Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Neighbourhood Watch (Folks of Many Shades)

I live in Neukölln, a part of Berlin that until a few years ago was mostly a working class district, with a high percentage of 'guest worker' immigrants (that is, mainly first and second generation Turks and Lebanese, and a sprinkling of East Europeans), and an unemployment rate bordering on 30%. When I moved here some 15 years ago, nobody wanted to live here. Anyone who could afford it moved out, even more so if they had kids who reached schooling age. Rents were low and the district was going down the drain. Shops closed one after the other, only to be replaced by game parlours and betting places. There was one single decent restaurant around (a sushi place of all things), and you could count the amount of decent pubs on the fingers of one hand. The area was known for drug trafficking, for youth gangs, for schools who could not find teachers to teach, for heaps of dog shit on the sidewalk, and for people walking their beer bottles every hour of the day. Its fifteen minutes of fame came and went when national media  outlets started branding parts of Neukölln as 'no-go areas'. Oh, and David Bowie named an instrumental track after it, only he managed to spell it's name wrong ('Neuköln', on the album Heroes).

Much of that changed several years ago, when neighbouring hip Kreuzberg became crowded and expensive, and students and young new immigrants (sorry, 'expats', as the Americans, Brits, French, Israelis and Spaniards like to be known) realised that Neukölln's low rents beat its bad reputation. What started slowly is now in full swing: gentrification. That's both good and bad. Now we have decent pubs and clubs, plenty of no-fuzz restaurants (old and new) serving good food, and a mix of languages, ethnicities, fashion statements and gender fluidity to rival that of London and New York. And people clean up after their dogs. But, inevitably, this also means rising rents and unscrupulous landlords trying to force their old tenants out. There are even plans to build posh walled estates in the middle of those supposed 'no-go-areas'. 

Yet, the district is still far from being upmarket. Walk the streets and you still find discarded furniture and appliances just tossed on the sidewalk. The game parlours are still there, as are the smoke filled corner pubs with the all-day drunks. There are still plenty of people trying to make ends meet, running the gamut from homeless to jobless to those working their arse off in low paying part-time jobs. 

Nowhere is the 'clash of cultures' more evident than on Hermannplatz, a busy square between Neukölln and Kreuzberg. It's ugly and not very inviting, but for about a year now, a market is being held there on four days of the week, with stalls selling traditional Berlin food such as 'Currywurst' (sausages with curry powder ketchup) and doener kebab (which is now as traditional to Berlin as the bagel is to New York) besides stalls selling vegan, Korean or Spanish food as well as hip(ster) coffee brews. And it's here that a very colourful mix of Neuköllners both new and old hangs out: the hipsters, the homeless, the drunks, the yuppies, the refugees, the artists, the retired, the students, the housewives, the jobless and the working, from all corners of the globe.

I pass this square every day on my way to work, yet for some reason I had never stopped to take photos. This changed a few weeks ago when I was sick for a week while being on vacation. Not feeling up to criss-crossing the city, I took my camera to Hermannplatz, sat down and had coffee and observed the people. And I started taking photos. First I took candid shots, the way I usually do in Berlin, but then I decided that I might get better results if I asked permission of people. Surprisingly, I found a number of folks who were not only willing but happy to pose - much like the gentleman pictured on top, who quite happily chats with me now every time I run into him. The same goes for the lady posted here on the right. 

A number the people I photographed, with or without permission, live on the fringe. You can tell that they struggle to make ends meet, yet the ones I talked to seemed content, if not happy; or at least wanted to appear so. Moreover, you can tell that what they want to display, behind all their idiosyncrasies, is dignity and pride. And this is how I hopefully manage to portray them. 

(Yes, there is also a fair amount of homeless people, hard-core alcoholics and a few lone junkies hanging out here, and to paint a true picture of the neighbourhood, I would have needed to include their portraits. But I'm not a reporter, and I do draw the line at photographing people's mysery just for the sake of it.)

I've been taking photos in the square and the neighbouring streets almost every day now for the past two months, usually on my way home from work, which explains why many of the photos reflect a soft, late-summer evening light. Because I wanted to use an unobtrusive camera, I mostly used the compact Leica X2, and to take advantage of that special light, I shot all photos in colour. 

I've now uploaded a selection of the photos, and you can see the full set here: