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Kiez: Small Islands in the Big City

Restaurant in Graefestraße

Restaurant in Graefestraße, the namesake street of the popular Graefekiez in Berlin-Kreuzberg.

The Berlin Kiez is a lifestyle. Every Berliner lives in their own Kiez and - so the cliché goes - never goes anywhere else again. But what exactly is a Kiez? Where does that word come from? And what kind of Kiez are there in Berlin? A short introduction for new Berliners and visitors.

Of course, every Berliner lives in Berlin, in a certain district, and in a certain part of the city. But what really counts is the neighborhood: the Kiez. It creates identity and gives its inhabitants a feeling of belonging and a home amidst the vastness and anonymity of the big city. Some neighborhoods (Kieze) have no name while others have made it into the Berlin travel guides of the world. But why do we even say Kiez?

Definition and famous Kieze

According to Wikipedia, the term "Kiez" describes an island-like living area of a manageable size. Although there are well-known and historical Kieze such as the Simon-Dach-Kiez in Friedrichshain, the Richardkiez in Neukölln, or the Wrangelkiez in Kreuzberg, every Berliner has their very own Kiez and can decide for themselves where its starts and ends.

In contrast to today, 600 years ago very few people wanted to live in a Kiez. In the Middle Ages, "Kietze" were mostly Slavic inhabited fishing settlements in northeastern Germany. The word probably comes from the Slavic "chyza", meaning hut or house. About three hundred years later, neighbourhoods where prostitution was particularly common were called "Kieze". In modern-day Hamburg, people still go "to the Kiez" when they visit the red light district of the Reeperbahn. In the Berlin of the 1930s, the name "Kiez" referred to communist districts.

The Kiez as a status symbol

Today, Berlin is a mixture of all of the things mentioned above and so much more: every street is open for everything. Maybe that's the reason why every district of Berlin can now be called a Kiez. However, researchers from Humboldt University have found out that the real estate and tourism industries in particular have shaped the term "Kiez" after the German reunification. Tourists wanted to get to know the most trendy neighborhoods of the city while real estate agents presented numerous areas as historical Kieze to new Berliners.

These days, newcomers to Berlin often feel and affinity to a certain Kiez and buy or rent there as a sort of status symbol. In fact, real estate agents were the ones who established some neighbourhoods as Kieze in the first place, making these areas more attractive and profitable for those in search of "authenticity". Thus, the Kiez transformed from a fishermen's settlement in northeastern Germany into a marketing tool in the process of gentrification in Berlin. For most people, however, Kiez still means first and foremost: home.

Source: BerlinOnline/Hanne Bohmhammel/Wikipedia

Last edited: 21 January 2022