every new tenancy. Our initiative was founded when there was major water damage in the basement. We already had a rat problem before that, which kept getting worse after that. There were more burst pipes in the flats. We couldn't reach the property management anymore, but they kept collecting the rent. So we met every two or three weeks and finally organised a demonstration. Then, unfortunately, came this stupid pandemic. We've continued by video conference. Our clear goal was to be taken over by a municipal housing association. But the fact that it worked out was also a coincidence. We never had any contact with HOWOGE. They were just buying up the properties when the fund wanted to sell them. Now we're at the point where we're wondering how we can get in touch with HOWOGE. There, too, they don't really seem to be willing to get involved in tenant participation. They only tell us how things work and where to call. At least they care. We had made a list of 20 flats most affected by mould and damp, and they are working through it.

Stella: And now, I'd like to give it back to Ulrike, because tenant participation is the approach you are taking, right?

“The Hallesches Tor neighbourhood is always a bit forgotten by politicians.” Mareike Stanze

Ulrike: Yes, we have a structural problem here. Real tenant participation is not in the law, so it doesn't exist. Tenants are not allowed to have a say. But in the state-owned housing companies, there is at least the possibility of organising a tenants' advisory board –

Hendrikje: That's not what we want! A tenants' advisory board has no rights. They can only make suggestions. The company does not have to respond to them. That's not on a level playing field.

Ulrike: Another way to have a say is through the tenants' council. The tenants' council is responsible for tenants' affairs at the city level and can send one of its members to the supervisory board. There, it's all about the big investment planning for the whole company. There is no participation at the neighbourhood level. That is something we are campaigning for. But it looks like an uphill battle. The municipal housing associations are also organised as limited liability companies or public limited companies, so as corporations –

Erik: – with the aim of maximising profits.

Ulrike: Exactly. First of all, they are not orientated towards the common good. According to their bylaws, they are, but they may not allow tenant participation. According to the legal requirements for public limited companies and limited liability companies, that would be against the law, so to speak. That is indeed the legal situation. It would be different if these companies were transformed, as was once planned with the rent referendum, into institutions under public law.

Stella: That is the legal way to change structures. There is also the way to act with the means of the arts and activism.

Mareike: I would like to briefly tell the story of how the playground at Theodor Wolff Park was redesigned. Eight years ago, it was a real nightmare, dirty, and all the playground equipment had been dismantled. No functioning playground for the children living there. That can't be true! We then organised a big football tournament, walked around with the camera and asked the children: What is the situation here with the playground? What are you angry about? We showed the film to the BVV and said: Here, people, this is the situation – something has to change! Fairly quickly, the office for children and youth participation came and worked with the two primary schools and our youth centre, and the children were able to think up what kind of playground equipment they wanted. I think that's how it has to be done at Hallesches Tor, because the neighbourhood is always a bit forgotten by politicians. Maybe there just aren't enough votes to be had here or something. We're not Kotti, and for some people, maybe not really Kreuzberg any more. You have to shout ten times as loud to get something moving.

“No functioning playground for the children living there. That can't be true!” Mareike Stanze

Ulrike: With us, there are too many people taking care of it. (laughs)

Stella: I would like to go back to the commercial concept. It's a special moment now, because in the western part of the square, all the shops have gone except for the pharmacy. So all the things that used to be there: drugstore, butcher, big restaurant, flower shop, pub. Now the supermarket is also threatening to go. How do you find out what the neighbourhood needs?

Erik: A good approach would be, for example, to open a shop where jobs and apprenticeships are created especially for the young people who always hang out here in the neighbourhood. In other words, only people who live here would be employed. That would mean that the people who work and shop there would always know each other. That would lead to more interaction.

Ulrike: You have to create criteria for allocating jobs. You have already touched on that, Erik. Districts and housing companies often spend a lot of money on developing a commercial concept. We had a company here at Kotti that was commissioned to do this – for 100,000 euros. That was totally absurd, because the neighbours were not even asked. They know what the neighbourhood needs. Best would be to make it clear that they don't have to hire a company to do it. In order to achieve that, you have to empower yourselves and say, we'll do it. We organise groups in which we ask the neighbours.

Mareike: I think the situation here is a bit different here from the one at Kotti. There is simply a glaring vacancy. So if we position ourselves well now, we definitely have a chance of being heard.

Hendrikje: Well, the area representation has already tried to get a concept going that is developed and supported by all stakeholders and residents. But nothing has been implemented, and the businesses are fed up with all these surveys. Now the district has invited the key owners, the economic office, Gewobag, HOWOGE and the owner of the old parking lot, because they want to build there. They wanted to have internal talks first.

“We need a concrete sense of accomplishment, something that we can do together. That would achieve a lot.” Erik Krüger

Stella: What I'm hearing is that there is a clear demand for transparency and that you want to get involved in these talks.

Hendrikje: That's right.

Volkan: Finally, maybe we should talk about cooperation in the neighbourhood. How can we network? How can we draw attention to ourselves?

Erik: We need a concrete sense of accomplishment, something that we can do together. That would achieve a lot.

Hendrikje: But what could that be? Maybe this football field behind our house? We could just tear down the fences and rebuild it.

Gülcan: Last year, we did something similar at our school. One weekend, the parents went with our children and built a new school out of cardboard in the schoolyard, which received media coverage. These kinds of actions can make a difference.

Ulrike: At Kotti, we built a real protest house together. Of course it's something big, but back in 2012 it led to us standing guard together 24 hours a day and greeting the neighbours. That brought us together, despite all of our differences.

Gülcan: What remains, however, is that you feel treated totally unfairly. Across the road from us, a high-rise office building is going up. The building permit has already been granted, and I'm sure it will be finished sooner than our school. Offices and shopping centres are being built in no time at all, but they can't manage to renovate a primary school for 270 pupils. It makes you wonder, what's actually going on here?

On 5 May 2021, HAU Hebbel am Ufer invited some of the players to a round table to talk about the situation at Mehringplatz. The participants:

Hendrikje Herzberg
An architect who has lived at Mehringplatz for 25 years, was temporarily involved in the neighbourhood council and is a co-founder of the Bauhütte next to the taz building as well as the tenants' initiative Mehringplatz West.

Gülcan Yapici
A native Kreuzberg resident, biotechnologist, mother of two and parents' representative of the Kurt-Schumacher primary school who has lived on Stresemannstraße for 22 years.

Mareike Stanze
The head of KMAntenne, the youth centre of Kreuzberger Musikalische Aktion (KMA), who started with the neighbourhood management and has continued her committment to equal opportunities for local children and teenagers for almost ten years.

Erik Krüger
Grew up in the neighbourhood, regularly went to the KMA as a teenager and later led workshops there himself.

Ulrike Hamann
A co-founder of the initiative Kotti & Co., member of the board of Wohnraumversorgung Berlin and champion for the participative management of tenants and for stable, affordable social housing.

Moderation: Stella Konstantinou and Volkan Türeli, HAU Hebbel am Ufer

The writer Markus Liske edited this interview on behalf of HAU Hebbel am Ufer. He is also a resident of Mehringplatz.