How a Turkish vegetable shop became a symbol of Berlin

Gentrification has caused the disappearance of many family-owned shops in Berlin over the years. But for the residents of one Berlin district, the threat of closure hanging over one small fruit and vegetable shop was the final straw. They had had enough and took their protest to the streets. Now, this shop has come to symbolise Berlin's identity. By Lillie Harman

By Lillie Harman

Bizim Bakkal, Ahmet Caliskan's family-run fruit and vegetable shop, has stood proudly on Wrangelstrasse, a street in the vibrant neighbourhood of Wrangelkiez in the district of Berlin-Kreuzberg, for 28 years – a witness to all that changes and continues to change. Bizim Bakkal means "our shop" in Turkish.

Earlier this year, Caliskan was served notice to quit and was given six months to vacate the premises. The building had been bought up by Ioannis Moraitis, director of Gekko Real Estate, with the aim of converting it into luxury apartments. Bizim Bakkal would be split into two shops because renting the space to twice as many tenants would maximise profit.

Rising rents in select areas of Berlin have pushed out countless family-owned business and private tenants over the years. But the threat of Bizim Bakkal's closure initiated a conspicuously large wave of protest.

Walk through Wrangelkiez and even further afield and you'll see banners, posters and stickers – some professional, others a little more home-made – bearing slogans like "Wir sind diese Strasse" ("We are this street") or "Bizim Kiez bleibt" ("Bizim neighbourhood stays"). Kiez, which means neighbourhood or district, is a term used to describe Berlin's distinctly different districts.

Every Wednesday, supporters gather on the street outside the shop. So far, the evenings have included open forums, music and speakers, including readings from well-known literary figures, such as David Wagner, Annika Reich and Jan Brandt.

"Our Kiez is full of artists – artists tend to go where it is colourful and lively, where all sorts of people mix and it is still not too expensive," said one of the campaigners. "It is part of an artist's job to be aware of changes in society and speak out on behalf of the weaker people. Art has to go where it hurts. So from the very beginning, artists were part of our movement."

Residents of Berlin protesting about the threatened closure of the fruit and vegetable shop Bizim Bakkal in Berlin Kreuzberg (photo: James Robinson)
According to Lillie Harman, Bizim Bakkal has become "a symbol of all that has already been and could still be lost to the gentrification of Germany's most iconic city, namely independent and small family businesses, diverse communities and the edgy, imperfect cityscape that has characterised Berlin"

It's not over yet

The protest group met on Wednesday, 8 July 2015 to announce that the notice to quit had been withdrawn. The news was greeted by a huge round of applause, but it was quickly reiterated that this was not the end, and that there is still a fight to be fought if the Kiez is to be protected.

Some protesters fear that the settlement could be a ruse. Caliskan has yet to receive a written contract that will secure the property, so he is still at risk of being evicted in the coming months. The protests and pressure will continue until Caliskan has been provided with a contract that ensures his safety and affordable rent.

The atmosphere was joyful and chaotic; it was a street party with a cause. Bizim Kiez stickers and posters were enthusiastically distributed, dogs barked, children blew whistles and loose posters flew around in the windy, humid air.

Iceberg of gentrification woes

It quickly became clear that the protest wasn't only about Bizim Bakkal, but also about what the shop represents. It has become a symbol of all that has already been and could still be lost to the gentrification of Germany's most iconic city, namely independent and small family businesses, diverse communities and the edgy, imperfect cityscape that characterises Berlin. The result, as the local protesters see it, is luxury apartments and a fragmented community.

The pavement in front of the food shop has become a platform for Berliners, old, young and new, to voice their problems, their concerns for the future of their city and their personal experiences – whether or not they relate to Bizim Bakkal. And here, they are heard.

At the Wednesday gathering, the tenants' initiative Kotti & Co. – which resists increases in rent for privately owned subsidised housing in the Kottbusser Tor area, the epicentre of the mainly Turkish Kreuzberg district – was one of the groups to present their concerns.

The same evening, a literary group called Daughters and Sons of Guest Workers – a group that celebrates and emphasises the significance of the post-war chapter of "guest workers" and their impact on Germany today – shared their and their parents' stories.

Guest workers came to West Germany in the 1960s and 70s from around the world, but in particular from Anatolian villages, southern Europe and the Balkans. The scheme allowed workers with few qualifications to work in West Germany. The programme was largely initiated due to a shortage of labourers during the post-war economic boom. By 1961, Turkish citizens formed the majority of guest workers in West Germany and, while the invitations were initially meant to be temporary, few returned to Turkey because they couldn't find work there.

A residential building in Berlin-Kreuzberg (photo: picture-alliance/Wolfram Steinberg)
With slogans like "We are this street" and "Je suis Bizim Bakkal" residents of the vibrant community of Wrangelkiez in the district of Berlin-Kreuzberg are voicing their anger at rising rents and property speculation, which are pushing residents out of the districts they have lived in for years. But it is not just the people of Berlin-Kreuzberg who are putting up resistance, so too are residents in the districts of Neukolln and Pankow

Berlin back then

Back then, Kreuzberg was an unattractive and isolated area of West Berlin, bordering the Berlin Wall. Immigrants were denied access to the "friendlier" upper-class neighbourhoods, so they made these Kreuzberg apartments inhabitable, later moving into subsidised housing in the Kottbusser Tor area. This in turn led to a network, which is essential to Kreuzberg, perhaps the most popular and trendy district in Berlin.

Real estate companies argue that rent increases in popular areas are inevitable. "People simply have to accept the fact that there are no rights to rentals in the best locations," said Dirk Wohltof of the German Realtors Association earlier this month.

Activists at the Bizim Bakkal gathering argued that the Kiez is what it is today – including being an attractive investment on the real estate market – purely because the residents made it this way, not for financial gain but because Wrangelkiez is their home. Yet the people who made Kreuzberg what it is feel that they are being ousted and deprived of the opportunity to enjoy what they've created.

The Bizim Kiez protestors plan to widen the campaign to include rental flats and other shops in the area, which are faced with the same problems as Bizim Bakkal. The campaign plans to challenge the concept of gentrification as a whole in Berlin and to make use of the legal possibilities in order to avoid a "population exchange of a whole vicinity just for the revenue of a few."

Gentrification first hit Berlin a few years ago, and many "Bizim Bakkals" have quietly shut in the meantime – without posters or protesters on their doorsteps. While some Berliners have taken gentrification in their stride or left for greener pastures, others just want their old city back. Bizim Bakkal is proof that emotions still run high – and Berliners don't give up easily.

Lillie Harman

© Deutsche Welle 2015

This article is a slightly adapted version of the English text originally published on