I Spent 24 Hours in Berlin’s Busiest Drug Market
When I get out of the U8 train at Berlin's Kottbusser Tor station at 5 AM on a Thursday, three men dressed in rags raise their beer bottles to greet me, grinning with the few remaining teeth they have.
This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.
When I get out of the U8 train at Berlin's Kottbusser Tor station at 5 AM on a Thursday, three men dressed in rags raise their beer bottles to greet me. "Is this a nightcap or a good morning beer?" I ask. They don't answer but grin at me with the few remaining teeth they have. The sun is rising over Kotti (as the area is affectionately called in German), reflecting on the satellite dishes and the windows of the surrounding kebab joints and bars. There are hardly any people in the square—it's basically me and a guy manning a 24-hour vegetable stand. But the rubbish from last night that's still lying on the street tells stories: Someone spent the evening with a needle and a Capri Sun juice box for company; a few feet away is an installation made from an empty sparkling wine bottle and a mini bottle of chardonnay. Additionally, I count 17 empty vodka bottles; the brands are so cheap that I don't even recognize them from my days as a student.
The street cleaner, who begins sweeping everything up just before 6 AM, merely says: "It's dirty here. But for further inquiries, you have to turn to the mayor's public relations office." Kotti has been in the press a lot recently. In April, the Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote that Kottbusser Tor is Berlin's hardest drug market: "It doesn't really get more bleak than this." Two months earlier, the Tagesspiegel ran the headline: "(Kottbuser Tor) Is Too Crass Even for Kreuzberg Standards." According to the police, the number of muggings increased by 50 percent between 2014 and 2015. Theft increased by 100 percent.
But what's a lingering problem to some is a hotspot of Berlin nightlife to others. To many, Kotti is the perfect example of a place in which different worlds can coexist peacefully. Gay bar Möbel Olfe is just a few feet away from Cafe Diyar, populated mostly by very serious Turkish men who play okey. At night, African music blends into Turkish pop and techno. Is Kotti the cesspool of Berlin or a multicultural paradise? I'm going to spend 24 hours here to see what's up, from dawn to dawn.
The first dealers make their way to their posts for the morning shift around 6:30 AM. "Hash, hash?" one of them asks in a sleepy voice as I walk past the Istanbul Supermarket. Another yawns: "White, green, brown?" which apparently means "coke, weed, heroin." But I only got that by the end of my 24 hours at Kotti.
A delivery truck drops off döner kebabs at 7 AM. The driver unwraps the giant meat cone and rests it on his shoulder. The image makes me think of a cave man carrying a mammoth's leg. "Do you think it's dangerous around here?" I ask him. "I've been delivering here for 11 years, and nothing's ever happened," he says. "But the situation has gotten worse over the last year, especially on weekends. I've seen fist fights and one stabbing in the past few months."
The morning rush hits Turkish bakery Simitdchi, Kotti's breakfast hotspot, at 9 AM. Students in pixie haircuts grab their coffees to go. Women in hijabs drink black tea from little glasses and eat simit—the Turkish version of a sesame bagel. An elderly person pushing an empty shopping cart locks it outside the store with a bike lock before going in to order. Another grandpa, wearing a John Deere hat and a crocheted shawl, reads the culture section of Die Zeit. A scrawny man walks up to me, rolls up his sleeves, presents me with the rash on his upper arm, and says: "I have AIDS, do you have money?"
Drug addicts, eccentrics, Turks, artists, and students make up the fauna at Kotti. If you climb to the roof of one of the social housing projects surrounding it, then you can see Kotti in all its glory at once. The expansive, ten-story monster called the Neue Kreuzberger Zentrum makes up the north side of the square. In front of it, there's a round, concrete labyrinth of shops, bars, snack joints, a hostel, and a casino. In the West, you have the Istanbul Supermarket. In the East, you have burger joint Burgermeister—a favorite for tourists. Every few minutes, the U1 train rattles into the station on the overground tracks. At night, it delivers the party crowds.
I decide to get a kebab for lunch. While I'm standing in line, a stranger puts his arm around my shoulder, causing my heart to skip a few beats. Is it one of the ambush thieves that the media writes about so often? Nah—he doesn't want my wallet. He wants my number. He gives me a piece of baklava as a parting gift and tells me he works in a corner store nearby.
A local resident, Ahmet Tuncer, 63, will later tell me that I was lucky. His wallet was stolen once. He's also found a lot of gutted wallets on the ground and turned them in. The cash was gone, but the documents were still there. Tuncer, who has been living in Kreuzberg for 47 years, says that "it has always been a troubled place but also a lively, tolerant one." Nevertheless, he doesn't like using the term "multicultural" to describe the area. "The idea of Kotti as a cool neighborhood attracts young people, and young people attract drug dealers."
But criminality isn't exclusive to the square. It's just more visible here because of the subway station's central location. It makes Kottbuser Tor a meeting point. Tuncer also says he feels things have calmed down in the past couple of months. People who own retail spaces nearby pay a pair of private security teams, each composed of two men and dog, to patrol the area at night.
Moreover, Tuncer is active in the "Kotti & Co." initiative, which fights the rising rents in the area. Between 2010 and 2016, his own rent was raised by about $400. In spite of the negative headlines, Kotti is a coveted place to live, which means it's getting more and more expensive. In nearby Cafe Kremanski, a barista with a groomed beard serves a caffe corretto to a guy working with a MacBook that is charging an iPhone and an iPad at the same time. The cafeteria's menu boasts an "acerola power shake." Outside, a man of indiscernible age is having a different liquid afternoon snack: vodka. He offers me a sip when I come out. In general, I've been getting a lot of gifts from the snack bars and corner stores. By 7 PM, I've been given pistachio cookies, three glasses of black tea, a peach, and two bottles of beer. Maybe that's what makes people love Kotti in spite of everything. It's a bit like a big bazaar—lacking in rules and making up for it in improvisation.
"Kotti is its own country," says Murat Cavan, who is wrapping watermelons in saran wrap in front of Istanbul Supermarket. He's lived here for 18 years and doesn't "ever want to leave." He also says he's gotten used to the drug market blooming in front of him because "some just can't help it." The three dealers standing a few feet away all agree: "There are no jobs, that's why we're here."
For hours, they offer anyone who walks by "hash, weed, coke, ecstasy" in the muffled tone bullies used to insult you in high school—loud enough for you to hear but softly enough to keep them from getting caught. One of them is from Lebanon, the other from Egypt, and the third is Palestinian. The Lebanese guy says, "I would rather sell vegetables, but I don't have a work permit, so no vegetables." The Egyptian guy chimes in, "Life in Germany isn't as good as I thought it would be."
When the European championship game between France and Germany begins at 9 PM, everything suddenly looks like a stock image labeled "integration." Men with impressive mustaches are rooting for the German national team along with with muscleheads draped in German flags. People shout in German, Turkish, Arabic, English, and Russian when the German team misses a shot at the goal. Some guy who offered me heroin earlier is now cheering a few feet away from a group of private security guards on their cigarette break.
Fifty yards away, French hairstylist Violette Dieblume is drinking with her gay male friends in Möbel Olfe. "For me, Kotti is the most exciting place in Germany." In nice moments like these, it seems like she might be right.
After midnight, however, the mood turns. A blackout drunk woman is dancing in front of a dozen men, who are sat on a step. She stumbles, sways, catches herself, and continues to dance. People's bodies seem to tense, and the mix of languages in the air has taken on an aggressive tone.
At half past midnight, a middle-aged guy in a track suit suddenly runs across the square, shouting in Russian: "I don't want any problems, I don't want crystal meth!" Everything happens in a blur. There is yelling and the sound of quick steps on the asphalt. A little group comes together next to the 24-hour vegetable stand. Three scrawny men push another, older man around; in the end, they manage to rip something out of his hand.
"The old man threatened us with a broken bottle," explains Seyar, 20. He is a sturdy guy with the nose and body of a boxer. It turns out he actually is a boxer. "How dangerous is Kotti?" I ask him. He points to the scar on his throat as an answer.
Seyar sometimes speaks to me in English, sometimes in German, and sometimes in Russian. He says he's from Afghanistan and has had asylum in Germany for three years now. He takes off his T-shirt to show me a bunch of stab wounds distributed above his kidneys, larynx, and on his upper arm.
"They cut me open four times," he says.
"Who did?" I ask.
"It doesn't matter who."
"That's just how it is here."
Even with all these people warning me, I can't say I ever feel at risk in the area. But the people working overnight at Kotti complain a lot: about the criminality, the journalists who are obsessed with depicting the place as either a drug hole or a hipster paradise, and the politicians who seem to only care about Kotti when it makes headlines. "Someone should tie Mrs. Merkel up to one of the trees here, so she can see 'multicultural' for herself," one woman says.
It's 5 AM the next morning, and the area around the station is pretty empty. A punk girl with dreads is chasing her dog, to the sound of drunken France fans rowdily lining up for a falafel after a long night of victorious drinking. The döner guy, Mutlu, says that he recently found drug baggies in the flower pots in front of his shop: "They killed all my plants. I love Kotti, but sometimes I think it's hopeless." Still, that didn't keep him from planting new shrubs.