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How Dangerous is Berlin?

1 May 2014 Kreuzberg

Kreuzberg Police

‘The problem is the false sense of safety that hangs over this city’, I tell the police officer, and he agrees with me. If you act like you’re in a village, you’re going to get robbed.

Which is exactly what happened to me last month––coming home at night by bike from a bar in Kreuzberg, and pulling up in front of my apartment near Görlitzer Park. Three guys passed me on the corner. One grabbed my bike so it couldn’t move it any further, the other leaned towards me, pretending he was drunk, putting one hand in my pocket. I cried out, ‘No’, while the third picked my phone from the other pocket. So happy I’d protected my wallet, I only realised my smartphone was gone once I was safely inside my building.

Antanzen‘, the Policeman tells me in the station, surrounded by potted plants and children’s drawings, ‘That’s what we call what happened to you’.

Yes, that’s exactly what happened. It happens so often they even have a verb for it.  The thieves danced around me, distracted me, they were friendly, tricky, and strangely silent. It’s not the first time I’ve had to deal with the police in Kreuzberg: in fact, I’ve had the misfortune to provide testimony and report on three separate crimes committed against me or a friend in the past 12 months. All of them happened in Kreuzberg or Kreuzkölln, and they have affected how street smart I am when I step out the door. One that happened in the summer was the most drastic, when I was assaulted with a paving stone near Hermannplatz. I was not badly hurt, but it bruised my sense of safety. I’m, unfortunately, well used now to the process of receiving an invitation to testify at the local station, scanning faces on a computer to identify culprits, and, in that extreme case, going to court, improving all sorts of vocabulary that I never thought I’d need here: Aussage, Geschädigte, Körperverletzung. 

‘We have a special force to deal with the problem area around Görli [Görlitzer Park]’, the policeman told me when I reported my theft. And, indeed, in the past months, the Police have shown an invigorated presence: handing out leaflets explaining the risks of buying drugs in the Park, and invading the Park at intervals making arrests. But the creative pickpocketing I experienced recently––perhaps a spin-off from the Park’s problems––did not have a great element of threat. The more threatening affairs are happening right inside Görlitzer Park, the drug supermarket of Berlin, and in the areas directly adjacent to it.

This weekend was a frightening example of violence. At a Shisha bar on Skalitzer Straße right near Görlitzer Park U-Bahn, the owner and his employee stand accused of stabbing two youths. These victims are themselves suspected to be involved in the drug trade in the Park. The next morning, sympathisers of the injured young men destroyed the Shisha bar. On Sunday afternoon, an arson attack followed. Dozens were responsible for the destruction, one dozen were arrested. Most of those accused are between 16 and 25-years old. Police are meanwhile increasing their presence after this weekend’s events, although some argue that the real solution to the Park’s problems is to make legal a “coffee shop” that sells marijuana, to take trade away from the dealers.

Running through Görlitzer Park last month (it gives me an incentive to run quickly), I noticed the usual huge numbers of drug dealers and clients lining the main path. But when I finished my loop and returned back, the Park suddenly had a completely different ethnic profile: there were some white kids but the largely black male community that dominates the drug trade had evaporated. Aha! I turn a corner and see that the police have arrived. I think it’s extremely sad that the anecdote shows that police presence completely changes the diversity of the park, that those forced into the drug trade come from a particular immigrant or refugee community.

Kreuzberg has, recently, also been the location of several severe cases of arson (tour buses, the Mevlana Mosque, the squat village on Cuvrystraße). The police told me that the arrival of tourism and gentrification has greatly increased pickpocketing in the area of SO36.  Meanwhile, studies show that there is cocaine and crystal meth in the sandboxes where children play in Görli. Even the dogs here are addicted to heroine that they consume through human faeces from addicts who shit in the Park.

But apparently Kreuzberg is not the city’s most dangerous place. This astonishes me. Where could it be worse? Neukölln? Or am I buying into Berlin stereotypes? You’ll be surprised.

In Berlin as a whole, in 2013, there were half a million crimes reported, with a rate of about 15 000 per 100 000 inhabitants. But a lot of the crimes turn out to occur in neighbourhoods normally perceived as pretty ‘safe’. If you want your house broken into, it’s actually most likely to happen in Grunewald. You bike or purse is most likely to be stolen in the Government Quarter around the Reichstag. It has some of the highest levels of vandalism too. Kürfurstendamm has the highest numbers of violent assault. Then again, sometimes you are not surprised: the prize for the most overall crimes goes to Alexanderplatz, where about 20 000 crimes are committed every year. There, a murder comes to mind: that of an Asian 20-year old student in 2012.

Murder is, of course, the mother of all comparison in terms of absolute safety. 106 murders and manslaughters were reported in Berlin in 2013 (of which about 90% were solved). According to the UN, that is about 1.0 per 100 000 (this rate is only for intentional homicides, I presume, because otherwise I get 3 per 100 000). To compare: the rate is twice higher in Brussels, compared to Berlin, and half again as much in Amsterdam (all according to the UN). London’s rate for 2012 was similar to Berlin’s. Then, on a national level, Berlin is safer than both Frankfurt and Cologne. So, pretty safe. We don’t need to compare Berlin to American cities, or Central American or South African ones for the matter, to know you are very unlikely to be killed here.

Where does this leave us? How dangerous in Berlin?

To be honest, I am a little confused. I have the feeling that there is plenty of bad stuff going on in my neighbourhood, especially recently. Will 2014 be the year when Kreuzberg breaks all records?  And will the police intervene sufficiently to turn it around by 2015? The press has put a huge focus on Görlitzer Park as a problem zone in recent months. But I wonder: if Kreuzberg really does not rate higher historically for violent crime than certain areas in Charlottenburg, is the press attention here actually about racism? Those ‘problem’ immigrant neighbourhoods? One of the first unsettling questions I am asked when reporting a crime here is: ‘Were they German? What was their “background”?’

Or is Berlin so safe that crime that would never get reported in the press in other cities gets reported here, because they need a story so badly. It’s like a small town newspaper that puts a shop’s windows being broken on the front page.

I am dizzy with the parts and the wholes: my own disheartening experience, my bad luck with crime, in relation to the piles of statistics…the microclimate around the Park in relation to the neighbourhood as a whole, to the city, to the country. My sense of safety is bruised, and then I’m told ‘Berlin is one of the safest big cities in Europe’.

Perhaps it’s up to me how safe Berlin might be. I lived in a much more dangerous city, New York, for years––and in a bad neighbourhood for that matter––and nothing ever happened to me. Was it luck, or was it the way I walked through the city like I took it seriously? Well, living down the street from Görli, it might just be time to take Berlin seriously as well.



4 Comments

  1. Molly wrote:

    Sorry to hear of your recent experiences – I sympathise having been mugged in London when I lived there. It had a big impact on me even if I didn’t get hurt physically. Of course, it’s a city where one is more likely to be mugged but being attacked really does take away your sense of safety and I was always looking over my shoulder when most of my London friends say they rarely feel unsafe. Having been mugged twice my conclusion is that it’s not how seriously you take the city but unlucky of being in a place at the wrong time, not necessarily the wrong place. I don’t think getting from A to B is acting like you’re in a village so don’t blame yourself!

    I’ve moved to Berlin fairly recently and as a woman I feel a lot safer here than in most UK cities but perhaps it’s just not knowing of the dangers. I used to live close to Görli park and while I was aware of the drug dealing and general dodginess of the park at night I didn’t feel too worried walking home on my own. I hope this doesn’t change as it’s mentally exhausting being paranoid about violent crime and I can’t always afford taking a taxi home on a night out!

    Also, when reading local newspapers anywhere you will invariably get the sense that it is unsafe just about everywhere so put it into context. Be streetwise but not paranoid is my advice. Sorry for the incredibly long comment …

    • Thanks so much for your comment! We’re on the same page. I agree Berlin is safer compared to many other places. What I mean about taking the place ‘seriously’ is to take precautions like in other big cities: being more attentive on streets that are dark and empty, keeping my wallet in an inside pocket, not leaving my bag on a chair when I go to the toilet in a café… these kinds of things (that I see people in Berlin forgetting to do all the time). It’s not that I’m blaming myself; it is that I think could be a little more street smart here 😉 And very good point about local newspapers. I walked by the shisha bar on Skalitzer where the attacks happened and it was more of a basement suite than a formal establishment. There were some broken windows, but not the damage I expected from the press reports.

  2. sven wrote:

    Long comment incoming … 😉
    I’ve had two incidents as well since I live in Berlin, both in Kreuzberg. Once I was walking near Kottbusser Tor with a friend and we had the same experience you describe: three guys “dancing” around us, asking us stupid questions about our favorite football team and being all touchy, and then my friend’s phone was missing. Funny side note, we got it back when we confronted the guys shortly afterwards – apparently they decided it was too crappy to risk a fuss about it at the crowded Kotti area.
    In another incident, I came home in the evening, around 11 pm near Görli, and two guys followed me to the entrance of my house. As I got my keys out to open the door, they stopped behind me. Luckily I realized it right away, because I found them sort of suspicious in the first place, and was aware of them following me the whole time. I took my time with the keys, to see if they were just stopping by chance, but they just stood there, waiting. After a few seconds it was pretty clear they were waiting for me to open the door, probably so that they could follow me inside and mug me in the hallway. There was noone else around, but since the situation was obvious to me, I made a bold move: I left the door shut and turned around towards them. I didn’t confront them or anything, I just wanted to let them know that I’m aware and not to be surprised. Luckily it helped – they immediately turned around and went the way they had come.
    These two incidents made me a lot more careful moving around the city. I would say it’s best if you just try to be not paranoid, but conscious – always be aware who is on the street around you, who looks sketchy and what they’re up to. I believe you can avoid a lot of trouble by just sensing it before it actually emerges – like the story above shows: had I not been aware of the guys following me, they’d just surprised me and probably mugged me or worse. Oh, and another thing that might help is the typical grumpy face of a Berliner, that says “Leave me the f*** alone, I don’t have time for this”. I have acquired it rather unknowingly and found it to be very useful … 😉

  3. Craig wrote:

    Now we are in late 2015 – how do you perceive the development of this situation over the past couple of years? I have lived in Berlin for a year, so am personally just figuring it all out.
    I ask in the wake of the fatal stabbing of a young language student in Oranienplatz this weekend, which is obviously an extremely sad & shocking event.
    Until this incident I had personally felt that this area (Kotti & surrounds) was, though obviously very ‘druggy’, not particularly dangerous. Do most people feel a shift in the safeness of the area, or even a drive to change it somehow?