Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Berlin’s Thaipark has long represented the best of what informal food markets have to offer. So why does the city think it’s a problem?
Berlin’s Thaipark is the sort of place that makes people fall in love with cities.
Visit this modest, charming public garden—officially named Preussenpark—on a summer weekend and you’ll find it thronged with people enjoying the best affordable food Berlin has to offer, sold mainly from small, impromptu stalls run by Thai Berliners. Lively but calm enough, the park’s combination of good food, delicious smells, and sunlight in the long grass can be idyllic.
Now, however, Thaipark’s success is on the verge of destroying it.
Following sustained complaints from residents who live nearby, the Office for Order (yes, that’s real) cracked down in the park at the beginning of June. Officials expelled stalls that were found to be breaching green-space regulations (i.e. most of them) and scared off customers until the park became close to empty. With similar inspections planned bi-weekly, it looks like the days of Berlin’s favorite street food market are numbered, at least in its present form.
The spat highlights a central dilemma that many cities face when it comes to vibrant, informally organized public spaces. These are the kinds of places where cities can deliver on some of their much-vaunted promise of energy and character. Relatively free from the influence of big money, they feel authentic because they are small-scale and have grown organically.
Such spaces are common in some form in many cities. In Berlin, they include many nightlife venues that sprang up in derelict or underused warehouses during the period when much of the city’s ex-industrial real estate lay vacant. In London, they frequently take the form of markets, such as threatened Latin Village, which grew up around the Seven Sisters neighborhood’s Colombian community or the eclectic flea market selling everything from grilled lamb to flat-screen TVs. Even more informally, they also include public parks where particular ethnic or special interest groups gather.
People often love these spaces. But problems arise when they become too popular. Once-small informal spaces swell to a size that becomes a nuisance for people living nearby, or attracts large-scale commercial interests keen to wrestle a piece of the action. As a result, such places are increasingly regulated, becoming more orderly but often possessing notably less of their former vibrancy.
This process is understandable, but has considerable downsides. Notably, it tends to put more power in the hands of the people who are most effective at gaining the ear of the authorities. Clamping down on such spaces risks making a city seem dreary and lacking in a sense of freedom and experiment. It’s also more likely to affect somewhat marginalized groups who may not have as many opportunities or resources that allow them to congregate elsewhere.
The debate around Thaipark is an issue that the authorities may not have seen coming. Thai Berliners have been gathering in Preussenpark for picnics on warmer weekends for more than two decades. It was only gradually that these visitors started selling food as well as bringing it for themselves. Folk legend has it that non-Thai passersby smelled the food being eaten and found it so delicious that they asked picnickers to bring extra next time so they could buy it.
This charming chrysalis has nonetheless turned into something rather large. Thaipark has cropped up in countless Instagram posts and been recommended in the New York Times twice. It’s a little westward of the usual Berlin hotspots—the surrounding area feels fairly ordinary and conservative by Berlin’s standards—but it has become a fixture for visitors in the know. That means it has attracted NIMBYist gripes, such as that the vendors aren’t filing proper accounts, and some understandable concerns about noise and congestion.
Is a double standard at work? As journalist Sebastian Geisler notes in the newspaper Berliner Morgenpost, Berlin is inconsistent in the way it deals with perceived nuisances. In Görlitzer Park, for example, a drug dealing problem has spilled over into some knife attacks, but the problem remains essentially unsolved. In Preussenpark, by contrast, nothing more serious is going on than informal accounting and the smell of pad thai, but the authorities still risk cracking down so hard that nothing remains. This comparison can only go so far—the two sites are the responsibility of separate boroughs—but placed together, they do give a sense that Berlin risks harming valuable community assets without making the city meaningfully more livable.
To give credit to Berlin—and specifically the borough of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf—the authorities’ future plans could strike the right balance. This fall, the borough will start developing an alternative. Currently, the most likely idea is the construction of a small market building in a corner of the park that is farthest away from quieter residential streets. As well as easing tensions, giving the borough control of who gets to sell from the stalls could help to ensure that the merchants that remain are genuine small vendors, rather than restaurants masquerading as such.
Still, a heavily bureaucratic approach could discourage just the sort of small vendors that they hope to retain. It all sounds tidier and suggests a borough at least trying to appease conflicting interests with some grace. It remains to be seen if the place survives the “sanitizing plan” (as such proposals are called in German) as somewhere for Berlin’s Thai community to meet up and relax. The key factor in the project’s success would be meaningful consultation and co-development with the community itself, to see what they need and prevent any new facility becoming a mere corral intended simply to tidy the market away.
It would be unfair to condemn unhappy neighbors out of hand: No one asked them if they wanted a market on their doorstep. Berlin still risks losing something larger than the market itself. This is a relatively free city, where, to take an example, nude sunbathing is still considered perfectly acceptable in many popular parks. It’s a city where there are still plenty of bars and cafés that operate in a quasi-regulated grey area, creating a sense of freedom without necessarily producing mayhem or a massive tax hole.
The laid-back attitude that’s long been present at Thaipark is one reason people enjoy Berlin so much. It allows people to organize their social lives with somewhat less regimentation or official monitoring than the average European city, while still maintaining enough central control to make sure the place functions. Future plans to Thaipark should be aware of the vigilance it requires to maintain this balance, to ensure that the actual character of the city endures.