When American friends and family come to visit me, the first thing they always say about my street Mittenwalder Strasse is: Wow, there’s a lot of graffiti here. They always say “a lot of graffiti” like it means something, and the something it means isn’t good. For the most part, I don’t really notice the graffiti and I don’t think it means much of anything, at least not anymore. What I do notice is our street isn’t particularly beautiful, but then again, what is beautiful in Berlin other than the woods, a couple hundred Treppenhäuser in Charlottenburg and maybe Prenzlauer Berg? Not that I like Prenzlauer Berg. Prenzlauer Berg is a wet dream of the bourgeoise, though it used to be something else.
My neighborhood used to be something else too. Twelve or fifteen years back it was apparently run by the Mittenwalder Boys, whose tags probably still grace many a façade. My nephew went to school nearby and he said he knew better than to walk down the street because he’d get robbed or beaten up or probably both. The Mittenwalder Boys also robbed the local Spätkauf and wine store and pharmacy with guns that were probably air rifles or toys, because it’s very hard to get your hands on a gun in Berlin. But when you’re a 54 year old woman with lower back problems with an adult son who still lives with you and spends all day gaming in his underwear and a masked boy from the neighborhood is pointing a gun that may or may not be real at your face across the counter of the Spätkauf, you’re not going to play the hero, nor should you.
But the Mittenwalder Boys always got caught. They took off their masks after the robberies and the neighbors recognized them: that’s the red-headed kid from number 59; that boy’s father runs the Autowerkstatt two doors down; he lives on the second floor of my building and I never did like him, no not one bit. “If they had walked just a couple of blocks away, we might not have caught them,” A cop once told my husband. “But they never did. As they say, stupid is as stupid does.”
Where are the Mittenwalder Boys today? Are they still locked up? Or did they grow up, grow out of it and move away? Maybe one of them is even the father of a child at my daughter’s school.
We chose her school because it’s a ten minute walk away from our apartment and it represents the neighborhood: 50 to 60 percent Turkish with a sprinkling of Arabs, 40 t0 50 percent German or other mixes (German-Australian, German-American, Argentinian-French, etc.), 60 percent college educated, 40 percent working class.
A lot of the gentrifier parents in our neighborhood fight to get into another school down the street, one that is 75 percent white and probably 80 percent college educated. The school administration cheats to keep it this way by bargaining with the district to get certain streets in their zone and not other “less desirable” ones and turning away poor immigrant kids who have a right to a place at the school but whose parents won’t understand enough to insist on their rights.
They don’t even try to hide it. An acquaintance of mine, a film maker from Honduras, went to the open house of this school with a friend of hers from South Korea, also in the arts. At the open house, the school administration told the crowd they were “proud to be the school in Kreuzberg with the lowest percentage of foreigners.” My acquaintance and her friend were outraged. They knew, of course, that when they said “foreigners” they did not mean Honduran film makers or South Korean artists, they meant “poor and not-white in the wrong way.” My acquaintance didn’t apply for the school and her South Korean friend, who had a right to claim a spot at the school, took her daughter off the list and sent her elsewhere.
When I heard this story, I was outraged. For weeks I told friends and the other parents at our pre-school about what I’d heard. Some of them were as angry as I was, but most still wanted to send their kids to the school because it had the reputation of being the “best” in the neighborhood.
One day I was sitting at a playground near the music school in SO36—a part of Kreuzberg even more ethnically diverse than my neighborhood in Kreuzberg 61—with another (German) mother who lives on Mittenwalder Strasse a few houses up from where I live. Our daughters were both entering school in a year, so our conversation inevitably turned towards school choice. I told her the story about what the “beloved” school had said. “I would never send my daughter there; even if we were zoned for that school I’d take her out. What kind of message would I be sending her if I did? You’re allowed to live on the same streets as these kids and go to pre-school with them, but you shouldn’t mix with them at school? I mean, this whole thing is really like a barely hidden apartheid only none of us white liberals are willing to admit it.” The other mom got uncomfortably quiet and then I remembered she was one of the parents who were fighting to get a place in the school, although she hadn’t gone so far as to hire a lawyer or chain herself to the fence. I could have kept pressing my point, but she was a nice person and it was clear from the conversations we’d had before that all she wanted was what was best for her kids.
But it still makes me sad is that in Kreuzberg, like so many places in the world, what’s “best for your kids” means for a lot of people “keep it white.”