The cool blue tunnel of Afrikanische Strasse U-Bahn station is embellished with enormous colour photographs: a grinning giraffe; a herd of zebras on the savannah; a pair of meerkats. The scene they set feels very far away: above ground, Afrikanisches Viertel (the “African Quarter”) is just an ordinary Berlin neighbourhood of modernist housing estates, small businesses and a relatively low-income population. Only the names of the roads – Zanzibar Street, Congo Street, Cameroon Street – seem to be playing along. There is no zoo here, and Africans make up only 6% of the population.
But beyond these contradictions, the African Quarter has become the epicentre of a passionate debate about historical memory and the city landscape. On one side are those who want the area to remain as it is; on the other, a growing number of activists and organisations calling for the neighbourhood (and some streets beyond it) to be renamed.
“This is a debate about how to handle the much-neglected history of German colonialism,” says Tahir Della, director of the Initiative of Black People in Germany NGO and an advocate of renaming. Della and others recently held a lively mock renaming ceremony in one road, creating alternative street signs of their own, and attracting signatures for a petition to get rid of the old names.
The debate has echoes of the recent controversy over Rhodes Must Fall, in which many argued that statues of Cecil Rhodes at universities from Cape Town to Oxford should be torn down due to his being a British colonialist and outspoken racist. Others claimed they should stay, citing his legacy as a generous benefactor and the need to protect free speech from those who might find it offensive.
The history of the African Quarter goes back to the late 19th century, when the animal trader Carl Hagenbeck devised a grand plan for Berlin: a permanent zoo that would exhibit both wild animals and humans. Even before it hosted the 1884-5 Berlin Conference at which European imperial powers wrangled for control of Africa, Germany had enthusiastically embraced the spirit of colonialism. […]