Merkel fails to woo voters in Berlin’s ‘Little Istanbul’
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel may be favoured to win Sunday's national elections, but in the immigrant-dominated Kreuzberg district of Berlin – better known as "Little Istanbul" – Merkel is not popular.
in BERLIN, Germany
A group of residents is holding a community meeting in a tiny shack in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, better known as “Little Istanbul” for its large concentration of Turkish immigrants and their German-born families.
Detlev Kretschmann, Fatma, and Enver Mastovian are addressing the meeting near a public housing project not far from Kottbusser Tor, a metro station in central Kreuzberg infamous for its high, mainly drug-related, crime rate.
But the activists are not here to discuss the evils of drug trafficking in this low-income neighbourhood of the German capital.
The members of the community group “Kotti & Co." have gathered to highlight the need for rent control in the area. As longtime residents of Kreuzberg, they are determined to preserve what they view as the very soul of their beloved neighbourhood – a veritable bastion of resistance against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party.
Germany heads to the polls on September 22 in national elections that look set to hand the country’s first female chancellor her third term in office. Merkel is widely considered a safe pair of hands, a sentiment reinforced by the CDU’s use of her trademark hand gesture – a bracing of thumb and fingers known as “the Merkel diamond” – in campaign posters.
But Kreuzberg has never been impressed with “Mutti” – or “mommy” as Merkel’s supporters call her. In the 2009 election, for instance, the CDU won just 11% of the vote in this district – the party’s worst score at the national level.
"Kreuzberg has always been, and still is, a really ‘proletar’ neighbourhood where ethnic Germans and immigrant workers live in harmony," says Kretschmann, using the German word for proletariat.
"I came to Kreuzberg from Turkey 43 years ago and I can’t imagine living anywhere else, this is my home," explains Sabiye Yeldis. Like nearly 30% of the district’s 150,000 residents, he is of foreign origin.
Kretschmann, a 65-year-old Kreuzberg resident born in Germany, says, "This is a place where immigrants can feel safe. First, because there’s no – or very little – racism, and also because this neighbourhood has some of the most active community outreach networks in this city.”
According to Kretschmann, the secret of Kreuzberg’s multicultural vitality lies in the principle of "live and work together”. It’s a community spirit inculcated in Kreuzberg’s classrooms, “because children of all backgrounds come together and get to know each other," explains Enver Mastovian, another Kreuzberg resident who works in a cookie factory.
From counterculture capital to gentrification central
But Kreuzberg is changing. Once an isolated corner in West Berlin, squeezed near a remote section of the old Berlin Wall where ''guest workers'' from Turkey settled, Kreuzberg has been gentrifying over the past few years.
"More and more new residents want to put their children in private schools precisely to avoid this diverse mix of people,” says Kretschmann.
On Orianenstrasse, one of the district’s main streets, some of the iconic buildings of the 1970s – when Kreuzberg was at the heart of the counterculture movement – still remain. But a new wave of trendy shops and restaurants is spreading across the district: these days, it’s possible to get a haircut at an arty salon before enjoying an organic latté in a clothing store featuring young designers.
The gentrification is proceeding at a rapid pace - to the chagrin of old-timers who are battling to preserve the soul of Kreuzberg. "The poorest are getting increasingly ghettoised,” says Fatma, an unemployed railway engineer who has lived in Kreuzberg for 39 years.
For Fatma, the reasons for this are clear: developers are taking advantage of Berlin’s popularity among young people to exert an upward pressure on rents and economic policies that do not address rising prices.
The poor get poorer
The process of gentrification is not unique to Kreuzberg. But the consequences are serious in a district that is still home to a large concentration of low-income workers. “Some of us are now forced to allocate more than 60% of our incomes for the rent – that leaves us almost nothing to live on,” complains Fatma.
Decades after their parents and grandparents arrived in Germany to feed the post-war need for cheap labour, immigrants continue to constitute a high percentage of Germany’s low-income groups. At the Koti & Co. meeting in Kottbusser Tor, some members noted that the increasing rents and spiralling prices were a "form of racism aimed at ridding Kreuzberg of some of its residents of foreign origin”. For many residents of this neighbourhood, that’s just another reason to buck the national trend and vote against Merkel in Sunday’s polls.