“Whenever I visit a new city, I try to settle in the area where you can get a little bit of everything, and not just fancy parts or something like that.”
Dirk Auer is a German journalist, currently living and working between Zagreb in Belgrade. When in Zagreb, he resides in the district and can often be found in Croatian Design Superstore, Booksa or Divas café, where he likes to spend time working. Dirk moved to Sofia in 2006 as a South Eastern Europe correspondent for various German- speaking media outlets. Since 2013 he is based in Belgrade and Zagreb. In his work he focuses on immigration, social movements and the aftermaths of the dissolution of Yugoslavia. He is a founder of balkan:biro, a network which gathers German-speaking journalists reporting from South Eastern Europe region. We fancied a chat with Dirk to hear about his various travels, a life in journalism and perception of the neighborhood, which is his home whenever in Zagreb.
Dirk Auer: About ten years ago I moved to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. I lived there for seven years. My idea at the time was that Bulgaria is an unknown place in Western Europe. When I arrived in Sofia, I wasn’t able to read anything in that country (meaning cyrillic letters), I didn’t know anything about the city, it was practically non-existing for me before. Living in Sofia, after a while I became more interested in ex-Yugoslavia region, so using Bulgaria as a base I travelled through Serbia, Macedonia, Kosovo and so on. Then, after seven years in Sofia, I decided to move permanently into western direction.
I’m a freelance journalist, so I’m able to write about anything that comes to my mind, anything I find interesting. Migration is one of the main themes that have interested me since I came to region. Looking up various fields, I wrote for example about Kosovar refugees deported back from Germany, especially Roma people who fled from Kosovo in the nineties. They were allowed to stay in Germany for a long time, ’cause official state policy was that Kosovo wasn’t safe enough for minorities, so time wasn’t right for them to return. However, the consequence of such a policy was that immigrant families lived in Germany for ten to fifteen years. Children were born there, too.
When Kosovo became an independent state, German government decided to deport these people back. Unfortunately, now you can meet young people in Kosovo who never have been there before, who don’t speak Serbian, don’t speak Albanian, who only speak German and don’t have any idea what should they do there and why were they sent there in the first place. They are completely estranged. When you ask them where are they coming from, they’re telling: from Essen, from Hamburg, from Dresden… I’ve worked on this topic for a long time.
I work mostly for the radio. This medium sustains longer forms, up to one hour, so I’m able to concentrate on one story for a longer time and work on it. I mean I’m not doing so much politics. Sometimes I am, for example in the elections period and afterwards, but I’m not doing news stuff, more like background commentary thing. Recently I did for example piece 20 minutes long on the occasion of Dayton agreement’s twentieth anniversary.
It’s funny, but when I came to Zagreb for the first time, I was meeting friends in an apartment rented via Airbnb, which was situated exactly in Martićeva Street. It was practically the first place I knew in Zagreb. I’ve been here for three days and we almost didn’t leave the neighborhood. Of course, we walked up to the Upper Town and around the center, but most of the time we spent here. Then I fell in love the funny thing is that she was just living around the corner from the place we rented. So, if you ask me to compare one neighborhood to another, I don’t think I could do it, but this one is interesting enough.
It’s a mixed neighborhood. Here you have small shops and fancy shops, little art galleries and spaces alike… There are furniture shops, bakeries and small restaurants… This mixture was my first impression of the hood. I also had an impression that population was very mixed. And that’s what I like about the quarter, actually. Whenever I visit a new city, I try to settle in the area where you can get a little bit of everything, and not just fancy parts or something like that. For example, the crossing at the beginning of Martičeva is very symbolic for me. I assume not everyone is happy about Kik shop just opposite Croatian Design Superstore, and I also don’t like clothes in Kik, but I’m aware that many people need to buy their clothes there because they don’t have very much money. The existence of such a shop here, in straight center, shows the mixture of city’s population.
There is this neighborhood Kreuzberg in Berlin. Before The Wall fell, it was situated near the border. Actually, it was in the center of the city if you took it as a whole. It wasn’t very attractive, so many migrants moved in, a very large Turkish population, students moved in, artists moved in, creative people etc. It was a very lively neighborhood. The rents were very cheap and you could survive with almost no money. The hood was very leftist and everything, but it changed slowly, especially in the last few years. Nowadays it’s an attractive area, the buildings are nice, and after The Wall was demolished it became the very center.
The process of gentrification eventually started with the coming of fancy design people, which made the neighborhood attractive to some other people and rents arose like crazy. The first generation of people who made this neighborhood interesting are slowly moving out, because they can’t afford living there any more. It’s a potential danger for similar neighborhoods in other European cities.
I like working outside, but I start to work at home and then I go out when I get hungry. I used to start my daily routine at Booksa, which was a nice place to work, but lately I’ve been staying in Divas. There’s something I like about cutting off and working solely in a place full of people. Also, these are places where I don’t feel the pressure because other people are working there too, and that makes me comfortable. And when I get hungry, I switch the place again.
Local people should be included in the processes of development by all means, people who live in this neighborhood and are not necessarily connected to creative industries or activities. As far as I’m aware of the situation in other cities, it’s crucial to develop something that will not be perceived as invented only with grants from creative people. Neighbors should be asked what they want their quarter to look like.
The delicate thing is that projects related to design and creativity sometimes aren’t necessarily appreciated by ordinary people, but they are appreciated by the businesspeople. So, if the development of the neighborhood goes in a certain direction, you have to be careful not to move out local people. But the crucial difference between Berlin and Zagreb is the fact that here most people are owners of their living premises, which tends to slow gentrification down. In Paris and London almost none of the former owners live in the center anymore, it’s for business and tourists. The result is that cities are starting to all look the same.