Tuesday, July 28, 2009

On the street where I live

Them: Ah, you are studying in Bonn for the year. So, where do you live?
Me: Uh, I live in Tennenbusch…near the Mitte tram stop.
Them: Tennenbusch (prolonged pause possibly with a nervous smile). This neighborhood…
Me: No, it’s really not bad at all.
Them: Yes of course, but you are American and this is maybe not a very difficult place to you.
Me: No, I don’t really think it’s rough. It maybe has a bad reputation, but it’s safe.
Them: Yes, well, you are American. Such places such as Detroit are normal.
Me: Detroit isn’t all bad. There are some neighborhoods to avoid…
Them: Yes, but you might be shot.

It’s become a common exchange. As I have stated repeatedly to various acquaintances, I live in Tennenbusch, a neighborhood just north of Downtown Bonn. Saying Bonn has a “Downtown” is a little aggrandizing. It has a quaint pedestrian shopping district where Beethoven’s glowering statue holds court along with a Medieval gate that had to be moved a block from the center for causing traffic jams. Many of the businesses splay out from this center.

South of the city center is a cluster of large office buildings that border on skyscraper-hood that include DHL’s regional office, Deutsche-Welle (the BBC of Germany), and T-Mobil’s headquarters. Bonn’s white-collar job opportunities come from it’s days as the campital. Also south of town is the United Nations campus that still functions as the UN’s base in Germany and Central Europe. If you want a perspective on Bonn as a capital, that heady time between 1949 and 1989 when a quiet university town was transformed into a reluctant world power, click here.

The swank businesses don’t make it to the north. Up here we have governmental housing and cheap apartments. The latter explains my presence; the former explains the bad reputation. In recent decades the cheap housing passed from German to immigrant hands. On the tram platform it is just as likely I will be waiting with a dark-haired woman with a headscarf, as I am to be waiting with a blond-haired German student.

Tennenbusch is populated by many first generation immigrant families that are ethnically Turkish. There is also a solid North African population, Lebanese population, and Syrian population. Most of my neighbors are working class with jobs in construction, maintenance, and manufacturing. Basically Tennenbusch is a first definition ghetto with ethic subsections and ethnic grocery stores.

There are some shady characters hanging around, as you would find in any lower-income neighborhood. When I walk through a strip-mall that surrounds my grocery store, I often pass through standing knots of young Turkish-German thugs. I’m fascinated by Tennenbusch’s version of the back-alley bruiser, the teenage gangster. They wear skinny-boy jeans, and jackets studded with rhinestones. Carefully gelled, curly mullets are smushed down with paisley trucker hats and fanny packs loop their waists. Sometimes the hair gets even greasier and the sides are shaved, leaving a mull-hawk limply cascading over the popped Polo collar.

Usually you can find a cluster of Tennen-punks behind the “Play Stop,” a small casino on the corner that decided to decorate with the same carpet as Golden Lanes Bowling Alley. The young clientele blow a few Euro then stand around giddily smoking each other’s cigarettes and are sometimes seen to be little extra giddy when there’s a whiff of marijuana in the air. They’ve never bothered me. In fact, they seem completely harmless, with a swaggering façade of misappropriated masculinity and little real angst to back it up.

Maybe these lanky thugs give the neighborhood its unruly reputation. Middle-aged German citizens venture North and are confronted with pseudo-gangs of young men who are bigger push-overs than your average Shark or Jet. But they may seem a little intimidating to this older German explorer as they spout slangy German and indecipherable Turkish.

It’s one of my dearest wishes to pluck one of them from Tennenbusch and drop him on the the South Side of Chicago or Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati. I think they could use a little fashion advice and street cred and I am acutely aware I’m as nerdy and un-thuggish as they come.

I would then drop a young gangster from one of a rough American neighborhoods in Tennenbusch. He would rule the streets within days of arrival. The German visitor to the U.S. would be quickly humbled, proving that all transplanted species don’t become epidemically invasive. We can’t all be kudzu.

But then I wonder how much these greasy adolescents really affect the reputation of the neighborhood, and how much that reputation is affected by the women in headscarves. As you may or may not know, Europe is struggling with its growing Muslim population. As countries like France, Germany, and Italy grow wealthier, their populations shrink and natively born citizens are reluctant to take blue-collar jobs. Millions of Turkish citizens moved to Germany as guest workers and have established families in the land of pretzels and castles.

But, they are not always welcome. I have spoken with many Germans who worry that new immigrants are not German. They refuse to learn the language, will take over the government, and soon there will be no more jobs for Germans. Does this sound familiar? It’s been resonating throughout American history.

First the Quakers troubled the young American identity, later the Germans and Poles, then the Irish, and most recently Hispanic immigrants. Each time we worry that English well evaporate, that Democratic ideals will disappear, and we, the people descended from immigrants and who have forgotten this fact, will find ourselves oppressed in our own country.

But there’s an issue beyond cultural preservation that complicates the German mindset when immigrants cross the border to work. There is such a thing as an ethnic German. If you wanted me to get specific, I could tell you I am a German-Scots-Irish-English-French-Belgian-Cherokee. First you would nod with understanding when I tell you I needed a lot of orthodontic work. Then you would nod with understanding when I simply told you I am American. The first was a list of my particular ethnic cocktail. The second is my national identity. Being “American” carries no assumption about your ancestors’ languages or their favorite cuisine.

Being German, French, or Italian theoretically says something both about your ethic and nationalistic affiliation. There are no immigration laws for becoming a naturalized German citizen. If you are of Turkish descent and your family has been living in Germany for three generations, you are still Turkish, not German. You are treated like an outsider, and you self-identify as an outsider.

Nationalistic pride goes beyond xenophobia. It’s culturally entrenched in the identity of every European country. 150 years ago the continent was divided in the British Empire, the Prussian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, and the French Territories. These were multi-national bodies that didn’t care what language you spoke or the history of your region. Then revolutions started bubbling. Italian speakers shared a language and identity that was distinct from their French and Austrian overlords. They started a campaign to bring all ethnic Italians under one ruler. Serbian Nationalists kicked off the First World War in a move to separate Serbia from the Austro-Hungarians. Czechoslovakia was dissolved because the Slovaks wanted to govern themselves without cooperating with ethnic Czechs. National identity and ethnicity is part of the fabric of Europe. Now you have immigrants bending the rules of identity. Poles are moving to Ireland, and Turks are in Germany and no one is quite sure how to deal with it.

I’ve heard veiled - and even direct – assertions that the immigrant populations is stupider or lazier than their ethnically German counterparts. I don’t want to make the blanket accusation that the “Germans are all racist,” but it really is hard for me to hold myself back from a speech on the equality of human intelligence. There are stupid people, and lazy people, and brilliant people in every population. These immigrants are hardly intellectual lightweights. Many have learned German through after-work programs or by listening to their kids. They came here to work, not for a handout.

So, back to Tennenbusch. This has been my home for the last year. I live in a subsidized student dormitory that overlooks the bustling streets of Tennenbusch. I troop to and from work each day with an ethnic mix that would look normal on a tram in New York or Chicago, but worries many Germans. My message is one of relaxation. Just ease back. These new immigrants are necessary to keep Germany’s economic machine churning. German culture will survive. Everyone loves good beer, well-made cars, and efficient train networks. The culture may evolve in the process. Good. You’ve already adopted American pop-music from the 1980s, and readily incorporated the kebab into late night binges. I know you hate to hear it, Germany, but the U.S. might have some decent examples for how to deal and how to adapt.

So, yes, slightly worried German conversation partner, I live in Tennenbusch. Where the streets are clean, the rent is cheap, and the children are above average (even if they go through a greasy-Guido phase).

A link to an NPR story about German minorities that tackles some of these issues.


Charity said...

You have spoken (typed, posted, blogged?) words that have been on my mind nearly my entire trip in Germany. Even in college towns like Marburg, the perceived differences between Turkish and German students was ridiculous. Even in my diverse research group the Turkish members were treated differently at times.

As for the German "gangs", I always expected them to break out into Greased Lightening or the Jet song at any random moment.

Matt said...

Yeah, this post has been peculating for a while. On one hand it's so strange to deal with some racist suggestions on the other its fascinating to experience another culture that feel threatened by the "other." It's also fun to make light of my local T-birds.

Tim said...

Well said, Matt. It's interesting to hear that you consider American race relations as progressive at times, when most people in this country would have you believe otherwise.

We do need to adopt the kabob as a late night snack, though. The new Fourthmeal.