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Where is drug policy? On Görlitzer Bahnhof and the levels of reading policy

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today we’re happy to bring you an article by Ferdinand Nyberg, a Finnish citizen currently getting his Ph.D. at the University of Tübingen in Germany, where he works at a collaborative research center which investigates ‘threatened orders.’ His focus is in American Studies and his research will specifically center on the intersections of nineteenth-century temperance efforts, abolitionism, race, and gender. He’ll be contributing several articles to Points and we look forward to reading his work!

Görlitzer Bahnhof

Görlitzer Bahnhof

Few visitors to Berlin aged around 16 to 30 will be unfamiliar with Görlitzer Bahnhof; or, rather, they’ll be familiar with the park frequently referred to by that name (often shortened as ‘Görlitzer’ or ‘Görli’). As the name suggests, it was once a Bahnhof, a railway station; and one, it happens, with a fascinating history.

Built in 1866, it was to function as a major artery for trade and travel eastwards (notably to Görlitz). The impressive neo-renaissance station, commissioned by Prussian ‘railway king’ Bethel Strousberg, simultaneously advanced and symbolised Prussia’s rapid industrialisation and economic growth. But – as has so often happened in Berlin’s history – time and space had another say in the matter, and the station’s symbolic significance would take many turns.

In 1961, the Soviets erected the Berlin Wall (officially, the ‘Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart’) and Görlitzer Bahnhof, now located in closed-off West Berlin, lost its purpose. Within a year it was demolished, and its former location became nothing but empty space and rubble (in the 1990s, the area – already used for frolicking – was turned into the park we have today). Suddenly, Kreuzberg – the district in which Görlitzer Bahnhof stood, and one bordering the wall – had become a liminal and undesirable ‘Wild West’ in the already-liminal exclave that was West Berlin. Pretty quickly, locals moved out; either to West Germany proper or to newly-built government-subsidised housing projects (realising that the Berlin Wall might cause an exodus out of West Berlin, the government swiftly got to work, building spacious and affordable housing in the traditionally swanky parts of town). For a time, then, Kreuzberg was a destitute neighbourhood, myriad apartments standing empty. Some revitalisation would come through the German government inviting ‘guest workers’ from southern Europe and the Middle East to help instigate the Wirtschaftswunder. Thousands settled in Kreuzberg, which still forms the heart of Berlin’s Turkish and Arab community. Second, West Berlin became a sanctuary for ‘alternative types,’ defined broadly.[i] Students, artists, draft dodgers, and activists interested in ‘experimental living’ were attracted to Kreuzberg’s ‘different’ feel and eagerly took advantage of its low rents and ample squatting opportunities. Soon enough, liminal Kreuzberg had developed its own hybrid culture, a compound of left-leaning counterculture and ‘Middle Eastern’ elements. (A cultural admixture which, in retrospect, loudly forebodes the gentrification now taking place.) Görlitzer was, quite literally, central to these changes.

By the 1990s, it became caught in the middle of something else: reunification suddenly meant that Kreuzberg was no the dangerous border between East and West; instead, it was in the heart of the city which would symbolise ‘New Europe.’ It has become almost a cliché that Berlin’s reunification happened on the dance floors of abandoned buildings, and the rave culture that flourished after the fall of the wall indeed characterised the city’s image for at least the following two decades. Here again, Görlitzer played a major role, becoming one of the spots where young ‘Ossis’ and ‘Wessis’ gathered, got drunk, took ecstasy and other drugs, finally dancing themselves united.

So when I say that tourists of a specific demographic will be familiar with this location it’s because here, evidently, ‘cool’ Berlin happens. Still today, the ritual remains: people meet in the park, drink alcohol, buy and take drugs, and then head to their nightclub of choice. So far so good.

But Görlitzer is especially interesting in its ability to reveal particular spatial dynamics, ones that tell much about the ‘place’ of certain anti-drug efforts (one might call it the ‘squatter’s paradox’[ii]). Namely: an increase in squats (S) causes an increase in an area’s cool reputation (R). And in today’s age of ‘creative’ capitalism and its attendant appreciation of ‘urbanism,’ an increase in R causes typically an increase in the attractiveness of investment (A). Yet the eventual outcome is that A threatens the continued existence of S, ultimately decreasing R. When A becomes a significant factor, drug policy tends to harden – the aim being to lessen those social problems which enabled the proliferation of S in the first place (while making A easier).

In Görlitzer, this very thing is happening. Authorities have been referring to the neighbourhood as a ‘sozialer Brennpunkt’ for some time, a piece of jargon translating roughly to ‘social flashpoint.’ (Brennpunkt literally means ‘burning point’ – aptly, albeit perhaps unintentionally, evoking drugs imagery.) In 2015, after much debate, Görlitzer was declared a ‘drug-free zone.’ Now, it sounds odd whenever particular spaces are declared ‘drug free’ in countries where prohibition already prevails (the authorities say, ‘drugs are illegal everywhere but especially here’). Yet these declarations reinforce prohibition’s immanent ontological (b)orders, suggested by one of Berlin’s tabloids optimistically writing that Görlitzer – as if besieged – will be wrestled out of the hands of aggressive dealers. The spatial-ontological elements of effective drug policy are laid clear here: drug policy needs space not just to wage its war but also in order for constituents to understand, identify with, and support the official agenda; spaces help define combatants and identify assailant and victim. Spaces, so common sense and ‘really there,’ helps focalise drug policy, helps policy-makers and constituents see eye-to-eye – both exclaiming ‘Why, that’s how it is!’

I say this because there’s no denying that the park and its surroundings are drug-infested and worse-off for it. Transactions can be witnessed at most hours of the day, and come nightfall few pedestrians will be left alone. The dealers, more brazen in the safety of darkness (and conscious of the arrival of peak business hours), become more assertive, approaching – sometimes confronting – you with whispered offers of ‘hashish, speed, MD.’ Most passersby awkwardly or irritatedly continue walking but if pressed, the dealers will happily produce a pharmacy’s-worthy list of substances either being carried in their coat pocket or whose availability is but a phone call away. Still, it’s this very edge, this very rawness, which attracts people to the neighbourhood and which perpetuates both its reputation and drug market. Conditions can be partly explained with prohibition itself – illicitness pushes the drug scene into a discrete space, one which then becomes simultaneously unsafe and curiously attractive. Yet R needs not always lead to a neighbourhood’s ‘demise’; in the case of Görlitzer, wider circumstances, as it were, interfered.

This brings me to a final point. This is a local example although some larger undercurrents that nurture it should be somewhat clear by now. But let me spell out just a few more. As my somewhat lengthy ‘context’ suggests, I see ‘reputation’ as a crucial ingredient in how drug policy becomes spatialised and imaginable. In the case of Görlitzer, this reputation, as I’ve tried to demonstrate, is immanently associated with Berlin as a semiotic sign for ‘cool’ in the minds of many (a signification upon which the self-described ‘poor but sexy’ city has eagerly capitalised). But more tangible forces feature in this equation. In 1997, the European airline market was deregulated, causing an upsurge in continental airline traffic. Aside from perhaps Barcelona, few cities have been as drastically affected by this new tourism than Berlin. In 2010, Berlin overtook Rome as the third-most popular city for tourists in Europe (trailing London and Paris). Sunny and photogenic Rome – the very paragon of modern tourism and shorthand for European cultural achievement – overtaken by Berlin – a gray, rainy, and run-down urban sprawl full of architectural eyesores. (Yet, as I have explained, precisely this urbanity forms part of its appeal.) So here the micro and the macro, the imagined and the material, interact at a remarkable number of levels.[iii] Young members of the ‘easyJet generation’[iv] flocking to Görlitzer by the thousands every weekend to buy drugs, attracted by its exotic ‘local flavour,’ are noticed by international investors who begin wondering which apartment block they should convert in this trendy-cool-edgy part of town. Concurring with increased investments and abetted by local complaints that the situation is escalating, Berlin’s government maps strategies for ‘sanitising’ the neighbourhood.

The likely outcomes will sound familiar: locals support tougher policing, accelerating gentrification. The drug scene, largely unscathed, moves elsewhere. This notwithstanding, many people will be affected: already-marginalised persons become targets of police suspicion, whether warranted or not. In a recent visit to the district museum, I stood before a plaque where locals were encouraged to share their memories of specific locations. Under ‘Görlitzer,’ a man wrote of being racially profiled and harassed by undercover policemen while walking his child in the park and swore, finally, never to return.

The multifaceted story which Görlitzer Bahnhof helps unfold aptly demonstrates how varying levels – historical and contemporary, real and imagined, local and distant – nurture both the rise of a drug ‘scene’ and the consequential anti-drug efforts. Policy analysts and historians take heed: not every drug scene was once a train station, but the railway’s literal and metaphorical collation of the near and the distant is one applicable elsewhere, too.

[i] This was part of a longer lineage; in 1800, composer Franz von Suppé apparently quipped, ‘You are crazy, my child. You must go to Berlin.’

[ii] One might, as I say, call it the ‘squatter’s paradox.’ But I do so only because in the case of Kreuzberg, squatters played such a prominent role in establishing the area’s reputation. In most other cases, it makes sense to think of ‘squat’ as synecdoche for ‘authenticity,’ ‘alternative culture,’ or other reputation-triggering phenomena.

[iii] That most of the dealers are of Middle Eastern or sub-Saharan descent points to further macro-dynamics: one might tie this to the ongoing European refugee crisis in the short-term but also relate it back to memory; Kreuzberg’s reputation as an open and open-minded space has evidently attracted many refugees here. Alas, to elaborate on this would require research that I do not have at hand.

[iv] I am referring to the slogan on the hugely popular low-cost airline. It is one that I find striking in its overt collation of the ‘free market’ and its emotional appeal to ‘freedom.’ From its website: ‘The I can’t wait to go generation. The early riser for the morning cab, last minute packing, full of excitement generation.’

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