KulturMarktHalle: How an abandoned supermarket is being transformed into a cultural center

A Guest Post for Omnified by Meghan Friedmann

On the corner of Kniprodestraße and Hanns-Eisler Straße, a former supermarket-turned-thrift-store sits just northwest of two of Berlin’s refugee camps and just southeast of Mühlenkiez, a community built in the late 1970s. At the end of May, the warehouse—abandoned for over a year—entered a new era with the opening of Prenzlauer Berg’s KulturMarktHalle, a neighborhood meeting point which aims to bring together people of different backgrounds.

80-year-old Ursula Sonnert said she moved into Mühlenkiez over 40 years ago. She watched the building turn from grocery store, to thrift shop, to abandoned warehouse. Just two months ago, when volunteers began cleaning it out, Sonnert witnessed the beginnings of its transformation into the KulturMarktHalle.

Sonnert, who bustled about the opening on Wednesday evening, expressed great interest in the project but also wondered how the space would develop going forward. The possibilities seem endless, and other attendees expressed many different hopes—and some uncertainties—about the future of the hall.

Anja Seugling, the project’s PR representative, helped shed light on the KulturMarktHalle’s goals and conception. Three years ago, while doing volunteer work with newly-arrived refugees, Seugling met Ludger Lemper—another one of the initiative’s main organizers—as well as a group of other individuals involved in the project.

Through their volunteering, Seugling said, this group learned two important things: “First of all, if you have contact with people, you get to know them and all of your stereotypes—all of the bad things that you may have had in mind, things that you didn’t know about religion or culture—will just go away because you have wonderful moments with those people and you really make new friends. And the second thing that we realized is it’s so hard for [refugees] to get in contact with German people, and this is so crucial for them to start their new life in Germany.”

It was with these lessons in mind, Seugling said, that Lemper noticed the abandoned building in Prenzlauer Berg. Since the building straddled two very different communities—one with residents that had lived in the area for decades and the other with migrants who had only arrived recently—it would be the perfect spot for old and new Berliners to come together, Seugling said.

Thus the idea for the KulturMarktHalle was born. Five main organizers headed the project, Seugling and Lemper among them, but almost 50 other volunteers helped when they could, Seugling said.

The team had a big task ahead of them, as they began to envision eclectic uses of the hall. They wanted the building to serve as a setting for cultural events like art exhibits and theatrical performances, but they also planned a social side to the Markthalle and collected ideas for social activities from people in the neighborhood. Seugling said the team even began a small consulting program to help refugees start their own businesses, while aiming to offer the hall as a space to host such businesses.

But the organizers ran into one major problem: getting access to the building turned out to be an arduous process, Seugling said. Determined to continue the project despite this challenge, volunteers designed and built a mobile café that doubles as a small stage, she added.

Then, two months ago, the team unexpectedly got the keys to the building. They could finally pursue their original dream.

After unofficially opening the building for one weekend and seeing many curious locals come by, KulturMarktHalle’s organizers realized that they should launch the hall as soon as possible so that community members could help create the space, Seugling said.

In preparation for the opening, three project volunteers curated work from 10 different artists for an installation called “Unter Einem Dach” (Under One Roof). Among the contributors were a number of artists from Syria, a woman from Italy, and even a man who lives in the neighborhood, Seugling said.

On opening night, the artwork drew visitors’ attention in the building’s otherwise-empty main room. Attendees gazed upon a series of haunting black-and-white photographs, a colorful painting exploring the idea of family, and a sculpture that consisted of a pile of fake, white hands laid out on the floor like an island.

In a second, smaller room pasted wall-to-wall with posters about the project, visitors lined up to purchase snacks from volunteers. On the patio outside, locals mingled amid the smoky smell of meat on the grill.

But the question lingered: how would the KulturMarktHalle develop from this point forward? While many of the opening’s attendees saw a space full of potential, some emphasized what still needed to be done in order for the project to be a success.

Golshan Fayal, who works as an integration facilitator at a nearby organization, stressed that she wants to see more refugees and migrants using the space.

Mona Kebe, whose husband helped design the mobile café, said she hopes the project becomes integrated into a community which “accepts it and uses it” rather than treats it as something alien. She added that she hopes people of different backgrounds will come forward to help the project reach its full potential.

Other attendees shared diverse and enthusiastic visions about activities the hall could host in the future. Seugling pictures German grandmothers bringing traditional cakes to the building on weekday afternoons to sell to young Berliners.

As for Sonnert, she would love to see a regular workshop where young Berliners help the older generation—herself included—with computer troubles.