REPRINT: Not your Grandmother’s Gated Community

vor 6 Monaten

“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.

Taken from our current print issue on ‚Life‚, written by Lena Fiedler and photographed by Christian Werner

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.    

But first, there are many restrictions. Ahmad lists them: The height of the lawn must not exceed ten centimeters, the hedge must not exceed 1.10 meters, and the arbor must not exceed twenty-four square meters. All very German. The same goes for Ahmad’s honorary position: As chairman, it is his job to “keep things in order.” That means managing the handover of new gardens, issuing contracts for new tenants, holding meeting hours, and keeping the waiting list. Allotment gardens have become so popular that most have long lists. In Berlin, the wait is five to six years before a plot becomes available. At least. More like a dream for people who have decided to settle down.  

The path through the colony leads past very different gardens. There is the type with ornamental plants and stones embedded in the lawn, which pave the way to the arbor. Some are designed with so much love that one wonders what kind of people the gardeners are. Others look more wild, with little decoration, no hedges, just lots of green. A few gardens further on, Ahmad stops and greets a young woman over the fence. She is rocking a baby in her arms. She sits with her boyfriend on a wooden bench in front of the arbor. This is probably how many people imagine life in the allotment garden: relaxing in linen dresses on weather-beaten wooden furniture, reading, weaving a wreath of flowers, and carefully placing lavender in a wooden basket. The young woman tells us that she is a journalist – since corona, she’s been working from her home office. Once she also tried to work in the garden, but after a day of multiple video conferences, she had used up her data volume for the month. There is no WiFi in the colony. She shrugs her shoulders. It’s possible to write. During corona, have new residents discovered the allotment garden as a place to work?        

Landgrave Carl von Hessen founded the first allotment garden association in 1814 in Kappeln an der Schlei. The origin of the gardens is closely linked to the social problems caused by industrialization in the nineteenth century. The allotment garden was actually a garden for the poor. It was intended to provide working families with the opportunity to provide themselves with additional food. That is why the rule still applies today that one-third of the garden area must be used to grow fruit or vegetables. After the Second World War, when hardly a brick was left standing in Berlin, the idea of self-sufficiency gained importance once again. A sign on the association house reminds us of this time: “Built from rubble in 1950.” During the years of the so-called “economic miracle,” allotment gardens lost their importance as sustenance and developed into a leisure activity for retirees. Since their numbers in big cities are dwindling and appreciation for organically grown vegetables and fruit is growing, young people and families are applying for the gardens. According to a survey among the district associations of allotment gardeners in Berlin, there are currently more than 30,000 people on waiting lists for one of the 70,000 gardens in Berlin. At Ahmad’s garden, it doesn’t even make sense to put your name on the waiting list. He’ll decline. Since corona, there have been even more applications. “People want to get out for some air,” he says. You can’t blame them for that. With home office and reduced working hours, they have more time and a desire for self-sufficiency and nature. But the plots here are not enough for everyone. Those who have one today can consider themselves lucky. Ten years ago, it would probably have been unimaginable that allotment garden owners would one day be among the privileged.   

The next garden, a new concept. Children play on a jungle gym that looks like a rocket. The father of one of the children sits relaxing at the table, calls something over to the children from time to time while eating Lebanese man’oushe. He is a software developer. Ahmad strolls on. In the next plot, the difference between old and new allotment gardeners becomes most noticeable. On a wildly growing lawn stands a long table, set with beautiful country house crockery. Ahmad calls over that he doesn’t understand why he wasn’t invited. Laughing, he’s let in and welcomed with a glass of natural wine. Three couples sit at the table and eat ceviche while their children romp around in the garden. One of the women says that they meet here every week for Sunday lunch. Her name is Ingrid; she’s an Italian artist living in Berlin. Today is her husband’s birthday and, after lunch, he serves a birthday cake with raspberries. They speak a mixture of Italian and French with their children, as do the others at the table. Ingrid and her friends are part of a generation of new, urban allotment gardeners. Inside, the dark wooden shelves set themselves apart from the white of the whitewashed walls. As if to complete the picture of the eco-hipster, Ingrid’s friends tell her that they have a beehive in the back of their garden because they read that Berlin bees can no longer keep up with pollination. This is it, the lived dream of a young, urban milieu that earns its money independently in the creative industry, is cosmopolitan, and longs for environmentally-friendly family life in the greenery of the city. How do they deal with their neighbors, who clearly have different ideas about life in an allotment garden? Ingrid’s plot is opposite Ahmad. She was one of the first of the new generation here. Being the vanguard was not always easy. After a week in the garden, they received a letter informing them that their lawn height was unacceptable. In the beginning, they talked to their neighbors only through the fence. With time it became easier. At some point, the neighbors asked what unusual plant was growing on the other side. It was Jerusalem artichoke, a root vegetable known as a healthy alternative to potatoes. Ingrid handed over a tuber, and with that, the ice was broken. Unlike the area’s co-working spaces and oat milk cafés, people from very different backgrounds meet here. The boundaries can be fluid. Ironically, the new residents, in particular, with their interest in ecological self-sufficiency and life in nature, are recalling ideas that go back to the origins of the allotment garden movement. Has the corona crisis triggered something like a second Biedermeier era? People who withdraw from public life and long for domesticity, nature, and harmony? And how did it come to be that Ahmad wanted to become a member of the board in such a place?

“Not lonely together.” This was the slogan of his campaign. Politicians, take note. Above all, however, his is functional politics in list form: a water leak that needs to be repaired, the expansion of digital communication, the organization of seasonal celebrations and festivals, the establishment of a seed bank from marigold to larkspur, and the installation of lights at the entrances. Ahmad was the candidate of choice for the younger residents. His opponent in the election campaign was an older man whose wish was that a German flag be hoisted on the association’s flagpole. After Ahmad was elected, he bought a flag in green and white, for nature and peace. As promised, he formed a WhatsApp group to communicate more efficiently. He visits the residents who do not want to use digital communication. It’s the compromise that counts. The summer party showed how it could work. Everyone came together. Ahmad organized it. There was a brass band, bratwurst – and kimchi. 

At the end of the day, Ahmad sits exhausted on the roof of his arbor. The sun is about to set. Although he has only walked the short round through the colony, he met a lot of people. I wonder if he is not tired sometimes from all the chatting? Ahmad laughs. “I have fourteen brothers and sisters,” he says. “In our house, there was always chatter.” After a few seconds, he adds: “Our front door didn’t even have a lock.” He takes a look over the allotment garden settlement. At the clubhouse, the green and white flag flutters lazily in the wind.           

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