Monday, 17 January 2011
Life in Sunny Lichtenberg
I took this picture today in Rummelsberg, which is near to my new home in Lichtenberg. I have taken to calling the area "Sunny Lichtenberg" just to confuse all those horrified people who can't seem to understand why I've moved here. Lichtenphobia is a common problem in Berlin and as far as I can tell it's mostly unjustified, being based 70 percent on hysteria, 15 percent on media hype and 12 percent on factual evidence. The other 3 percent is just shock, because nobody can believe anybody would voluntarily give up a room in coveted Kreuzberg... to move further east!
A History of Violence.
The eastern suburbs of Berlin generally have a bad rap but since the early noughties, Lichtenberg has been the epicentre of that rap. The trouble started when some neo nazis took up residence in abandoned houses at the south end of Weitlingstrasse in the mid-90's. Fast forward a decade or so to May 2006. Only weeks before the World Cup was due to take place in Germany, a Left Party immigration spokesman was bottled by right-wing extremists in... you guessed it... Sunny Lichtenberg! The attack hospitalised him and resulted in the borough being officially branded 'no go zone' for tourists for the duration of the World Cup. From then on its right-wing reputation was cemented in the minds of Berliners and there was no going back. Or maybe I should say, "there was no going there" because, ironically enough, many of the people who criticize Lichtenberg have never been here before.
By 2006, the people of Lichtenberg hardly needed the focus of a global spotlight to point out that its neo nazi problem was getting out of control. The squats in Weitlingstrasse had long since been replaced by a pair of Neo Nazi restaurants, where wannabe future leaders of Germany's far-right presumably honed their ingenious political tactics over steaming plates of knodel and wurst. ("We'll stun our opponents with our appalling fashion sense and then punch them in the face, jah!")
After the World Cup debacle the authorities finally started to wake up to what the locals already knew and took typically thorough steps to deal with the problem. Those restaurants were shut down and the entire area around Weitlingstrasse was redesigned with features to deter loitering, graffiti and violence. They also put up a pretty multikulti mural on the side of the station. If the quiet, residential vibe that exists here today is anything to go by, then their efforts paid off. One can still see the occasional right winger passing through the area, usually keeping to himself and heading to a demo in town but there aren't any places left in Weitlingkiez where his kind can hang out openly. Personally, I see Asian and Turkish people walking down the street each day who seem every bit as fearless and confident as their white counterparts. If there's a white pride problem here, they don't seem to know about it.
Perhaps the biggest gesture of disapproval for Lichtenberg's neo nazi past comes from the locals themselves. The social atmosphere around Weitlingskiez is more open and polite than other parts of Berlin, as if the locals are drawing a clear line between themselves and the grim-faced extremists who occasionally spoil the view. And there are great views to be had here, as you can see.
My verdict on Lichtenberg.
It's not mad, bad or dangerous to know... in fact, it can even be a little boring at times! The fact that I plan to stay here should speak for itself but, if any of my friends from the UK are still in any doubt, I would like to emphasize that all of Berlin is much safer than cities back home. I think that that is one reason why violent attacks make such a big impression, here: because they don't happen often.
But I also can't help wondering if neo nazis are just a convenient outlet for Lichtenphobia of a different kind. The way that some people act, you would think that exremists are a phenomenon unique to this area when in reality, they are just as likely to exist elsewhere in Berlin. So why do people single out Lichtenberg? Maybe it's because the borough has many visible reminders of more austere times: plattenbauten, Stasi buildings and the 'second' Berlin zoo, Tierpark, which was created when the area was still under Russian control.
Unlike Prenzlauerberg and Friedrichshain, Lichtenberg has not yet been modified to a more plush, 'west German' style. Aside from that, its residents have every bit as much access to jobs and education as people living in the south or west of Berlin, so the frequently-cited economic causes of extremism don't apply here. Personally, I think that Lichtenphobia is just another indication that the Wall still exists in some people's minds.
Salon Zur Wilden Renate.
Lichtenberg is a modest, working-class borough which likes its nightlife to be all-purpose. Witness the jumble of indeterminate businesses with names like "Cocktail Bar-Internet Cafe", housed inside of what look like old bookies' shops. But near to its border with Friedrichshain, at least one of Lichtenberg's clubs has managed to make waves with Berlin trendsetters. The Salon Zur Wilden Renate is a bar-cum-club-cum labyrinth housed in a statuesque heritage building, every corner of it having been given a creative treatment that I can only describe as 'ghetto baroque'. The picture below shows a stage altar draped with sensuous fabrics, next to a golden exercise bike covered in fun fur.
Like its more humble counterparts east of the ringbahn, Renate is also multipurpose... but what those purposes are still remains to be seen! The last time I was there, the club wasn't open (it was a weekday) and I wasn' t in the right mood to go into the labyrinth. The bar was pretty amazing though, with its faded grandeur and coal fires. I'll definitely be back.