They say paradise is a garden. For over six years now, community gardeners in the Berlin neighborhood of Neukölln have been growing a little utopia. They took over a patch of unused ground, planting the half-acre with flowers and vegetables, and sharing the harvest among their neighbors. Anyone can join in, and they do: kids from the local schools, lonely single parents, newly arrived immigrants trying to put down roots.
The garden, known as Prachttomate, which translates roughly as “prize tomato,” has become a local success story, a self-created community resource and a microcosm of one of Berlin’s most multicultural neighborhoods. The success of the garden fits in with a change in urban gardening’s image in the last decade. Once seen as a dowdy hobby for the middle-aged, city gardening now attracts all ages with its improvements for health and quality of life, a hint of civilized living in the urban jungle.
But Berlin is rapidly changing. A city once full of empty spaces is quickly filling up with people and money. Public space is at a premium, land prices are skyrocketing, and gentrification is threatening the undefined spaces where urban life can thrive. The biggest recent fight came over the future of the former Tempelhof airport, now a much-loved public park still keenly eyed by property developers and city planners. A hard-fought 2014 referendum secured the 865-acre park for dog-walkers, kite-flyers and skaters. For the moment, at least.
The steamroller of gentrification may finally be catching up with the garden.
“We’re a pacifist garden,” says one of Prachttomate’s organizers. Slugs aren’t killed here, but carefully collected in a bucket and brought to a park down the street. But as Berlin is reshaped, the gardeners face bigger and fiercer adversaries. Since 2013, land prices in the hip Neukölln neighborhood have gone from €700 per square meter to over €1,400, nearly $1,700. “There are real profits to be made here now,” says another organizer.
Ironically, the garden is now often mentioned in listings for nearby property as evidence of the neighborhood’s charm and livability. But the steamroller of gentrification may finally be catching up with the garden. The owners of part of the site want to sell their land, which includes bathtubs planted with dahlias and shopping carts used to grow potatoes, and have filed an eviction order. At the end of September, some of the beds will be ripped up, their harvest eaten for the last time. The gardeners are not taking things lying down. At the end of July, they donned tomato masks to protest at the local council meeting.
For now, the flowers grow, the tomatoes ripen, and volunteers continue with the endless task of pruning and weeding. There are film screenings and community events, one recent workshop taught locals how to make healing ointments from marigolds. A nearby riding club contributes horse manure. But there is real nervousness among the gardeners – this could be the beginning of the end.
The garden was launched in 2011, the land cleared by volunteers, helped by the loan of a dumpster from the housing nonprofit that owns part of the site. The idea of a garden immediately sprouted – neighbors came out to help from the get-go, carrying buckets of from an old water pump nearby. Seeds were donated from a foundation which works to preserve plant diversity. At-risk youngsters from local schools built the tool shed. In 2015, the garden registered a nonprofit, with membership costing €20 per year.
The praise and attention lavished on urban gardens could contribute to their downfall.
In some ways, the community gardeners are the latest chapter in Berlin’s long history of squatting, at its height in the 1970s and 1980s, when hundreds of empty buildings were occupied by idealists and dropouts. The squats have long since been cleared, but the spirit of cooperative organization lives on. The garden’s organizers emphasize, however, that their project has always been legal, with the landowners signing agreements to allow temporary use of the land.
They cite environmental studies to show that gardens make a real difference to urban health, filtering exhaust fumes and improving the microclimate. More than that, they can become a kind of fertile human ecosystem, seeded by new arrivals and unlikely hybrids. An Argentinian man built a South American clay oven in the garden. He went back to Buenos Aires two years ago, but the oven still produces delicious pizza. Every Thursday the gardeners cook for up to 60 people.
The praise and attention lavished on Prachttomate could contribute to its downfall. Once it got off the ground, the local authority began taking a closer look at the once-forgotten space, making plans to use the site for a sports center. The gardeners ask why sport should have priority over their cherished green space, which benefits young and old and allows the city to breathe. Urban gardens tend to be seen as temporary installations, they complain, easily swept aside, when they should be put on the same permanent footing as the city’s parks and community centers.
Trees’ root systems can spread as deep and wide as the tree grows above-ground, and Neukölln’s city garden has stretched deep into the local community. But root competition is a well-known natural phenomenon, where densely packed plants compete fiercely for water and nutrients.
Modern urban gardening has taken a foothold in the American city of Detroit, with activists attempting to reclaim the city’s blighted empty spaces. But while Detroit is depopulating, Berlin is booming, its population growing faster than in decades. The squatters of the 1980s were not seen as heroes at the time. But in retrospect, they helped save old housing stock from reckless redevelopment. Some day, community gardeners could be seen in the same light.
Deike Diening is a reporter with Handelsblatt’s sister publication Tagesspiegel.