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Neukölln in a historic glimpse

Neukölln was initially known as Rixdorf, and its immigration history began in 1737 with the settlement of Bohemian refugees. In the 20th century Rixdorf became a first suburban workers’ settlement in Berlin.  It was considered “Prussia’s largest industrial village” with the highest proportion of workers of any place in Berlin area, and soon it was acclaimed as “a Ku’damm of the poor”, which shows the importance of this village for social and economic relations. In 1899 Rixdorf got the city rights and shortly after that in 1912 it was renamed as Neukölln, while in 1920 it became incorporated to the city of Berlin. Along with other districts such as Wedding and Friedrichshain, Neukölln has developed as a working-class area, with strongly generated proletarian movements, migrant history background and capacity of social mixing. 

Working-class district, historic remarks


In the 1920s, workers' culture reached its peak in Neukölln. The boom of the seemingly stable Weimar years allowed for extensive urban development projects in Neukölln. Hermannplatz, a transportation hub where 15 streetcar and six bus lines ran, was also called "Potsdamer Platz des Südostens.” The second part of the large-scale Hermannplatz project was the "largest and most modern department store in Europe" of Rudolf Karstadt. The superlative building was opened in June 1929. With seven stores, it reached a height of 32 meters, with two 24-meter-high towers enthroned above it, on which columns of light still rose 15 meters into the sky. The sophisticated American-style temple of consumption had a direct connection to the subway station; escalators, elevators, a 4,000-square-meter roof garden, three atriums and a huge range of goods and services completed the metropolitan flair (Kissinger 2015, 78-79). Neukölln during the Weimar Republic transformed into an important retail and culture working-class area, providing all the necessary services not just for the district, but also for the surrounding neighborhoods of south Berlin. Together with “migrant-friendly” approach, the working-class, entrepreneurial and industrial functions became attractive for the incoming communities after the end of WW2. As a consequence during Wirtschafts Wunder period Neukölln, West Berlin's most populous district with 287,000 inhabitants, developed into a modern center of industry in the following years. Karl-Marx-Strasse (the main street in Neukölln) was specifically developed into a shopping avenue and, with its many department stores, shoe stores, jewelers, leather stores and cafes, soon became a business center with a supraregional to-go area. Numerous residents of the Eastern sector came to Karl-Marx-Strasse via the Neukölln S-Bahn and U-Bahn stations for coveted Western goods. In the years preceding the construction of Berlin Wall, the internal mental and physical boundaries appeared among the inhabitants of the city, and were exemplified as a state of change or the paradox of perpetual impermanence, of the new transformations to come, as much a space as it is a practice of transition. Here, in Neukölln the boundaries conceptualizing the urban, turned out more significant than national boundaries. The political frontier, dividing the city of Berlin, materially and mentally in the 1960s-1990s, created a symbolic spatial order, lasting till today, back then enforced by official and severe systems of divisions, transformed today into divisions dictated by cultural codes and ranking of the space, such us Neukölln or former East-Berlin districts, at the urban margins.


Rixdorf, map from the beginning of 20th century, Source: Staats Bibliothek Berlin, Map Collection

The Wall - official and symbolic divisions


When GDR troops began to seal off the sector borders to West Berlin on the night of August 13, 1961, Neukölln found itself in a peripheral situation: the population lost its recreational areas along the Spree, at Treptower Park and at Müggelsee. The streets and sidewalks belonged to the East Sector, but the houses and front yards belonged to the West Sector. In the beginning, the GDR authorities still allowed residents to enter their houses via the East Sector sidewalk, but later bypasses were built so that no West Berliner ran the risk of being arrested in the enemy sector. In the neighborly proximity of this grown neighborhood, the divisions caused by the Wall were particularly painful. The closing of the border, however, meant not only the separation of friends and families, but also the loss of East Berlin's retail clientele. Thus, the building of the Wall put an unexpected end to the rapid development of Karl-Marx-Strasse as a business center and consumer area. Yet, Neukölln’s policy toward foreigners and the guest workers who came to Berlin in large numbers since the early 1970s., was not so progressive as economic and industrial development. Since 1969, after the first post-war recession, employment of foreigners arose massively. In Berlin, the first discussions about a "guest worker issue" were already taking place at that time. The planned rotation model for foreign workers proved impractical, contracts were extended, and the first ethnic neighborhoods sprang up in the dilapidated tenement districts.

By the time the Wall came down, Karl-Marx-Strasse had once again developed into an important shopping street since the 1970s, becoming the highest-turnover shopping street in West Berlin after Kurfürstendamm and Stieglitze Schloßstrasse. 


Map of Berlin divided by the Wall