In Berlin, Cars Burn as Neighborhoods Change

BERLIN -- Fikret Arik had owned his BMW for less than two years when he watched it go up in flames last October in the courtyard of his apartment building.

Vehicle damages are Arik's bread and butter - he runs a business that assesses losses for clients making insurance claims on their cars.

But the blaze that claimed his BMW was no accident. It was part of a wave of arson twisting metal and melting rubber in the streets of the German capital. Berlin saw more than 320 arson attacks on vehicles last year, double the figure from 2005, according to police. More than 40 blazes have been registered so far this year. (The attacks are plotted on a map here.)

Much of what's going on here is just wanton vandalism, but there is no doubt that many of the fires are fueled by politics - in particular, a combustible mix of left-wing extremism and neighborhood gentrification. According to the cops, political motives underlie less than half of the fires. But the political interpretation has dominated public debate over the blazes, and it makes for an interesting window on this changing city.

The fires are concentrated in hip neighborhoods in the former East Berlin and in the western district of Kreuzberg, a traditional immigrant community where Arik lives. Long celebrated for their gritty, bohemian living and squatter movements, these areas are now sprouting high-end apartment projects and boutiques. Confronted with these changes, the left-wing firebugs seem to have two aims, sociology professor Dieter Rucht said.

"One is to actually deter people from living in these neighborhoods," he said. "The other side is of a purely symbolic nature. There is a growing gap between rich and poor ... and that is something (the vandals) want to scandalize or highlight."

The fire in Arik's courtyard started in a set of trash cans next to the BMW, so it's unclear whether his car was a direct target. But Arik, a Turkish immigrant who has lived in the same neighborhood for 39 years, is not the guy to go after if you want to defend your turf against a yuppie invasion.

When we met in his office a few months after the fire, he seemed calm about the loss of his car. But he was still pained at the thought of what could have happened had the flames spread.

"There's no humanity in it," he told me quietly. "Somebody could have ... lost their life."

So far nobody has been hurt, but police seem powerless to stop the flames. Two recent arson trials ended in acquittals.

Many Berlin neighborhoods have a counterculture that coexists uneasily with trendy cafes and toy stores. Ubiquitous graffiti and empty buildings are not necessarily viewed as blight here, but as signs of creativity and opportunity. Storied squatter movements took root in these environments, starting in Kreuzberg and spreading through neighborhoods of the former East Germany after reunification.

Now, many fear that this lifestyle is under threat. Anti-gentrification activists often point to Prenzlauer Berg, a former East German neighborhood that over the course of 15 years went from a bohemian enclave to a magnet for yuppies with children.

Change is clearly afoot in Kreuzberg, too. The Lausitzer Platz area, just blocks away from a booming strip of bars and clubs, is a case in point. The neighborhood's central square still has a gritty feel, with graffiti spilling onto the walls of a church building and trash strewn around a grassless park. But the scene is overlooked by renovated apartment buildings, and there is an organic food store across the street.

"I think in 10 years Kreuzberg will be very much changed, qua people," said Aneudy Garcia, a Dominican musician who lives in the neighborhood. "Because it's becoming hip."

Against that backdrop, these neighborhoods have another source of political kindling: They are an important center for Germany's far left. Nationwide, radical left-wing groups have between 20,000 and 25,000 adherents, and close to half of them may live in Berlin, said Rucht, a professor of sociology at the Social Science Research Center Berlin. It's hard to say how many activists in the far left camp are willing to use violence, but it is probably no more than half, he told me.

The tactic of lighting cars on fire appears to have spilled over from France, where it is far more common, Rucht said. In France, the fires tend to be lit by disadvantaged suburban youths.

There seems to be some well of sympathy for the pyro-protesters here in Berlin.

Aysun Inci, 28, is a Turkish immigrant whose parents own a bakery in Kreuzberg. She told me it's not right to torch cars, but that she can understand the vandals' perspective.

"The distance between poverty and wealth keeps getting bigger," she said. "I understand the anger, somehow."

The left-wing newspaper Neues Deutschland in January printed three op-eds under the banner: "Is burning cars still a protest?"

One of the contributors, activist Michael Kronawitter, said the political left should focus on the root causes of such violence by working against inequality and toward a just society.

"Whether luxury cars on fire help or hurt that project is a question the future will answer," he wrote.

Meanwhile, Arik has switched to driving a Ford, though he said he would consider buying a BMW again. It is a mistake, he said, to assume that he is living in excess because he drives a nice car.

"That might be all I have," Arik said.