“Not lonely together.”
Allotment garden communities are regarded as the epitome of bourgeoisie. But in metropolises like Berlin, they are developing into refuges where people from diverse milieus can grow into good neighbors.
It is one of those very last summer days in autumn. On the banks of the canal in Berlin, young Neukölln residents with oversized sunglasses lounge around in front of cafés offering all-day breakfast menus. A few meters further, it is uninhabited, wasteland and construction sites alternate, and the asphalt is crumbling in many places. An older, somewhat sullen gentleman walks down the street, opens a gate and disappears without a greeting. Above the door hangs a sign: Kleingartenverein (“Allotment Garden Association”).
The first garden, plot 62, belongs to Ahmad. At the blue entrance gate, there is a brass sign reading: Chairman. The chairman is not quite awake yet. He offers sage tea, which he picks fresh from the garden. Ahmad leans back in his chair, rolls a cigarette and grins. A small stud glitters in his right ear. With his yellow batik shirt and black curls, he looks like a retired 60s American musician – a little bit like Jimi Hendrix in retirement. What is a guy like Ahmad doing on Sunday morning in an allotment garden association in Berlin-Neukölln? In a mix of English and German, he recounts how he moved from Jordan to Germany ten years ago, through stops in Hungary and England. First to Cologne, then to Berlin, where he opened a café. He has been living here long enough that he’s allowed to say: “Berlin has changed.” Ahmad is a relaxed guy who isn’t so quick to get upset. In 2017, he took over his plot of land with no concrete idea of what it would mean to be part of an allotment garden association. Three years later, Ahmad will buy a flag on the internet and patrol the colony. How did all this come to pass?
Spending time in an allotment garden doesn’t sound particularly appealing at first. Allotment gardens are a German thing – like dachshunds, beer, and Lederhosen. Quite a few consider allotment gardens to be the epitome of German culture. Why is a guy like Ahmad here? How is it that an expat came to be elected to the board of an allotment garden association?
The desire for free space is growing, especially in metropolises like Berlin, where rents have been rising for years – if you can find an apartment to rent at all. Even if it’s hard to imagine: Allotment garden associations are changing, slowly but steadily. Whenever someone moves away or can no longer take care of their space, the plot is reallocated. More and more often, to people who have different ideas about what life here could look like. After a day in the settlement, one can see why not only Ahmad, but also an increasing number of city dwellers are attracted to allotment gardens and the frictions that can arise. On a smaller scale, a dynamic starts to develop in the settlement that is repeated in many areas of urban life far from the allotment garden, when new people enter new spaces and have the desire to change things. In Berlin, such a confrontation often raises the question of whether the new is not also supplanting the old, and whether this is a good thing for society. One thing is certain: An allotment garden colony is also a neighborhood – and arguments between neighbors can arise. But perhaps the colony is also a place where something like a utopian community can develop around the garden gnomes and hedges.