Drugs and gentrification: Görlitzer Park reflects Berlin’s growing pains

BERLIN — Two toddlers aimed their bikes down a slope into the grassy central basin of Berlin’s Görlitzer Park in the late summer sunshine. As food delivery drivers pedaled past, tourists meandered on unwieldy rental bikes, taking in the “alternative Berlin” they were promised in their guidebooks.

Within earshot of the children’s squeals of delight, a drug dealer on a rusting blue bicycle rode in swooping circles in front of a Washington Post correspondent.

“Do you need anything?” he asked. Another dealer, this time on foot, dressed in worn-out jeans and a loose white shirt, tried his luck: “What do you need? Marijuana?”

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Affectionately known to Berliners as “Görli,” the 35-acre park in the heart of the city’s Kreuzberg district is a collision of worlds, where families and students meander past dealers hawking marijuana, cocaine and now, increasingly, crack and heroin.

The dark underside of this strange mix recently came to light again after a brutal gang rape in June of a 27-year-old Georgian tourist. At a September security summit to address the rise of crime and hard drugs in the park, city officials agreed to measures including more community outreach, drug consumption rooms, video surveillance and fencing off the park at night.

What to do about Görli is more than just a debate over a park embodying Berlin’s countercultural image. It is also about an emerging world city grappling with soaring housing prices, fraught immigration policy and rising drug culture — and not learning from the experiences of Europe’s other cities. The fate of Görli is about whether Berlin can maintain what has made it distinctive even as it becomes a global center.

“We need a holistic concept. We also need a citywide strategy,” said Oliver Nöll, a member of the Left Party and deputy mayor of Berlin’s Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district. He said that there are no short-term fixes and that these issues have to be addressed throughout the capital. “We have similar situations everywhere in the city, not just here.”

Past efforts to “fix” Görli have included two task forces, increased police presence, a short-lived zero drugs policy, and even the creation of designated spaces for drug dealers in the park using pink spray paint — another short-lived experiment. A fence around the park should be erected by early next year.

“What I don’t want is for Görlitzer Park to represent Berlin going forward,” said Kai Wegner, a conservative Christian Democratic Union politician who has been mayor of Berlin for five months. “We don’t need a crime hot spot, but a place where people can come together and feel comfortable. And above all, I want all Berliners to be safe in Berlin.”

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Wegner is pushing for more security than has been seen in the past in freewheeling Berlin, which for decades was known for its permissiveness and alternative lifestyle — a way of life that appears increasingly out of place in the capital of Europe’s largest economy.

Residents, however, say that a huge police presence and closing off the park at night aren’t the answers. Drug raids just lead to games of cat-and-mouse through their neighborhoods, and users are now leaving the park to shoot up in their streets and doorways.

“The neighborhood is one of the most densely populated urban areas in Berlin. And that’s why it’s just important to have the park here. Closing it off would just shift the problems elsewhere into the neighborhood,” said David Kiefer, part of the local residents initiative Wrangelkiez United.

The group insists that any stronger police tactics need to be paired with extensive community outreach and attempts to integrate marginal populations, such as the rising numbers of homeless — measures the city has promised to look into but has said it doesn’t necessarily have the budget for.

“No cops for Görli!” read a yellow banner strung up next to a small crowd of demonstrators that gathered on the day city officials met to discuss cleaning up the park. “Stop racial profiling,” was spray-painted onto the pathway around the park protesting what they say is a racial element to the increased police searches.

Kiefer sees the park and the surrounding area as a remnant of a fast-disappearing Berlin, as high rents squeeze out creatives and clubs are forced to close over noise complaints.

“Görli is always considered a bit disreputable and wild,” said Kiefer, who has been a resident in the district for 11 years. “That may have been Berlin in the past, but I think something has changed dramatically. … Berlin is essentially abolishing itself.”

Migrants and the drug trade

Paired with the drug trade, the park has also seen rising numbers of people experiencing homelessness and people with mental health issues, according to the residents’ association. In February, its members wrote an open letter to the city, calling for the hard-drug and homeless problems to be addressed with safe consumption rooms, psychiatric and medical care, and overnight accommodations.

The park’s drug dealers are overwhelmingly migrants. Many of them turn to drug dealing because they lack residency permits or have an unclear asylum status and are banned from working in the official economy.

In an open corner of Görlitzer Park, a young Black man disappeared into a bush to retrieve a brown paper bag from which he extracted a smaller plastic pouch. He exchanged it for cash with a tall White man who, judging from his accent, was a local. He shoved his purchase into his shorts pocket, before cycling across the park.

“I would love to stay here,” said a young Libyan man sitting nearby. In his home country, he had trained as a car mechanic. “Now I’m selling drugs. But just marijuana,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of being deported. “I don’t tell anyone back home how I make money.”

Last year he started to take crack cocaine. “Sometimes I take it on a night. Sometimes on a morning. It’s sad here. It’s boring. All day. All night. It gets me through the day. This isn’t what I thought it was going to be,” he said.

Poverty and migration have long been a part of the story for the area around Görlitzer Park. After World War II, swaths of Kreuzberg had been slated for demolition by a highway project, and those who could moved away. The sudden building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 left the neighborhood walled in on three sides, making it even more undesirable.

Soon it became home to immigrants, known as Gastarbeiter (guest workers), particularly from Turkey, brought in to help get the West German economy back on its feet. They were followed in the 1970s by the squatter movement that took over abandoned buildings.

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In the three decades since the fall of the Wall and Berlin’s restoration as the capital of a unified Germany, the city has been transformed, especially areas like Kreuzberg. A wave of gentrification has swept through, rocketing rents and ousting many locals.

As Berlin’s population fast approaches the 4 million mark, housing is becoming scarcer and less affordable, with rents doubling since 2009. Although a city-led census of people living on Berlin’s streets in January 2020 counted almost 2,000 homeless, those affected disputed the number, saying it was not representative and reduced the people counted to a mere figure. Welfare associations put the number between 6,000 and 10,000.

As the sun began to set over Görli, groups of friends settled down on the grass to enjoy its final rays and toast the weekend. A few feet away, at one of the entrances to the park, three people settled on the sidewalk in a circle, speaking to one another in slurred German. Instead of sipping on Friday night beers, they huddled around their belongings, stuffed into durable grocery store bags, and prepared their crack pipes, unaware of the world around them.

“This is a consequence to the fact that we are a big city that people are coming to, that poverty is there, that homelessness is increasing. And we have zero concepts. Zero answers, nothing at all,” said Monika Herman, a member of the Green Party and a former mayor of the district.

“We’re not learning from the experience of other cities. We’re starting to make the same mistakes.”

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