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Rummelsburg rising: The fall and rise of a Berlin neighbourhood

Development hasn't always helped this small Berlin neighbourhood, but could a new energy mean Rummelsburg is on the rise?

Photo: Makar Artemev

Nestled between the similarly remote-sounding districts of Friedrichsfelde, Karlshorst and Oberschöneweide, the exact location of Rummelsburg, a small and relatively unknown region of industrial Lichtenberg, leaves many stumped.

“It just sounds far away,” said a Neukölln friend of mine. “I’ve honestly never heard of it,” said a fellow Berliner, despite having lived in Lichtenburg for four years. As a relatively new resident of Rummelsburg, the phrase, “it’s just a stop from Ostkreuz”, has become an unofficial motto for me. But despite its off-the-beaten-tracks reputation, the neighbourhood holds intrigue.

⛵️ Top 7 things to do in (and around) Rummelsburg

Rummelsburg represents all the nuance the question of development brings

Rummelsburg is neatly divided into old and new by the train tracks that bisect the neighbourhood, separating the affluent Spree-facing luxury area, inhabited by artsy boat people and speed-walking yuppies, from the ‘wrong’ side of the tracks, a vast winding morass of Plattenbauten. Walking these streets are the chain-smoking and quintessentially East Berlin elderly who have long called this area home, as well as young international families, many of Vietnamese descent, looking for a quiet and safe place to settle down.

Both the people and the architecture of Rummelsburg weave together the story of this forgotten district. It’s one of new beginnings, old traditions and shady pasts. And… fish.

From crime scene to suburban dream

Photo: Makar Artemev

Rummelsburg prison played a part in the GDR’s dark history

During Nazi times, Rummelsburg’s location just outside the centre of the city provided the perfect cover for their awful crimes. Its former prison, located along the arterial Hauptstraße, was assigned a special department for the imprisonment of homosexuals and the “mentally deviant”. Jews were also sent here before being fatally relocated to the notorious Bernburg psychiatric clinic as part of the Nazi’s Aktion T4 euthanasia programme.

Rummelsburg prison also played a part in the GDR’s dark history. During the 1970s and 1980s, several thousand of the regime’s prisoners were held here, including several hundred (West) German prisoners who were imprisoned as effective hostages for the East German government in a political power play. After 50 gruesome years of history, the prison was finally shut in October 1990.

Today, it is the epicentre of Rummelsburg’s most bourgeois block, resembling more of a suburban East Coast American neighbourhood than the stereotypical Berlin Kiez – think red brick, two-floor apartments, opulent balconies and vintage cars, parked under basketball hoops, in actual driveways. Apartments here go for double or triple what they do in other, more central parts of the city, providing the perfect example of the symbiotic relationship between Berlin’s troubled history and its gentrified future.

The crushing of a community

Photo: imago images/Olaf Wagner

February 2022 saw Berlin’s largest homeless community being “relocated” from Rummelsburger Bucht, the picturesque section of the Spree between the former prison complex and genteel alt-Stralau peninsula.

As soon as they were gone, after dark and without prior notice, the camp was dismantled

The tent community had been slowly growing for decades and amounted to around a hundred “long-term” residents. The eviction happened in just one evening during a cold snap that saw temperatures plummet to -12°C. According to Deputy Mayor of Lichtenberg Kevin Hönicke (SPD), the eviction was in the best interest of the community. “Due to the weather with the cold, snow and rain, the situation is very dangerous. We can no longer guarantee the safety of life and limb for the people here,” he said at a press conference. This was in spite of the fact that several of the community claimed there was sufficient heating in the camp.

However, as soon as they were gone, after dark and without prior notice – and against previous promises to the contrary – the camp was dismantled. Due to the suddenness of the so-called “voluntary relocation”, not all residents were able to pack up before the entire site was totally demolished. As one resident told Taz, she was assured she would be able to return to retrieve her camper van after the relocation. However, when she came back, “it had been completely destroyed”.

This left a bad taste in the mouths of many, with protests against the eviction gaining supporters in several hundreds over the following weeks. However, the timing of the eviction, in line with new proposed plans for the Padovicz Group’s new venture, Coral World, a luxurious hotel and aquarium, rubbed a whole load of salt water in the wound.

The camp’s site had actually been sold to the investors at a price well below its market value by the former SPD-CDU government back in 2016, coincidentally around the time that threats to dismantle the camp began. Understandably, this forced many to question the altruistic intentions of the eviction. (As of today, the controversial project has recently had to apply for public funding as its costs spiral out of control.)

The eviction of Rummelsburg’s homeless settlement was not the first and will not be the last. Rising gentrification and homelessness are two sides of the same coin, in Berlin and cities across the world. Squats and homeless communities have been losing out to venture capitalists and property developers in droves in recent years, and the trend does not seem to be slowing down.

“Hundreds of thousands of people across Germany have been forced out of their apartments because of gentrification,” says Caren Lay, a leader in Parliament for Die Linke. The age-old question is, of course, what do we lose in a city when commerce is placed over community? Particularly in a city like Berlin whose very essence has been built on the culture of the poor, the creative and the rebellious.

Losing social spaces

The tent city wasn’t the only Rummelsburg community to lose out at the hands of this development. Beloved community club, event space and restaurant Rummels Bucht also had to vacate its premises thanks to the construction of Coral World.

Photo: Makar Artemev

For 10 years, ramshackle Rummels Bucht hosted live music performances, local art exhibitions, popular club nights and even a very decent pizza restaurant, all directly on the waterfront. Speak to local residents about the closure of Bucht and you’re guaranteed to quicken a pulse or two. People are still in disbelief that such a much-loved and needed social space has been demolished in favour of, essentially, a giant fish tank.

“Berlin has such an oversupply of houses, Kitas and doctors surgeries it’s good that someone is tackling the extreme shortage of aquariums,” sums up one Reddit user. The development of Coral World comes at a particularly bad time, after the catastrophic explosion of the €12.8 million aquarium at the Radisson Blu in late 2022, which saw the death of 1500 marine animals and millions of euros of damage.

Once again, the situation in Rummelsburg is far from against the grain when it comes to gentrification weeding out cultural spaces in Berlin. For example, rising real estate prices are threatening Wedding’s famed artistic studio Uferhallen along with the community it nurtures. Many of Berlin’s party lovers will also lament the closure of Griessmühle. Sold to developers in 2019, the two-floor all-weekend club was also the spiritual home of iconic gay monthly party CockTail d’Amore. According to Berlin’s Club Commission, an organisation dedicated to protecting the city’s nightlife, around 15 clubs were still under threat in 2020, even garnering its own word: Clubsterben (‘clubs are dying’).

The once abundant, industrial and abandoned spaces that defined Berlin’s freewheeling, post-Mauerfall landscape are quickly falling to the unforgiving claws of gentrification. Much like its prison, Rummelsburg’s cultural spaces have been torn down and rebuilt to reflect the changing times. But, with all that’s been lost, it would be remiss to distil development in Rummelsburg down to its luxury flats and unwanted aquariums.

In fact, Rummelsburg might be on the rise.

Wait, is Rummelsburg becoming cool?

The people and the architecture of Rummelsburg weave together the story of this forgotten district

Well, it might be a bit too soon to go that far. But without a doubt, the losses sustained from the closure of the likes of Rummels Bucht are – slowly – being compensated for.

For example, while not a district traditionally favoured for its cuisine, Rummelsburg is benefiting from the social currency of being home to intimate cult foodie favourite Restaurant YUUMI, a Japanese and European fusion restaurant serving a seven-course, Omakase-style dining experience. Prices, though far from being affordable for the typically working-class Lichtenbergers, are very reasonable for a restaurant verging on five stars – just over €60 per head.

Photo: Makar Artemev

And the sheer amount of glowing reviews are testament to the fact that patrons are eating it up. Considering that even finding a decent Döner in much of Rummelsburg is a mission only undertaken in extreme emergencies, Restaurant YUUMI’s appearance is symbolic of the fact that Rummelsburg has skipped a few rungs on the evolutionary culinary ladder in just a couple of years – and that the neighbourhood has an appetite for change. 

Cool new event spaces are also putting Rummelsburg on the map. Just up the road in similarly untrendy Oberschöneweide is the long-standing Funkhaus – a cultural event space housed within an old DDR broadcasting house.

2017 saw the launch of MONOM in the venue by legendary techno DJ Zak Khutoretsky, also known as DVS1. Touted as “the most immersive music experience on offer in the city”, MONOM has in recent months hosted several highly-coveted, well-received club nights, including Berlin’s first event hosted by emerging Amsterdam party collective Eerste Communie. As if to underline the trendification of this previously forgotten and maligned region of Berlin, there’s even a Zola pizza on the premises – going a long way towards filling the gaping, pizza-shaped hole left by Rummels Bucht’s departure.

Photo: Funkhaus Berlin

Rummelsburg may be small, but within its borders lies the spiralling universe of good and evil that gentrification reaps upon a city, none more so than Berlin. While many have been evicted, displaced and disappointed, the landscape of Rummelsburg is, like the rest of Berlin, giving way to new spaces and fresh opportunities.

Just as historic Rummelsburg has evolved from its dark past, so too will contemporary Rummelsburg move into an uncertain future. Today’s Rummelsburg represents all of the nuance that the question of development brings. Better check it out now before it’s too late – whether or not you’re into aquariums.