Turk­ish shop a sym­bol in Ber­lin’s war on gen­tri­fi­ca­tion


Af­ter decades of qui­etly selling fruit and veg­eta­bles, a fam­ily-run Turk­ish gro­cery shop has be­come the un­likely flash­point in a Ber­lin cul­ture war pit­ting a neigh­bor­hood against prop­erty de­vel­op­ers.

No-one is more sur­prised than its owner, Ah­met Caliskan, 55, who re­ceived an evic­tion no­tice in March but has since been heart­ened by an out­pour­ing of sup­port from the peo­ple of his col­or­ful, bo­hemian dis­trict of Kreuzberg.

Weekly ral­lies have made his shop a sym­bol in the bat­tle against gen­tri­fi­ca­tion — the trend where fash­ion­able low-cost city dis­tricts at­tract mon­eyed new­com­ers who drive up rents and prices, in turn forc­ing out low-in­come fam­i­lies, stu­dents and pen­sion­ers.

Caliskan’s hum­ble “Bizim Bakkal” (“Our Gro­cery”) opened 28 years ago, in the days when the Cold War split Ger­many’s big­gest city in two and Kreuzberg was a gritty work­ing class dis­trict in the shadow of the Ber­lin Wall.

It has long been a cen­ter for Turk­ish mi­grants, earn­ing it the nick­name “Lit­tle Is­tan­bul,” as well as a hub for a col­or­ful mix of stu­dents, artists and mu­si­cians who formed a bur­geon­ing hip­pie and punk-rock scene.

With its fash­ion­able street cred, Kreuzberg changed from one of Ber­lin’s poor­est dis­tricts into a mag­net for free- spir­ited party peo­ple and tourists drawn by its mu­ral-cov­ered build­ings, per­mis­sive club cul­ture and cos­mopoli­tan vibe.

To­day mil­lions flock ev­ery year to the bars, techno clubs and shisha cafes of one of Ber­lin’s trendi­est ar­eas, which hosts all­night dance par­ties and an an­nual Car­ni­val of Cul­tures event and, uniquely in Ber­lin, has di­rectly elected a Green Party law­maker to par­lia­ment.

‘Peo­ple can’t pay’

Since the Ber­lin Wall fell a quar­ter-cen­tury ago, Kreuzberg has moved from the ge­o­graph­i­cal mar­gins of West Ber­lin to the cen­ter of a re­uni­fied city — another fac­tor which has driven both its pop­u­lar­ity and its real es­tate prices.

Although Ber­lin rents and prop­erty costs are still far lower than in Paris and Lon­don, they have shot up re­cently, ris­ing 46 per­cent across the city be­tween 2009 and 2015, and by 54 per­cent in Kreuzberg dur­ing the same six years.

Caliskan has wit­nessed the change since he came to Ger­many at age 14 to join his fa­ther, who had for years la­bored in Ger­man in­dus­try as part of a post-war “guest worker” pro­gram.

The fam­ily opened the shop on the ground floor of a four-storey build­ing in Kreuzberg’s Wrangel­strasse, selling an as­sort­ment of pro­duce rang­ing from cu­cum­bers and olives to goat cheese and kitchen herbs.

Since then the shop has sus­tained the fam­ily, now em­ploy­ing Caliskan, his wife, Emine, 55, and their son Sukru, 23. Their 27-yearold daugh­ter is study­ing bio­chem­istry.

The evic­tion no­tice came in late March, or­der­ing the busi­ness to va­cate the premises by Septem­ber 30.

“I am shocked,” Caliskan told AFP, his eyes smil­ing but marked by dark rings of fa­tigue.

“The lawyers say there is lit­tle chance of win­ning. I don’t want to rely on so­cial ser­vices, I want to earn my own money. But at 55 years old...”

Caliskan said he tried to ne­go­ti­ate a new lease with the com­pany, which plans to ren­o­vate the build­ing and let out the apart­ments at higher rents. The com­pany could not be reached for com­ment by AFP.

Ber­lin re­cently in­tro­duced caps for an­nual rent hikes — but this won’t help the fam­ily be­cause it doesn’t ap­ply to brand-new or ex­ten­sively ren­o­vated build­ings.

“Peo­ple can’t pay. This is an ex­pul­sion!” growled Sukru, cas­ti­gat­ing the in­vestors for be­ing driven “by money and profit.”

‘Je suis Bizim Bakkal’

The in­vestors’ plans “will de­stroy their lives, but they don’t care,” sighed a lo­cal teacher who has taken up the fam­ily’s cause against the forces of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, which crit­ics charge is chang­ing the face of Ber­lin, a city that long prided it­self on its mixed-in­come neigh­bor­hoods and egal­i­tar­ian spirit.

The teacher, who asked not to be named in print, and many of the shop’s other loyal cus­tomers have staged ral­lies out­side for the past three Wed­nes­days, with peo­ple fill­ing the pave­ment, sit­ting atop cars and shar­ing their mes­sage us­ing mega­phones, posters and stick­ers.

Ban­ners of sup­port carry mes­sages such as “Bizim Bakkal Must Stay” and “Je suis Bizim Bakkal,” bor­row­ing the slo­gan from the sol­i­dar­ity cam­paign with the vic­tims of the Paris ji­hadist at­tacks against the Char­lie Hebdo satir­i­cal mag­a­zine.

The city’s left-wing Tageszeitung daily likened the plan to close the neigh­bor­hood’s old­est green­gro­cer to the loss of a cul­tural icon like a church tower and said “we would call that bar­barism. And there’s a lot we would do to stop it.”

For now Caliskan hasn’t given up, pre­dict­ing with a wry smile that “on Oc­to­ber 1, we will still be here.”


Ah­met Caliskan poses for a photo in front of his fruit and veg­etable shop Bizim Bab­bal in the Wrangel Street in Ber­lin’s Kreuzberg dis­trict on Fri­day, June 12.

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