Social change in the ruhr area: dortmund niche

The northern part of the Ruhr district is characterized by migration and poverty. Small initiatives are slowly changing the neighborhood – but from below.

Because the city didn’t care, residents are taking care on their own initiative Photo: Mona Filz

The benches in the park are littered with beer bottles. Three schoolgirls on their way home push past a loudly discussing group of drunken men. Not far away, two young men wait in a corner, quietly muttering "hashish," and in front of the betting shops, the first curious people are already gathering this afternoon. Directly behind the train station and yet socially disconnected – for the city of Dortmund, the area of Innenstadt-Nord with its social problems mainly means negative headlines. Yet the neighborhood has long been undergoing change.

When Frederik Schreiber, 28, discovered the old workers’ pub near the harbor three years ago, it was mainly the cheap rent that convinced him. At the time, he had just finished his studies and started working as a musician. With a few friends, he stripped down the bar, cleared out the basement and opened the "Rekorder" in the summer of 2013. Since then, the small collective has been holding regular concerts and readings in the newly founded art and culture association.

On this evening, only a handful of young people are sitting on the old sofas in the Rekorder, smoke hangs in the air, electronic music comes from the speakers. Schreiber is a blond young man in a blue baggy sweater; he calls himself a "cultural activist." In the summer, they put on a music festival in the park next door; in the winter, Dortmund artists play on Sundays for coffee and cake. Schreiber is a quiet guy who blossoms when he talks about the cultural project. "A place like the Recorder thrives on its surroundings," Schreiber says, opening a Kronen Pilsner, "It wouldn’t have worked like this anywhere else." The low rents are one reason people like him move here. But there’s more: small initiatives are changing the district and slowly making it attractive.

Dortmund’s Nordstadt, located between the port and former industrial areas, is characterized by poverty and migration: almost half of all 55,000 people here do not have a German passport, many receive Hartz IV benefits, and almost two-thirds have a migration background. When the Turkish guest workers in the Ruhr area got off the trains in the 1960s, they found cheap housing in the working-class neighborhood north of the train station. Twenty years later, the first mines closed, but the immigrants have long since made themselves at home: Vegetable stores and Turkish cafes have changed the cityscape.

Here is the family

New migrants continue to arrive to this day. Matei Istoica, a Rom, is one of them. From inside a red Peugeot, he talks about his neighborhood. Under his black coat he wears a Germany jersey. If he doesn’t feel understood in German, he simply speaks louder. Three years ago, the roofer left his Romanian village and moved west to find work. He has family in Nordstadt, but a job is hard to come by – one in four people here is unemployed. Istoica is in his early 30s, his face clearly older. When he speaks of "my neighborhood," his black mustache pulls up. "Here," he says, pointing to empty seats, "is where we Gypsies meet in the summer, that’s where our church is." "Gypsy," he uses the word frequently.

In other parts of the city, he was met with hostility; he felt discriminated against when looking for housing. Still, he was lucky. Istoica turns up the Romanian music in his car and says: "At first I was a scrap collector, but then I didn’t have the papers for that. Then, by chance, I found work as a roofer." Despite his social insecurity, he doesn’t want to leave. He points to a group of women as he drives by. "Family," he says, laughing.

Another stroke of luck for him has been the association Planerladen e. V.. Thousands of people from southeastern Europe landed in the Ruhr region after the EU expansion in 2007, but the hope of work did not come true for most of them. Many lived in overcrowded ruined houses.

The city feared Roma influx

"None of the social associations were interested in the problems of the immigrants back then," Tulin Kabis-Staubach grumbles about city politics. The 58-year-old is the chairwoman of the small initiative that works to change living conditions in the neighborhood. The team from Planerladen also advised Matei Istoica and helped him arrive. The office is located in the middle of Nordstadt, next door there is a salsa bar, around the corner a Romanian restaurant.

Just a few houses away, men line up every morning on Mallinckrodtstrabe on what is known as the workers’ line. "The city was afraid of attracting more Roma. That’s why they cracked down on them," Kabis-Staubach says over filter coffee and cookies. Born in Istanbul, she came to the Ruhr region as an architecture student and has stayed. She has lived in Nordstadt for 30 years, and the biggest problem, she finds, is prejudice. At that time, she held lectures in all parts of the city and hung up large banners with her husband. At some point, the administration also moved: the Bamf now finances language courses, and there are information events on social welfare.

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Unlike in Berlin or Hamburg, where the neighborhoods of Neukolln or Sternschanze have been completely transformed in just a few years, the changes in Nordstadt are happening slowly – and they are happening from below. Istoica’s story is far from being the norm. To the east of the Planerladen, plaster is crumbling from the dirty house walls, on Linienstrasse a few men are sneaking around the shop windows of small brothels, and bags of used syringes lie in front of the benches on Nordmarkt. This is everyday life in the Nordstadt.

Some move back voluntarily

At "Nur Pastanesi," a Turkish breakfast cafe, there is no sign of the social problems on Saturday morning. The store is buzzing, and there is a long line in the entrance area waiting to get a seat. Cay and filter coffee are available for self-service. Two female students share a bench with a Turkish family.

Cuneyt Karadas, 34, is a small, broad-shouldered man with a short beard. As he passes by, the waitress greets him amicably; he is known. "We have a hyperculture here," says the local politician from the Left Party, pointing to the large hall, "that’s a wealth, isn’t it?" Karadas is a child of Nordstadt. His parents came from Istanbul, his father was deported again after a few years. Because his mother had to work, Cuneyt ended up in a toddler group. "For my German," he says, taking a big sip of tea, "it was the best thing that could have happened to me."

Recently Karadas became vice mayor of the district, and his favorite topic is education. Karadas’ CDU predecessor was removed from office because of xenophobic statements; the German-Turk is only one of three people with a migration history in the district parliament.

Living together here means, above all, living side by side. "Everyone has their own problems," explains Karadas when asked about the low voter turnout of less than 25 percent. But that, too, is changing, says the local politician, who is slowly seeing a generational change. He is the best example: After graduating from high school, he worked at the post office and felt discriminated against. So he caught up on his A-levels at night school, started a family, moved away – and came back a few years later. He is now studying business administration. He says he missed the neighborhood, especially the "hyperculture.

Autonomous initiatives

Those who decide to stay here do so primarily for things that can’t be found in other neighborhoods. For Frederik Schreiber, too, this colorful mix was a reason to move to Nordstadt. His shared apartment is located directly on the Nordmarkt: Turkish men sell fresh vegetables outside the door, Roma women stroll through the market in colorful dresses, a Portuguese restaurant around the corner tempts with fresh fish and red wine from clay decanters. Next door, a couple of boys are drinking beer in front of a betting parlor. Schreiber says, "Diversity also offers room for niches."

He himself performs as a rapper at the Recorder, and boys from the neighborhood come to his hip-hop workshops. In his tidy living room, there are two turntables, and his roommate spins. He pours Vietnamese coffee and says, "The city can’t find a way to deal with the problems in the neighborhood. There’s a lot of autonomy happening in that gap." In the evening, a young duo plays melancholic trip-hop with rolling basses in the "Langer August". The event center also rents its rooms to the Dortmund Gay Club and a French restaurant. A student crowd sits on the wooden floorboards. Later, many move on to Subrosa.

"A lot of things here remind me of Kreuzberg back then." Klaus Graniki has a Ruhrpott dialect; for many years he worked in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district. He is the managing director of Dogewo21, a construction company that owns 16,000 apartments in Dortmund, most of them in Nordstadt. His dream: to renovate houses and attract students to the neighborhood.

But the district is still a long way from gentrification; among the gray of run-down apartment buildings, the painted facades of the Dogewo houses hardly stand out. Eight percent of Nordstadt residents move away every year, and the low rents hardly make any money.

The bridge piers of the railroad line mark the border to the city center. They are colorfully painted, a large blue heart advertises "echt Nordstadt". Later, at the north entrance of the main station, two police officers stop a young couple. Passport control.

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