Nikolaus Driessen’s eyes sparkle when he talks about his venture. At the café in the old covered market in Kreuzberg (Markthalle IX) you can see he’s at home. Merchants come by and offer him little things: a chocolate muffin and a green drink that looks as if it came right out of a Dr Seuss story, but turns out to be a herb smoothie (don’t try it). Around us a subdued market life: three elderly Turkish gentlemen (“they’re here, at the same place every day”), coffee at the good old German Wurst stall (“that’s Inge and she’s been here for at least 20 years), the bakery (“best cakes in town”) and playing children in a small playground.
“I live across the street and had always wondered about this empty building. Berlin had decided to sell all of its old empty covered markets, which were no longer needed as they had been replaced by cheap supermarkets”, explains Nikolaus. Indeed, the cheap supermarkets are in the hall, too, under the same roof. “It’s a paradox. These are the places that are responsible for people’s poverty. The supermarket here employs – what? – Maybe 5 people. And look around you, there are at least 100 people working in the market. Yet poor people are forced to shop in the cheap place that makes them poor”.
In 2009 Nikolaus contacted the city administration to find a way to use the old market. “It was very clear from the beginning, that we could not compete with the big ones in the business, who could pay a lot more to the city than we could to buy it. Then little by little, resistance in the neighbourhood grew. People wanted a concept that could pay tribute to the place and its 120-year-old history. The city fixed the price and looked for the best concept. And that is how we won. What was it? Keep as much as possible of what was in here and gradually add uses. We focused more on the process than the final product”.
There were 14 similar covered markets in Berlin at the end of the 19th century. It was only a decade after Berlin became the capital of the new empire (1871) and when the population had passed 2 million inhabitants, that the planning department decided that the dense neighbourhoods of the growing city needed retail. Covered markets were erected close to existing street markets in the midst of residential areas to cover precisely that need. They did not survive long. Already before World War I one by one they closed down under the competition of the new trend – the department store. Today only 3 of these halls survive while one was rebuilt after the World War II destruction.
For the time being Markthalle IX still houses the aforementioned supermarket and a chemist’s, but its core is the food market that takes place here twice a week (Friday and Saturday). “We want people to come from other neighbourhoods because what is offered here is special”, explains Nikolaus. “It is not the stuff you can find in the cheap supermarket and of course it is more expensive. At first we had some local Turkish merchants, but they did not last. They expected fast and high turnover – and this could not be reached. It has to grow little by little. But most professionals that came here a year ago when we opened are still here”.
And of course there are special events both on market days and on weekdays when the space is quiet. “There is a special cooperation with Slow Food to talk about good food and about food politics – but especially to taste it.” The next event will present Austrian wines on Friday 8th/Saturday 9th June and then again the patisserie day ‘Naschmarkt Berlin’ 17th June.