Pulled pork in the pandemic.Locals just want to get to Aldi.
Photo: Benjamin Pritzkuleit

BerlinIt's a hot summer evening in the bustling Kreuzberg neighbourhood around Eisenbahnstraße not far from Lausitzer Platz. Young people are hanging out in front of Markthalle Neun, chatting away or staring off into space. They’re waiting to be let into Streetfood Thursday.

At the end of July, Markthalle Neun resurrected its trendy market event after months of corona shutdown. Käsespätzle, pulled pork and even Brazilian tapioca wraps – there’s something for every palate. But not everyone’s chuffed about the reopening.

Members of the “Kiezmarkthalle” (neighborhood market) residents' group wait outside, shaking their heads in unison. “It cannot be that people from all over the world come to a residential area and increase the risk of corona infection in the neighbourhood,” Arif Büyük fumes.

For his fellow campaigner Stefanie Köhne, the way the market hall is dealing with the pandemic – at a time when everyone is talking about a second wave – is inadequate. The limited, overpriced offerings are designed for tourists, Köhne says. Not only does the concept exclude locals, it exposes them to a heightened risk of infection.

“Markthalle Neun must finally become a neighbourhood market hall with a focus on the health, safety and needs of local residents,” she demands.

Another local from the neighbourhood is Monika Zint. The 80-year-old has also joined the protest. As someone who belongs to a high-risk group, she’s worried about her own health and that of other older people in the area.

Right now, she can only visit the Aldi supermarket tucked away in one corner of the hall in the morning.

“The rest of the time it’s too crowded, too confusing,” she complains. She hates that locals are only allowed to jump the line at events like Streetfood Thursday they publicly out themselves as Aldi shoppers.

Florian, Nicolas and Bernd would rather have a drugstore

“Not everyone dares to do that,” she says, annoyed that the market operators have provided no information on how locals who want to shop there should deal with the situation.

Talking to the protesters, the word “Aldi” comes up again and again. The discount supermarket has been the focus of conflict between residents and Markthalle Neun for years.

Kiezmarkthalle has been fighting for the store to remain in the hall. The Aldi and a neaby Lidl are the only affordable shops in a district of 20,000 people. For the people running Markthalle Neun - Florian Niedermeier, Nicolas Driessen and Bernd Maier - Aldi is incompatible with their ecological concept. They’d rather have a drugstore.

In March of last year, Kiezmarkthalle collected more than 5,000 signatures in a petition in support of Aldi staying in the hall. They also appealed to Kreuzberg’s district mayor Monika Herrmann (Greens), who then sought dialogue in the form of public hearings.

We’re dead weight here.

Arif Büyük

In the summer, the market operators announced that Aldi would remain for the time being. For the residents' group, it’s a fragile peace: “Aldi’s contract can be terminated on a monthly basis. The problem hasn’t gone away," says Stefanie Köhne, referring to a statement made by a member of the Markthalle Neun team at a discussion.

But what about the allegations that Markthalle Neun is being negligent when it comes to the health of local shoppers? “We've given a lot of thought to how we could prepare the market for reopening,” said street food manager Olivier Witzkewitz on Thursday evening.

Starting at 5pm, up to 300 people can be let in, with 50 slots reserved for Aldi customers. Security staff must “proactively” ask visitors where they are going: to Aldi or to the street food market. Only as many visitors are let in as those that leave. Visitors' contact details are systematically recorded.

Masks are be compulsory in the aisles and during the entire stay, except while eating of course, Witzkewitz says.

Hygiene concept criticised

Looking around the market, it looks like people are sticking to the rules. The people in the queue are kept apart by floor markings. The security guards oversee the registration of the guests. Inside most of them wear a mask.

But there’s no “proactive” asking whether customers want to go to Aldi.  How do you keep track of who wants to go to Aldi and who wants to go to the market, or possibly both? “We are taking many measures against corona,” but in the end, it’s also each individual customer’s responsibility, Witzkewitz says.

The spaciousness of the hall is striking. Lea Lagit, Markthalle Neun’s press and communications officer, explains that 70 per cent of moveable stands have been removed in order to create more space and ensure sales for the vendors. After all, the hall also has an obligation to the market vendors.

But what about the locals and their concerns about attracting tourists who might be infected?

“We’re a market and not an event,” Lagit says, adding that the accusation that people are coming from all over the world is not true: “People don’t come to Berlin because of the food market.”

This is certainly true, but Markthalle Neun nonetheless appears to attract a lot of visitors. After Streetfood Thursday is over, people hang out around the market, thronging the sidewalks.

Kiezmarkthalle's accusations about Streetfood Thursday's non-compliance with corona measures appear wrong. The current frustrations have more likely grown from the smouldering Aldi conflict, which has hardened the fronts.

For Arif Büyük, the issues are related. He sees the same spirit at work when it comes to getting the discount supermarket out of the hall: “Just as they’re not taking the fears of gentrification seriously, they’re also not taking the health of residents seriously. We’re dead weight here.”