On the Reichenberger Straße

Natalie Holmes gives the low-down on her local Kreuzberg Straße…

Reichenberger Straße is a long road. At least, that’s what I thought when I first set foot on it during one of Berlin’s sweltering midsummer days, fresh off the plane from the comparatively tiny, winding streets of London.

“It’s on this road, so we can’t be far off”, I exclaimed naively to my fellow flat-hunter as we walked further and further along.

A full fifteen minutes later – and ten minutes late – we arrived at our destination – an apartment viewing. This cultural faux pas, I realise now, could easily have resulted in a tragic loss of opportunity. But things must have been different back then, since there was no queue of hopeful tenants  guardedly lining the block.

I say “back then” like it was a different era: it was just over three years ago. But due to the remarkable speed of its development since the wall fell, years in Berlin (at least in certain parts of the inner city) are like dog years, each one seemingly incorporating several in terms of local transformations.

Having since experienced the vastness of eastern neighbourhoods like Prenzlauer Berg, my local street no longer seems as endless as it once did, but it has certainly seen some change.

Stretched out between Kottbusser Tor at one end (in fact a little beyond it) to a small but significant perpendicular stretch of canal linking the Spree to the Landwehr Canal, Reichenberger Straße enjoys the close company of Görlitzer Park to the north and Paul-Lincke-Ufer to the south.

Located in the SO36 part of Kreuzberg, the area has a rich cultural history. A pocket of West Berlin surrounded on three sides by the East, the Kiez was populated by a post-war migrant Turkish community who settled in numbers big enough to earn their adopted area the nickname Little Istanbul.

Then, in the late 60s, now almost surrounded by the Wall and home to numerous squats, SO36 started to become popular with students and artists, sparking the beginning of the area’s alternative, punk scene. Today, Reichenberger Straße remains a key location for the May Day riots.

After the Wall fell, east Kreuzberg and its residents suddenly found themselves exposed and the initially very cheap rents drew in a wider variety of residents. According to Wikipedia, “its population has been swapped completely twice in the last two decades”.

As a sample slice of SO36, this rich recent history is all the more interesting when you consider the changes currently happening in Reichenberger Straße, as its population remains visibly in flux. From the range of outlets that appear and endure to the messages scrawled on walls, a walk along the street presents an interesting representation of its changing demographics.

Perhaps surprisingly, the handful of organic shops have been here a long time, along with stalwarts like Turkish-owned Spätis, bakeries and kebab shops. New cafes and bars are noticeably smarter, with recent additions like Goûter (No. 143) and Lugosi (No. 152) looking to corner a new, middle-class market with a more ‘Mitte’ style decor and menu. The street’s most recent newcomers include a tattoo parlour.

Opposition to development is nonetheless still starkly evident. Community organisations oppose rent increases, while bitter anti-gentrification graffiti continues to ‘decorate’ the new establishments – albeit alongside some great street art pieces like the stunning new mural by collective Klub7, on the side of a building at number 125.

This conflict between development and resistance is part of what makes Reichenberger Straße a fascinating place. But for a few exceptions (the most notorious being an apartment building with car lifts that let residents park on their balcony, requiring its own 24-hour security against anti-capitalist vandalism) both old and new tenants and businesses seem to mingle fairly harmoniously to create a local, independent vibe.

Five Elephant Coffee & Cakes is one of the best known examples, and probably among the chief reasons people from outside the immediate area come to visit. Across the canal on Maybachufer, there’s also the famous Turkish Market on Tuesdays and Fridays, a craft market on Saturday, and now a new monthly Sunday flea market (Nowkoelln).

Launched in spring 2011, Nowkoelln creates a similar atmosphere to the mighty Mauerpark. It’s smaller and cheaper, sure, but there’s a similar range of second-hand (and some new) wares, live music and home-baked goods, all set against the irenic backdrop of the canal.

Though it begins with “chaotic Kotti” at one end, Reichenberger is actually punctuated with tall trees bearing chestnuts and plums, culminating in a large green full stop: a waterside park with a kids’ play area and two eternally occupied ping pong tables.

It’s easy to believe from the constant column inches the topic gets, that gentrification is going to kill off all independent culture and create the kind of homogeneous high street culture you find in other Western cities. Yet almost every shop on Reichenberger Straße, old and new, is unique and independently owned.

The rapid permutations are not without controversy, but it’s important to remember that this area has been changing constantly, at least since the end of World War II. For now, Reichenberger Straße remains a thriving example of a multicultural Kiez that’s brimming with local businesses and a fine example of what makes Berlin such a singular city to live in.