Take a walk around Neukölln’s cobbled streets and you’re immediately struck by the diversity in this southeastern Berlin district. It’s layered by different voices of the tourists and transient visitors, but mostly the languages of locals. More than 40% of Neukölln residents have migrated here from a different country, or have a parent who was born outside of Germany; it’s home to people from more than 160 countries.
This multi-faceted quarter reminds me of my home in Finsbury Park, a suburb situated a few kilometres north of central London. Like Neukölln, it is one of the most multicultural places in the capital, and more than 100 languages are spoken in just this little area of north London.
Neukölln’s diversity is reflected in the physical space. Sonnennallee, a street that was bisected by the Berlin wall until 1989, now acts as the heart of the city’s Middle Eastern community. Known as ‘Arab Street’, it is lined with falafel restaurants and shisha cafes, and has even become a safety net for new Syrian arrivals to the city - a space for people to find refuge in a familiar culture.
A history of migration
Finsbury Park is also mapped by its history of migration. Blackstock Road, which sits close to the train station, is known by the UK’s Algerian population as ‘Little Algiers’. Other north African communities have since migrated here, as have Afro-Caribbean diaspora and Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Turkish and Kurdish people later moved in, particularly around neighbouring Green Lanes, which rivals Berlin in its availability and quality of Turkish cuisine.
The influx of the Irish community after the Second World War is immortalised in the pubs scattered around the area. There’s the Auld Triangle named after a traditional folk song, which continues to hold Irish music nights every week. There’s also the Twelve Pins referring to the country’s mountain range, and the WB Yeats after the famous poet.
Finsbury Park was always a traditionally working class area. It’s remained a Labour stronghold since the 1930s, and is the proud home of opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. But this demographic is also changing. Finsbury Park has managed to battle the effects of gentrification for a while, but in the last few years it has been hit by the domino effect of young millennials who move into the area as it used to be a pocket of relative affordability in an otherwise wealthy borough.
Cafes offering English breakfasts for £9.50 now sit among the shops selling Middle Eastern spices and halal meat. A theatre has opened up and there’s a new luxury housing development emerging that will soon look menacingly over the nearby council estates. Like the rest of London, Finsbury Park is seeing gentrification break up and drive out working class and migrant communities.
In many ways Neukolln mirrors its transformation. As cities grow and develop, areas that were gritty and cheap inevitably attract more people for its lower rents. Where Neukolln and Finsbury Park differ is that a lot of the blame for gentrification is being put on affluent western foreigners who move here for its creativity and culture.
There are now countless cafes selling €3 flat whites from staff who only speak English, and it’s notoriously difficult to find a room to live, let alone an affordable one. Neukölln, like rapidly metamorphosing areas of London, is grappling to find the line between positive regeneration and gentrification.
It is at least trying to address this issue of housing through rent caps and Milieuschutz law. Milieuschutz, for example, aims to prevent areas from becoming too gentrified by stopping owners drastically modernising their real estate. It was implemented in the district last year, but it’s questionable how well it is working to protect residents from being forced out.
But Neukölln residents can find comfort in the fact that there is still less spatial segregation of cultures here than in many other European cities. For the moment, different communities live side by side and I’ve heard the district described as a ‘bubble’ of respect for multiculturalism, unlike other parts of the capital.
In Finsbury Park, at least, there has been a rejuvenated feeling of solidarity since the terrorist attack in June this year. A far-right nationalist drove a car into a group of people leaving the Finsbury Park Mosque during Ramadan - it was a horrific act in an already terrible year of attacks on Britain’s communities. But as Finsbury Park recovered, it showed that its residents ultimately respect different cultures; they respect diversity. The area was, and still is, flooded with signs reading ‘We stand together’.