THE first-time visitor to the Kreuzberg neighborhood of West Berlin is in for a pleasant surprise. If he has been reading the local papers, he's probably prepared for the German equivalent of Watts or Harlem. What he finds instead is a vibrant corner of the city that's likely to impress him with its color and charm.
An ambitious urban renewal drive steered by STERN, the Company for Careful Urban Renewal, is helping to ensure that such impressions counteract Kreuzberg's infamous reputation (see accompanying article).
In a nutshell, STERN's functions amount to ``rescuing the broken city.''
The organization's mandate is enshrined in the ``Twelve Principles of Careful Urban Renewal,'' formally adopted by the West Berlin Senate in 1983. The ``Twelve Principles'' set forth a gradual plan for urban revitalization.
``Repair should always come before modernization; modernization before demolition and reconstruction,'' says STERN architect Axel Volkmann. ``We renovated each house at a standard that met the wishes and ability of the tenants,'' he explains.
If the tenants were able and willing to pay the rent increase that accompanies modernization, then central heating, private baths, and double-pane windows were installed.
If not, repairs were simply made to restore fa,cades and put stairs, roofs, cellars, pipes, and utility lines in working order.
The Turkish tenants in Aly Beyazdag's house on Dresdnerplatz wanted to keep a limit on rent increases. They elected to forgo central heating and stick with the cheap but effective coal-burning stoves they already had.
But they requested - and got - modernized bathrooms with a special feature.
``At first they wanted to put the bath and toilet in one room,'' explains Mr. Beyazdag, ``but some of us are very religious, and we asked for separate facilities, as it says in the Koran.''
Tenants also had a self-help option.
If they performed some of the necessary work themselves, the landlord was obligated to give a rebate on future rent increases. The tenants in architect Volkmann's house, for example, get together every Saturday to repaint sections of the fa,cade.
Particularly innovative was the manner in which tenant wishes were ascertained. Planners went from house to house, meeting first with residents and tenant advocacy groups, and later with landlords and construction firms.
On their ``house calls,'' reports Mr. Volkmann, the staff found apartments in which families were living three or four people to a room. Coal-burning stoves were in disrepair, pipes rusted through. Tenants shared the use of primitive toilets in stairwells or even in courtyard outhouses.
Yilmaz Arik's family of six lived in a tiny apartment in one such house. ``All of the windows were broken,'' he reports, ``and the ceilings had fallen in. We even had rats!''
Now, he says happily, the family has more space, warm water, a private bath, and a decent kitchen. And the rent is just $200 a month.
Displacement of families like Mr. Arik's was kept to a minimum. Some tenants remained in their apartments while they were being renovated.
Others, like the Arik family, simply moved down the street. ``Over 90 percent of the tenants were able to stay in their old neighborhoods,'' says Volkmann, ``and two-thirds of them are still in their old apartments.''
House meetings were especially important in resolving differences of opinion about the renovation of common spaces such as stairs, hallways, and courtyards.
Given the heterogeneity of Kreuzberg's population, such differences of opinion were inevitable.
Adjacent courtyards in the block where the Ariks live furnish a good example of the challenges that arose. In what were once empty lots of broken asphalt, planners envisaged green meadows linked by meandering paths that would spur a sense of community. Tenants in the neighboring houses gave their assent - at first.
The result was not what some had pictured.
A recent visit to Arik's courtyard found children playing soccer in one corner, while in another their grease-speckled fathers repaired ancient station wagons in preparation for the long drive to Turkey, an annual summer event.
The children's games and a casual attitude toward trash disposal had left the trees planted during renovation looking frail. A bald dirt patch is all that remains of the planners' meadow, which has already been replanted twice since the renovation.
In contrast, the courtyard next door is a quiet oasis of luxuriant grass and flowering bushes.
It stays that way under the watchful eye of Edith Wiedermann, a widow who has lived here 40 years. She's determined to ensure that the courtyard is seen, but not used.
Mrs. Wiedermann and her co-tenants felt that anything but a sense of community with the Turkish children and passers-by, who made use of the paths linking the courtyards.
``No one is allowed to go out there,'' says Wiedermann. ``Just think how it will start to look!''
Her neighbor, artist Pauline Disson, says, ``There's a territorial rule here - my house, my courtyard.'' If that rule is not respected, she says laughingly, ``you'll have a civil war on your hands!''
Planners learned to adapt. The paths between courtyards were removed. There will be no meadow behind the Arik family's house. And a concession has been made to the fundamental incompatibility of soccer and grass.
Even Wiedermann's meadow will be tamed - by a mowing service. The luxuriant grass is too disorderly. ``It would be so much prettier as a nice, neat English lawn,'' she says.
Observers uniformly agree that ``careful urban renewal'' has greatly improved the outlook of Kreuzberg's residents.
``There was a lot of mistrust at the beginning,'' says Volkmann, ``but over time it disappeared.''
Tenant advocacy groups report a new sense of confidence on the part of Turkish residents, in particular, who saw that it was possible to make their wishes heard.
Paradoxically, the Rev. Klaus Kliesch, a Roman Catholic priest, says that he was convinced of the change in outlook by the events of May 1, when a police search of a Kreuzberg community center and seizure of anticensus propaganda triggered a night of riots and plundering. In the former ``problem areas,'' where ex-squatters now live in legalized and renovated houses, there was less violence than elsewhere, he notes.
``The former squatters seemed to feel a sense of protectiveness about the neighborhood,'' Fr. Kliesch reports. ``They stood in front of the smaller shops and tried to stop the plundering.''
According to STERN planners, their work was economically, as well as socially, effective.
``For the amount of money it would have cost to modernize only four blocks to the `as-good-as-new' standard formerly considered appropriate, we were able to renovate whole neighborhoods,'' remarks Axel Volkmann.
But he and others worry that these gains may soon be lost because of city politics.
Rent control is due to be lifted next year, a move likely to force out the low-income tenants.
That result, some say, would not entirely displease the conservative West Berlin Senate.
District Councilman Werner Orlowsky charges that the Senate would like to see the quarter ``cleansed'' of social groups it regards as inclined toward vandalism and chaos.
``Careful urban renewal'' has fallen into disfavor precisely because it does not promote gentrification, according to Mr. Orlowsky. ``The Senate is slowly turning off the faucet,'' he explains.
Orlowsky and others claim that because of a drastic drop in funding, from about $60 million in 1985 to less than $27 million this year, Kreuzberg's building stock is now deteriorating faster than it can be renovated. That could lead to demoralization, according to some of the STERN planners of the project.
``People have developed high hopes for this quarter,'' says STERN architect Volkmann. ``It would be a pity to disappoint them.''