The War On Görli: Could Cleaning Up Berlin Destroy The Reason People Love It?
From Berliners, mention of “Görli” elicits a knowing look, somewhere between suspicion, affection and amusement. Among the many green spaces for which Berlin is known, Görlitzer Park is neither the biggest, the most beautiful nor of the greatest historical significance. Yet this seemingly unremarkable park, built in the early 1990s on the site of an old train station, has become infamous.
The park sits on the edge of Kreuzberg, the area known during the cold war as the epicentre of counter-culture in West Berlin, today a major tourist hotspot. Set between the city’s two major nightlife areas, by day Görli is full of the evidence: clubbers sprawled in the mid-morning sun, ageing punks bringing in the day with Berliner Pilsner, bottle collectors rattling by with teetering castles of plastic and glass. The drug dealers get to work before the first morning commuters.
In March this year, however, police made Görli a zero-tolerance zone: turning this tiny park into the only place in Berlin where possession of even the smallest amount of marijuana is illegal. (Outside Görli the possession limit is 15g.)
The decision might have affected an area measuring only 800 by 200 metres, but it turned Görli into a flashpoint. Suddenly the park has come to represent both the promise of liberality that for decades has lured people to Berlin, and a new crackdown that threatens to chip away at this very appeal.Street art in Kreuzberg. Still a haven for the counterculture, the area is a hotspot for tourism and house prices are rising. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty
The park is by no means the only place where drugs are readily available in Berlin. In nearby Hasenheide park, for example, you are spoilt for choice: on some paths you get offered drugs practically every two metres. So the first question was: why only Görli?
“Over the last few years Görli has emerged to become the symbol of drug-selling in Berlin,” says the mayor of Kreuzberg, Monika Herrmann. “Young people from around the world were promised that it was a sort of 24-hour drugs supermarket. A few years ago we would see 20 to 30 dealers in the park … But by last summer there were sometimes more than 200 at a time, at all times of the day, trying to sell to everyone.”
City authorities clearly felt that didn’t fit with Kreuzberg’s new status. House prices have been rising here, as gentrification and an “authentic” identity combine in a neat package that’s as attractive to new homeowners as it is to tourists.
Locals responded with characteristic irreverence: hundreds poured into the park in March for a “Solidarity Kiff-in” (a pun on “Kiffen”, the German verb for smoking marijuana) to protest the drugs ban. The mayor herself has been critical of the decision: she has proposed opening a cannabis cafe on the grounds instead.A G7 protest turned out the police in numbers, but officers are a regular presence at other times as well. Photograph: Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty
But others argue that the politics of the park are about much more than just cleaning up an area that’s rapidly gentrifying. The group Görli 4 Alles see the park as a test not just of attitudes towards drugs, but towards asylum seekers, who have been arriving in Germany in numbers.
Some of those migrants, restricted in their right to work, turn to selling drugs in Görli. Joe, from Gambia, is one of them. After seeking asylum in Germany, he heard about the park. “My friend said, ‘Try your chance in Görli, man.’” Some migrants report that they heard about Görli as far away as Italy.
There is a sense of opportunity and tolerance that attracts people to the city, explains Joe. “Everyone here is from somewhere else. That’s why I like Berlin … It’s easier for you as a refugee here. And there are many Africans in Görli.”
Joe (not his real name) says the police raids on the park have had an impact. “We are scared of selling, but what can you do? If you don’t sell you don’t eat,” he says. “I don’t have papers. And if you don’t have papers you can’t work here.”
It’s the perceived xenophobia of the drugs ban that has galvanised the community. As you enter the park you’re greeted with a sign saying: “Beware, racist police are operating in the area”; and as you leave: “Free Görli” and “From Görli 2 AmeriKKKa, #BlackLivesMatter”.
Biplab Basu works at ReachOut, an organisation that supports victims of racism. “Hasenheide park nearby used to be the centre of the police attacks. Now it is Görlitzer,” he says. “The police think that by constantly being present there and harassing the dealers they will send the signal don’t come to this area and don’t live here if you do not have documents.”
Berlin has a problem with racism, but nobody wants to talk about it. Even using the word ‘race’ is tabooBiplab Basu Graffiti in Görli. Photograph: Holly Young
Meanwhile, Kreuzberg’s appeal to tourists as a hip, scruffy area only increases – a perfect storm for the emergence of Görli as the “24-hour drugs supermarket”, Basu suggests. “Where else would young people and tourists go to have a good time in the city? And what other work can refugees get?”
This all sits uneasily in Kreuzberg, for decades one of the most multi-ethnic and tolerant districts of Berlin. Over the last few years, it has become home to an active protest movement against Germany’s treatment of asylum seekers, with “Refugees welcome” scrawled among the park’s graffiti. A recent protest in a school opposite Görli climaxed in a dramatic, weeklong stand-off between refugees and police.
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“It is not only refugees that are being picked out, it is everyone who is black,” Basu adds. In one recent case he is working on, police singled out a young black student from his group of white friends for an ID check during an afternoon barbecue in Görli. Basu sees the park as a microcosm of more uncomfortable issues in the city. “Berlin has a problem with racism, but nobody wants to talk about it. Even using the word ‘race’ is taboo.”
For some locals the presence of the dealers triggered something of an identity crisis, suggests Katharina Oguntoye, founder of Joliba, an intercultural networking organisation on the edge of Görli. It held a mirror up to their attitudes not only to drug taking, says Oguntoye, but more complex (and unexpected) attitudes towards refugees, at odds with their identification with Kreuzberg’s liberal and tolerant image. “These ‘left’ people in the community – the so-called creative, open-minded scene – were confronted with their inner racism.”
How far the “cleaning up” of the park will ultimately tarnish the image of Kreuzberg is another matter. For many, the death rattle of “old Kreuzberg” – the home of counter-culture, tolerance and hedonism – can already be heard. For others, such as Görli 4 Alles, there is still much to fight for, and Görli is as good a battleground as any.
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