Janae Byrne on the past and present of one of Neukölln’s most infamous quarters…
Despite being located between two of Neukölln’s busiest streets—Hermannstraße and Karl Marx Straße—the famously frantic ‘culture-clash’ energy them and the district seems to dissipate when entering the Rollbergviertel.
Officially one of Neukölln’s nine sub-districts, and arguably its most notorious, the blue and red window frames that adorn the collection of postwar apartment blocks feel like a desperate attempt to impose some colour and vibrancy on a neighbourhood that feels contrastively tranquil, even lethargic.
While there’s not much famous Neukölln dynamism here, there’s also not much to suggest the area’s reputation as a ‘trouble spot’ either, and even less to indicate the district’s tumultuous broader history. Hardly anything remains of the area’s pre-industrial origins, for example, when the hills—die Rollberge—that gave the area its name were dotted with windmills.
Those hills were dug out to access the useful building materials (gravel and sand) that lay beneath them; what was left behind provided the foundations for ‘modern’ Rollberg, which started life towards the end of the 19th century. As the city industrialised, workers rented apartments in the district’s newly built Altbaus and found employment at local factories and breweries like the Kindl brewery, which opened in 1872 around the corner from Rollbergstraße, and has in recent years been transformed into a centre for contemporary art.
In 1887 the Wasserturm Neukölln (Neukölln water tower) was built on Leykestraße to supply water to the area, and in 1899 the area’s first tram started to run along Hermannstraße, Werbellinstraße and Kienitzer Straße. The Arbeitsquartiere (workers’ quarters) were small and gradually became overcrowded, populated mainly by poorer families who couldn’t afford better living standards in other parts of the city. One of the most famous residents around this time was the “Captain of Köpenick“, who lived temporarily with his sister at Kopfstraße 27 in 1906.
Up to ten people shared a room in some cases, with most apartment buildings sharing toilets located on staircases or in the courtyard. The lack of sanitary facilities and overcrowding meant that diseases spread quickly, mortality rates were high and violence and crime grew prevalent.
At the same time, the neighbouring medieval village of Rixdorf, on the other side of what since 1947 has been called Karl Marx Straße, expanded into a lively hub of taverns, music halls, and entertainment sites, also gaining a reputation for rowdiness, public drunkenness, and prostitution. In an attempt to improve its public image, the authorities renamed the entire area Neukölln in 1912; in 1920, it was subsumed into greater Berlin.
By the turn of the century, the working class character of the district—in particular the Rollbergviertel—grew increasingly politicised, with many locals supporting the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Communist party (KPD) during the Weimar era. The May 1928 elections saw rivalry break out between these two left-wing parties as well as between the left and the right. In the midst of this political tension, a ban on demonstrations was announced in December 1928, prompting the KPD to defy the rules and call for protests.
On May 1, 1929, when an international worker’s day celebration was attacked by the police, three days of rioting ensued. The Rollbergviertel was a key site of these ‘Blutmai’ protests (May riots), with around 3,000 workers building barricades against the police, who shot into the crowd, killing 19 and injuring 60 in Neukölln alone.
This event was a key turning point in the Weimar republic—and the start of its decline, in that the lack of solidarity between the SPD and KPD undermined the possibility of a united opposition against fascism. The police brutality seen at Blutmai also led to public distrust in the government, causing some to turn towards the radical alternative offered by the Nazi Party (NSDAP).
Whilst a third of Berlin’s city centre was destroyed in World War Two, the Rollbergviertel remained relatively untouched until the 1970s. After the war, the international population of the area grew significantly as a high number of Gastarbeiter (guest workers), predominantly from Turkey and Greece, came to West Berlin. The Rollbergviertel, with its workers’ houses and low rents, was an obvious destination; many of the workers stayed and opened some of the businesses that still operate around Neukölln today.
Although not destroyed in the war, the 19th century buildings around north Neukölln were neglected and outdated; even in the 1960s, the vast majority of flats still didn’t have their own bathrooms. As public interest turned towards improving poorer residential areas in the 1970s, the Rollbergviertel was one of the first to be declared ripe for redevelopment.
Ideas for the redevelopment of the Rollbergviertel were requested via an urban planning competition, which was won by young architects Reinhard Schmock, Rainer Oefelein and Bernhard Freund, in 1972. Their idea was not so much about improving and renovating existing residences, however, but rather the complete destruction of the original working class quarter and redesign of the street grid.
In retrospect, renovation would have been a more cost effective and sustainable option, and was in fact proposed in the competition by architect Klaus Barzantny, who believed the condition of the buildings was not as bad as was claimed. But a complete rebuild was politically favoured as a way of boosting the local economy; some have argued that many buildings were even deliberately neglected to make way for this policy.
The winning architects had to take into account nearby Tempelhof facility (now Tempelhofer Feld), which was still in operation as an airport at the time. The apartment buildings were therefore designed in squares with Innerhöfe (courtyards) to offer protection from aircraft noise, and balconies facing inwards rather than outwards. Whilst such courtyards already existed in the old Wilhelminian apartment blocks, the Rollbergviertel buildings were re-imagined with larger (and greener) central courtyards and high decks between the blocks with garages below.
The settlement has around 2,300 apartments, all owned by STADT UND LAND Wohnbauten-Gesellschaft mbH. Around half are social housing, and each block hosts around 180 residential units between 40 and 120 square meters in size: a mix of maisonette apartments, integrated apartments for the elderly, student apartments, family apartments, and studios.
The design was, in fact, inspired not by any projects in Berlin but by Barcelona’s district Eixample. Problem being, the Rollbergviertel is not integrated in the same way as Eixample, and the small scale of the Berlin project, comprising only five buildings, isolated rather than integrated the quarter within Neukölln. Shielded by the long compact rows of apartments on surrounding streets, the project also doesn’t reap the supposed benefits of extra light and ventilation conceived by the architects.
The rebuilding of the area meant the workers then residing there had to move out, albeit temporarily. However, when building concluded in 1982 not all residents bothered to return. In their place, many people of migration background, including extended Arab families, moved in to take advantage of the cheaper rents.
By the 1990s, the area gained a reputation for gang crime, robbery and fights, which continued into the early 2000s, underlining its reputation as a ‘Problemkiez’. Safety became a growing concern, especially after two police officers—Roland Krüger and Uwe Lieschied—were killed while on duty in the area. Following a stabbing in April 2003, Krüger and his colleagues stormed the apartment of an Arab clan leader on Kienitzer Straße and the 37-year-old was immediately shot in the head. In March 2006, Lieschied, dressed in civilian clothes, was shot eight times chasing two handbag thieves in Hasenheide park.
Hearing how the area was developing in the late 1990s, architect Schmock returned to attempt to tackle the social issues on an architectural level. The concrete walls at entrances were replaced with red and blue coloured railings and more green spaces were created. The restrictions for WBS (low income) tenants was relaxed in 1998, and a dedicated Quartier Management was created in 1999, which has instigated a slew of important social initiatives over the last couple of decades.
These include the girl’s club ‘MaDonna’ on Falkstraße, which provides a meeting point and social hub for local girls and women between ages eight and 21; their aim is to promote self confidence and offer support with schoolwork and career prospects, helping to improve the long-term employment rates of the area, and fostering a sense of community amongst residents.
The Arab Cultural Institute (AKI) offers administrative support for current residents with migration backgrounds, as well as newly arriving refugees and asylum seekers in their ‘Bürger helfen Bürger’ (Citizens help citizens) scheme, where communication is possible in Arabic, German, English, Turkish, Kurdish, Serbo-Croatian and Polish.
The non-profit association Morus14 is also doing important work for the Jewish community with their project ‘Shalom Rollberg’, for which Jewish Berliners volunteer to help children of the Rollbergviertel, many of whom are Muslim, with their homework. This sparks dialogue between different cultures and helps combat issues of anti-Semitism in Berlin.
In addition, an open leisure space for young people aged six-18 is provided by the Lessinghöhe Children’s and Youth Centre, which hosts various workshops and events from acrobatics courses to summer camping trips. The Neukölln Community Centre is a popular contact point for citizens of all ages, offering leisure facilities as well as advice and support. In February 2020, two streets were dedicated to the murdered officers (Uwe-Lieschied-Straße and Roland-Krüger-Straße).
Today almost three quarters of the 5,500 residents here still have what Germany refers to as a migration background. The largest group are still residents with Turkish and Arabic background but there is also a significant number of residents from former Yugoslavian states and Poland.
Whilst there is still work to be done—the most recent media headlines about the area focused on the radicalisation of young Muslims in the area during the ISIS years—the Quartier Management’s 2019 mission statement, “Living diversity together, taking responsibility and shaping the future”, is gradually coming to fruition as the area is becoming an exemplar neighbourhood for its work on social integration.
Today, between the drab grey apartment blocks, children can be seen playing together as their parents natter away. It feels like an encouraging sign of a harmonious future for this historically troubled area.
For an in-depth guided tour of the Rollbergviertel and surrounding area, contact Reinhold Steinle, who kindly also contributed information to this article.