Is Kotti burning?

Kottbusser Tor’s never been boring. But recently, a rise in gang activity, assault and petty crime have led to the media dubbing Kotti a “no-go zone”. What’s going on in Berlin’s most volatile Kiez?

Image for Is Kotti burning?
Photo by Miron Zownir
Image for Is Kotti burning?
Photo by Maria Runarsdottir
Bustling with Germans, Turks, punks, queers, tourists, dealers, addicts, pickpockets and beggars – and the same homeless guy always preaching from the top of the phone booth – Kottbusser Tor’s never been boring. But recently, a rise in gang activity, assault and petty crime have led to the media dubbing Kotti a “no-go zone”. What’s going on in Berlin’s most volatile Kiez? In any other part of Berlin, you’d expect a neighbourhood meeting called on the fifth floor of a museum to be attended only by a handful of cranky German retirees, a few concerned mothers and maybe a sprinkling of well-meaning students. Not Kottbusser Tor. The Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Museum is so packed that they’re showing a simulcast of tonight’s event on the third floor, on screens that normally display the video installation “Scenes from Görlitzer Park”. Up on the top floor, some 300 attendees mirror Kotti’s famed Kreuzberger Melange. There are Turkish shop owners, ageing German hippies, young mothers, bespectacled hipster types, an African refugee, an overeager anarchist named Andre who won’t wait his turn to speak before spitting vitriol at the “Bullen” (a derogatory term for the cops akin to “pigs”)… and about a dozen journalists. The topic: “Kippt der Kotti?” Is Kotti on the edge of collapse? The changing climate This isn’t necessarily a new question. Kottbusser Tor’s reputation as Berlin’s most derelict neighbourhood dates back to Kreuzberg’s days as an ‘island’ of punks, squatters and poor migrants, wedged up next to the Wall in the 1970s and 1980s. Kotti was once the turf of mostly-Turkish street gang 36 Boys, who became famous not only for their muggings and extraordinary battles with neo-Nazis, but also for the notoriety later acquired by ex-gang members (from star chef Tim Raue to Germany’s most famous rapper-turned-ISIS jihadi Deso Dogg). Dealers and junkies have always been part of the neighbourhood fabric, even as Kotti’s rents have risen and its tourist and expat population exploded. “I remember this bar down on Dresdener Straße that had holes in the teaspoons so that the junkies wouldn’t be able to dissolve their heroin. They also had neon lights in all the toilets, so they couldn’t see their veins!” says Birgit, a German teacher who has lived in the area since 1991. But everyone seems to agree that the past year or so has been different. New gangs have moved in, mostly recent arrivals from North Africa, sparking a new wave of violence, robbery and pickpocketing. Police confirmed the rise in crime in February (see below), but residents didn’t need statistics to tell that the neighbourhood’s climate had worsened. “I’m scared to walk through Kotti at night,” says Cynthia, a 27-year-old Australian who has lived on Dresdener Straße since May 2015. “I work at a bar, so I come home late and all alone, and there are these guys standing there, trying to rip people off, maybe even physically attacking them. There was a young woman stabbed right in front of me in February; fistfights are becoming more and more common… I often ask my boyfriend to pick me up from the station now.”
The German media has been quick to seize on residents’ sense of panic. Die Welt declared, ‘If you exit the U-Bahn here, you’ve got yourself to blame.’
“I avoid the centre of the square,” affirms Birgit, referring to the dark alleys and passages around the monolithic Neues Kreuzberger Zentrum, the vast 1970s housing and commercial complex which dominates Kotti. “These guys can be very violent – and rude. They told me once that I should lose some weight when I asked one of them to move from the middle of the stairs. I’ve heard worse too… I’ve got friends who are afraid to get their döners, or who get off the U-Bahn at another stop.” The German media has been quick to seize on residents’ sense of panic. An article in the conservative newspaper Die Welt in March declared Kotti a “no-go zone”, with the title: “If you exit the U-Bahn here, you’ve got yourself to blame.”
Who are the new guys? Nobody sees Kotti’s changing situation more clearly than those involved with drugs – like the Turkish-German Hakan*, 26, who dealt heroin, marijuana and hashish for nearly four years. He stopped about 18 months ago: he’d met his now-fiancée and wanted to get out of the game anyway, but also, he says the business had gotten a lot more difficult. “I knew everyone doing it. At the beginning, Turks had more drug business here – but then Arabic groups came and the area got divided. The North Africans have taken over the street and the Turks deal inside. That wouldn’t be a problem. The problem is that the new gangs cannot make peace with each other. There are always newer and newer people coming; they don’t understand how important it is to have hierarchy in this business. And so they fight.” We meet Hannah*, a 41-year-old who has been struggling with heroin addiction since she was a teenager, by the U8 entrance. She spends a lot of time there, she says, although “the new guys don’t like us hanging out around here too long – they do their business and tell us to leave.” She has seen dealers come and go around the station for years. “The groups do change. I’ve been buying my shit here since 2009; I’ve seen so many faces amongst the dealers. At the beginning there were Turks too but now, I don’t meet any. Here, it’s Arabs. I don’t know where they are from exactly. Probably mixed with all of these refugees…”
They don’t care about the police and they don’t respect the locals. They harass women. They might have come with the refugees, but they are not refugees.
How exactly the new dealers got here is a point of some contention around the Kiez. Erçan Yasaroglu – social worker, owner of multicultural meeting point Café Kotti and one of the single most quoted voices in the Kotti debate – has been literally on top of the goings-on around the station for over six years (his bar is on the NKZ’s first floor), and he has his theories. “I believe that these new gangs are part of an organised crime scene, coming from North Africa using the refugee routes. It’s the same organisation here as it is in Hamburg, Hanover, Cologne… I’ve travelled to all these cities and seen it. But nothing changes, because these new gangs have no respect! They don’t care about the police and they don’t respect the locals. They harass and grab women, they are violent, and so people are afraid. They might have come with the refugees, but they are not refugees,” says Yasaroglu, who hires asylum seekers at Café Kotti. “And because of them our whole Willkommenskultur is being destroyed!” Yasaroglu isn’t the only one to bring up Cologne: in January, journalist Mark Terkessidis wrote an article in local paper Der Tagesspiegel comparing the Kotti situation to the city where an infamous wave of sexual assaults and robberies took place on New Year’s Eve. Both were present at “Kippt der Kotti?”, where the moderator’s mention of the comparison brought on immediate angry shouts from the audience before Terkessidis could even defend himself, indicative of the conflicted emotions that still linger months after the New Year’s incident. “Cologne is different!” “What does Cologne have to do with this!?” No definite connection has been made, beyond many of the criminals’ North African roots. The 2015 police statistics for the Kottbusser Tor area show a dramatic rise in pickpocketing, robbery and drug dealing suspects with Libyan, Tunisian, Egyptian, Moroccan, Algerian and Syrian passports. “At least some say that they are from Algeria,” says Andreas Bembenek. At his café Kremanski, the upscale oasis located right at Kotti’s centre, he sees drug dealers and thieves ply their trade on a daily basis. “We’ve asked them several times not to do their business here but it’s hard to prevent, because I cannot prove it. Otherwise, they just sit here – they pay for their coffee, and they are very nice and polite. At the same time, you can see how the group’s younger members are ‘dancing’ around people passing by behind the store and ripping them off , then throwing their purses back at them once they have taken the money out.” He’s referring to “Antanzen”, a “dance trick” that was also used by the Cologne pickpockets. Hakan says he’s also witnessed those tricks, though he says the perpetrators might have different origins: “It’s the other gangs, from Albania and Bulgaria and of course, the Romanian gypsies, who end up with petty things like pickpocketing, because they’re not strong enough to compete with the Arabs and Turks.”
Calling in the Bullen At “Kippt der Kotti?”, police commander Tanja Knapp dismisses the Cologne argument entirely: she doesn’t care where the criminals come from, only that they get caught. Last year, Knapp was appointed head of Polizeiabschnitt (precinct) 53, the police division in charge of the Kottbusser Tor area. Since then, the police have been a near-constant presence in the neighbourhood, with uniformed officers patrolling near the station and a plain-clothes team working with café and shop owners to monitor criminal activity. “The police has leads about the gangs, of course,” Bembenek says. “There are forces around all the time, watching and waiting for a good opportunity – even as we speak.” He and many others around Kotti seem to know exactly who is who in the gangs and where they stand in the hierarchy. The big bosses come every once in a while with expensive cars, stopping just for a few minutes to drop drugs off. Others are supervisors who sit in nearby cafes, selling to ‘higher class’ customers and watching closely over the “flock” of dealers standing directly at the exit of the U8. So why are they still on the streets? The Berlin police has stopped responding to all media inquiries about Kottbusser Tor, arguing they can no longer cope with the scores of journalists asking for interviews. After those incendiary, scare-mongeirng articles published in the press, they might just want to wait for the hype to defuse. Cornered after the Kotti debate, Knapp insists on the difficulty of the task at hand. “You have to understand that we cannot just arrest people because someone’s pointing at them. We investigate, and we’ll eventually make an arrest if there is a reason. But afterwards, it’s still not in our hands whether there is proof against somebody or not. We are doing our job.” Kottbusser Tor’s special history as a hub of anti-establishment resistance means that not everyone in the neighbourhood has welcomed Knapp and her team with open arms. “Do we really need so many officers?” questions Richard Stein, owner of Kotti queer institutions Südblock and Möbel Olfe. “If something really happens, it still takes over half an hour till the authorities get there. It’s shit for our ‘hood as well, suddenly seeing three neighbours lined up at a wall being searched, just because they look suspicious!”
Supply and demand
Of course there’s twice as much crime, but there are twice as many tourists now. Criminals go where people are.
Bembenek has no problem with the cops, but fears their efforts may be futile: “Even if they catch a group and they all disappear, a new one will come.” And why wouldn’t they? Visit Oranienstraße any given weekend night and you’ll encounter roving groups of twentysomethings speaking English, Spanish or Swedish, blocking the paths of locals just trying to carry home their groceries. They’ve read about the wild nightlife around Kottbusser Tor, and they’re here to experience it for themselves… and provide a veritable buffet of opportunities for dealers and pickpockets. Over the years, Hannah has seen the variety of drugs offered around the station increase beyond heroin to “weed, hashish, pills, cocaine… things like that” – everything you’d need for an epic Berlin party weekend. “Of course there’s twice as much crime, but there are twice as many tourists now. Criminals go where people are,” points out longtime Kreuzberger Wolfgang Müller matter-of-factly. There’s no stemming the tide, either: 2015 saw over 1.7 million visitors to Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, a seven percent increase over the previous year. Meanwhile, the locals of Kottbusser Tor are largely left to fend for themselves. The management behind the Neues Kreuzberger Zentrum recently announced plans to hire private security to supplement Knapp’s police force, and for the past three months, a group of citizens has instituted a weekend night watch between Kottbusser Tor and Görlitzer Park. This is a neighbourhood that’s fought before – against right-wingers, racism, homophobia, rising rents, corporate chains, you name it – and it’s unlikely that the current uptick in crime will keep Kotti down for long. Exberliner‘s own Walter Crasshole, who’s been living in the neighbourhood for the past seven years, thinks all the media attention is only exacerbating the situation. “It got to the point that I was panicking about going outside while I was reading all the articles. But it only lasted till I walked out my door. I realise there is a problem out there, of course, but to me, Kotti just feels the way it always does.” It’s late at the Kreuzberg Museum, and as the “Kippt der Kotti?” meeting comes to an end and residents scatter away, one can’t help thinking that even though those hundreds of people might not agree on many things, the very fact that they bothered to come here tonight and argue speaks for their immense loyalty to the neighbourhood. Their solidarity might just be the silver lining to the whole situation, concludes Yasaroglu. “If we don’t get together and take responsibility, we are going to lose. I still believe in humanity, you know.” *Names changed.
RISING CRIME AT KOTTI Arrests in police precinct 53, 2014 vs 2015* Pickpocketing 361 (2014) 775 (2015) Drug dealing 35 (2014) 90 (2015) Robbery 52 (2014) 80 (2015) Drug possession 110 (2014) 252 (2015) *Internal Berlin police statistics as reported to the Berliner Morgenpost, 2015