Check out the history and migration patterns in socially most dynamic part of Berlin...

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


Migrant Kiez

The historic boundaries established during Cold War, reinforced by the material structure of the Wall, have established simultaneously places of crossing and containment. Another layer of urban frontier emerged as migrants were involved in the city-making processes in Neukölln, recreating the neighborhood in accordance with their experiences, new requirements and found urban environment in Berlin. The analytic value of a symbolic spatial order lays in enhancing the visibility of the different interplays of the boundary making processes - old and new, official and cultural, natural (geographic) and constructed. This continual (inter)actions in the urban materiality and environment plays and important role in communities’ perception of what the place is like and who belongs there. I would like to emphasize the meaning of these boundaries and their dual function of division and crossing, creating the symbolic spatial order of the Neukölln-Nord, with a particular focus on the neighborhood between Karl-Marx-Straße and Sonnenallee. This will enable to understand the migrant place-making and Albanian everyday practice, defined by the mental division between East and West - derivative of the material divisions of Berlin in 1960s-1990s, transnational social spaces delineated by different ethnic communities, and the entrepreneurial environment with its historic background for Neukölln. The symbolic urban boundaries of Berlin, narrated as division, distance and differentiation, are historically emphasized by the recent history of the city divided by the wall and zones of influence of different political actors. If we look closely at the history of Neukölln (revoked in the first part of this paper), the social and cultural boundaries were followed by environmental divisions of Berlin, since beginning of 20th century. Neukölln, with its immigrant history of Bohemian community, and autonomy until 1920, has impacted on the urbanization of the south district of Berlin. It is also apparent that in the common narrative of Berliners, whose locale is central or north parts of the city, Neukölln is marked with distance (physical and mental), being stigmatized in the 1990s as the Bronx of Berlin. There are also other disparities, despite the fact that Neukölln was a part of West Berlin, which are economic and morphological. Its morphological disparities suggest connections between political, spatial and social forms of order. ​ Lively and bustling streets of Neukölln (Karl-Marx-Strasse and Sonnenallee) appear as a center of the neighborhood, full of colorful shop windows, blinking neon signs, multitude of languages, dialects and loud music of different cultures and full of aromas carrying the locals with a memory of homeland. Both streets are busy and hectic at most times of the day, yet different communities, such as Albanians, find their lapse of the time, in a slow motion of commonness. When one stops by in one of the coffeeshops or bars with Albanian double-headed eagle exposed on the entrance logo or in the interior, there’s no hurry anymore. Albanian social sites are mixed with a immigrant neighborhood’s users, where conviviality and social contact are a part of everyday practice, dominated by Arab and Turkish shops, Little Albania finds its significant place in the migrant urbanization of the city, in Neukölln. Yet, symbolic borders appear, delineating smoothly neighborhood ethnic, and/or religious clusters between communities and daily users of the streetscape.

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