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The Mystery of Wedding’s Kebab Street

Countless döner kebab shops line Badstraße in Berlin’s Wedding district. The untrained eye might think they’re all the same… but a group of Angles artists went deeper to discover how each shop plays a key role within this rich community.

 

Text by Austin Davis, illustrations by Annalisa Leinbach, photography by Christiane Okamoto.

The third time I walked into Slzkern’s kebab shop’ on Badstraße, he was convinced I was a lawyer.

I’d already been sitting in a corner booth for about a half an hour with his friend Ali, who moonlights for free behind the counter a few times a week, when Slzkern noticed I was back.

“You lied to me,” he said, pulling a crumpled envelope out of his pocket.

I’d met Slzkern about a month before when I visited on a busy Saturday afternoon to ask about his restaurant, Kebab Haus. We didn’t have the chance to get far thanks to an uninterrupted parade of people walking in off the street, so I had him write out his name in my notebook for later. It was just for spelling’s sake, but Slzkern was convinced I’d had him sign a contract of some sort. A few days later, he started getting bills in the mail.

Now I was back—and he was furious. “This can’t be a coincidence,” he said, gesturing to the piece of paper.

Apparently, Kebab Haus’s permits were out of date.

I protested that I had merely been looking into the endless line of kebab shops on Badstraße. My motive was innocent enough: to learn why there were so many, on this particular street, in this particular corner of Wedding, Berlin.

Ali thought my interest in Badstraße’s kebab shops was pointless. There’s nothing to say about Kebab Haus or the many other döner shops on the street, he chimed in, stirring a Turkish tea with milk. “People come in, people go. They eat döner, they drink, they hang out,” he said. “Nothing much changes out this way.”

But throughout centuries of war, reconstruction and immigration, like a patchwork, Badstraße has developed into a compelling microcosm of the cultures and peoples that make up Berlin today. And Kebab Haus, I thought, seemed an interesting vantage point from which to view the changing city.

Slzkern, however, didn’t exactly share my sentiments. But with some persistence, he did humour my curiosity about about how the area had changed in the 12 years since he started working behind the lunch counter at Kebab Haus.

Photography by Christiane Okamoto

It’s a running joke in Berlin that Wedding has been “up-and-coming” for the better part of 20 years. The expat invasion that’s flooded the city’s southeastern districts of Kreuzberg, Neukölln and Friedrichshain has only slowly seeped into this northeastern borough.

Wedding had never been meant for settlement. City documents first cited it in the 13th Century, but only as a deserted swath of land on the outskirts of Mitte, known for its mill and the Panke canal that ran through it.

But beginning in the 18th Century, the area underwent rapid settlement. Berlin was expanding, and Wedding was cultivated to provide living space for a swelling city. Row houses were built along the perimeters of neat public squares in the north, while its southernmost district became a spa retreat for the city’s elite.

The Gesundbrunnen, the spring that gave its name to the posh district, didn’t freeze over in the winter, prompting the myth that it held healing properties. Soon the waters came to service more than 1000 medicinal baths along the district’s main thoroughfare. This is where Badstraße, or “Bath Street”, got its name.

Taverns, casinos and brothels soon popped up in tandem to the bathhouses. Gesundbrunnen, once a spa playground for the rich, sprung into an everyman’s oasis. Working-class people from all over began moving in by the droves year on year. From a humble 17,000 in 1867, Wedding’s population topped 240,000 by 1910.

By Annelisa Leinbach

It wasn’t until a century later, after two World Wars had left Berlin in ruins, that families like Ali’s and Slzkern’s started moving to Wedding. The city was in need of skilled labourers to help rebuild, and Turkish and Arab migrants fit the bill. Originally dubbed “guest workers,” these young, able-bodied men began arriving in the 1960s, eventually followed by their families. Fortified from the rest of post-war West Berlin by the Wall, a persistent subculture took root.

Today, some 49 percent of Wedding’s residents are either immigrants or their descendants.

There are no advertisements for luxury mineral baths down Badstraße these days. Instead of kaffee und kuchen its innumerable street cafés serve börek and köfte.

“People like to eat what makes them feel at home,” said Katharina, an immigrant from Portugal who I met at Kebab Haus. After a beer and a couple cigarettes, I’d finally managed to convince Slzkern of my innocence in his shop’s financial woes and he offered me a seat at the table outside with his Monday night crew.

This included Katharina, whose parents had granted her a rare night off from watching her two young children. At 19 years old in Berlin without responsibilities for the night, I’d have probably headed over to Friedrichshain or Neukölln and done something that’d leave me bedridden for most of the following day. If anyone needed such a night, it was Katharina, who’d been cooped up inside with two babies younger than two years old all day long for most of the past week.

Instead, she spent the night outside with me, Slzkern and the others drinking Berliner Kindl and smoking L&Ms.

She shook her purple hair out of her face with a quick jerk of her head and lit her next cigarette.

By Annelisa Leinbach

“Döner shops play into it here, that feeling of home, but it’s for everyone as well,” she said. “It’s cheap, it’s fresh—at least most of the time—and it’s fast.” She took a drag. “Why else do you think every shop here serves döner?”

Katharina pointed down the street and, as if reading from a book of local history, recalled when the older shops had moved in, and when each new shop had opened its doors. Among these was Illik Ekmirk, a family-run operation targeting the Turkish diaspora with specialties like grilled sardines, sausages stuffed with sage and cardamom and charred banana peppers. I had already made a visit about a month before meeting Katharina.

“Its multicultural, there’s a ton of foreigners here,” owner Kuksal had cited as the reason his shop had managed to last 40 years on Badstraße. Well, that and the fact they make some damn good sardines.

“Now when Species opened a few years ago, everybody went crazy,” Katharina continued. “There must have been at least 2,000 people there from all over Wedding on the first day.”

While shops like Illik Ekmirk don’t deviate from what they do best and have been on the street for generations, Species conceived a more adventurous business model when it moved in four years ago.

“There’s enough döner places here in Badstraße,” Kadakal, Species’s manager and co-founder, told me when I went in to learn more. “Anyone can sell a döner, but what’s something that a teenager or a young man is going to want?”

His solution: the “Specie”—a bed of french fries with all the döner fixings piled on top.

It became a quick hit with Badstraße’s younger crowd, said Kadakal. He gestured to tables filled with teens perusing a smartphone in one hand and stabbing a fork at a plate of loaded fries with the other.

“My ex used to eat there every day,” Katharina recalled. But she’d grown tired of the shop’s flat screens, polished wood and exposed brick after a while. She frequents Kebab Haus now more than any other place else on the street.

“The meat is all the same – it’s the sauce that makes it special,” Slzkern explained during one of my visits, as to what draws people back. He pinballed between carving meat off the lamb and beef spit, toasting sesame bread and cutting vegetables, all the while chatting in Turkish with patrons at the counter and smiling at the kids sprinting in and out of the one-room shop.

But sitting outside with Slzkern, Katharina, Ali and the others that night at Kebab Haus talking, drinking beer, and smoking, it became obvious that while the shop’s sauce might make its döner special, it wasn’t necessarily the only thing that brought people back.

I finished my beer and said my goodbyes. “Don’t spell my name wrong,” Ali teased as I was walking out the door. I shook Katharina’s hand and gave Slzkern a pat on the back before I turned to walk down the Panke canal back home.

“I’ll see you in court!” he called as I walked away.

Imren restaurant, Wedding, Berlin; by Annalisa Leinbach