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  • John Riceburg: Why does Berlin stink so much?


John Riceburg: Why does Berlin stink so much?

Walking around Neukölln in summer makes John want to puke. And he loves it.

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Aza Raskin

Street toilet @Aza Raskin

Take one of those free tours, and they’ll tell you Berlin was built on a swamp. “The name Berlin actually comes from ‘Burl’, the Slavic word for ‘swamp’,” or so I learned from a crash-coursed American tour guide who had arrived in the city 10 days before.

Well, I don’t speak Slavic. But I know when summer arrives in the city because the stench outside my door in Neukölln becomes overwhelming.

I don’t think these are swamp fumes – they seem to come from the rotting garbage bags that people deposit along the curb. Not to mention the improvised public urinal behind the old clothes bin. And the dog shit – the endless piles of dog shit everywhere.

It’s not like this all over town. When I go to visit my in-laws in the far-off land of Charlottenburg, I am consistently shocked by how clean everything is. (It’s almost like the legends of those even-farther-off and even-cleaner countries, like “Swabia”.)

The street cleaners seem to be way more active in City West. I wonder: Does the BSR leave us Neuköllners in squalour because we’re more barbaric? Or are we more barbaric because we are up to our necks in garbage? I guess it’s one of those chicken-or-egg questions.

I moved to Neukölln back when white kids were still scared to walk the streets at night. And I prefer my filthy Kiez to the teutonic Ordnung of my in-laws’ neighborhood. To quote accordion punk Yok: “I thought it was better here when there were still rats.”  

But why would I like a neighborhood that stinks? That’s quintessentially Berlin. The most locally patriotic song I know, by Berlin’s favorite chanson punk band The Incredible Herrengedeck, is just an endless complaint about how everything used to be better. The title? Berlin stinks.

Berlin stinks, Berlin is dirty,

Berlin is a scandal.

Berlin is broke, Berlin has nothing,

Berlin, you can suck my ass.

From Frohnau to the Wannsee,

From Spandau to Marzahn,

I can’t stand it here, I have to get out.

Berlin, you make me sick.

Whatever happened to the “golden Berlin” of the 1920s, the singers wonder. “Back then, the Kindl was fresh and communism was a real possibility.” Do other cities have this? Anthems that are just full of hate?

My theory is that people in Berlin have always been convinced it used to be better. For example, my father-in-law moved to Berlin from “Adenauer Germany” (the FRG) back in the 1960s. He spent his whole life as a mid-level bureaucrat and at first he was overwhelmed by the amount of complaints he received from Berliners. He would try to solve a problem, but that never made people happy. In fact, solutions seemed to make Berliners kind of sad. “Then they have nothing to complain about,” he realised, and they have to look for something else.

This summer, I realised I’m a perfectly integrated citizen of the city. Neukölln is a disgusting shithole. And I hate it, but in a loving way.