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article imageMisery On Main Street - Europe's Desolate Drugs Scene

By Stefan Rychlak     Jul 26, 2001 in Technology
HAMBURG (dpa) - In the centre of downtown Hamburg, one of the richest cities in Europe, is a twilight world of drug-induced misery.

It lies just a few steps from the German port city's train station in the St.Georg district where drug dealers peddle their wares alongside prostitutes plying for trade.

Berlin, Zurich or Amsterdam have similar problems but experts are agreed that the streets here are meaner than in any other cities since the problems in the "St Georg Szene", as the Hamburgers call this turf, are more concentrated.

"We have more than a thousand addicts and several hundred prostitutes and call boys," said police chief Torsten Seeland from the Steindamm station at the centre of the district.

Hamburg's big problem area used to be the world famous St. Pauli red light district but sleazy St. Georg puts the Reeperbahn in the shade.

Young girls lure their customers outside the corner supermarket here while addicts crouch behind cars to shoot up heroine in broad daylight.

For the past two years now the market has been flooded with crack- cocaine, a type of drug derived from ordinary cocaine hydrochloride by heating it in baking soda until the water evaporates. The cracking sound the drug makes when being heated is what gives it the name.

Crack-cocaine is currently the most fashionable drug on the streets of St. Georg and is steadily supplanting heroin in the abuse statistics. It also makes more work for the police. "Heroin and similar drugs tend to calm people down whereas Crack gets them more worked up," said Manfred Rabes, head of Lower Saxony state's addiction centre. The expert for drug abuse worked in Hamburg for many years and together with colleagues he has established a network of European addiction centres.

Crack tends to make consumers in search of the ultimate "rush" - as the intense state being sought by users is called - more aggressive than heroin and the level of violence among users has increased in recent years.

To get nuggets of Crack many addicts, both male and female, resort to prostitution. "These days Crack nuggets are a regular form of payment on the street. St Georg has ended up with a lot of the drug problems that dog the city as a whole," said Seeland.

One of them is an empty building, number 110 on Steindamm, the main traffic artery of St. Georg district. The house hit the headlines nationally after a 19-year-old prostitute was strangled to death there following a rendezvous with a "client". The body was found after several days.

Until a few years ago the boarded-up building was the headquarters of a large health insurance company but since then the 1,000 or so rooms have remained empty. The owners repair broken windows and doors from time to time but addicts still manage to find their way inside.

A walk through the corridors reveals the seamier side of the Hanseatic city. The stench is overpowering and the floors littered with faeces and vomit. The rooms are strewn with half-filled bottles of urine, used hypodermic syringes and discarded condoms.

"People who sleep here are the downest of the down and out," said 29-year-old Alexander. The young Dane reckons that around half of the "residents" here are heroin addicts or regular Crack consumers. "The rest are girls trying to kick prostitution or people who are just completely washed up."

Alexander admits to spending the night here often, having "reserved" the penthouse for himself. "No one else has managed to get the door open and I'm the only one who knows how," said "Crico" as his associates call him.

Hamburg sets aside an annual 55 million marks (around 24 million dollars) of its budget for the fight against drug abuse. Eight of the 14 rooms where addicts can legally consume drugs are located in the city. And city council drug commissioner Christina Baumeister said the situation in Hamburg has improved somewhat since the 1990s when residents complained of pavements littered with used syringes that cracked underfoot like eggshells.

In an area of just a few streets St. Georg has four counselling centres for drug addicts, two hostels for them and a project with six street workers yet the city seems to fighting a losing battle.

Pressure groups, citizens' associations and local businessmen have been complaining for years about the drug problem although some longtime residents say they have got used to the urban ills and would not want to move away. "We like it here. I don't know any of the old St. Georg folk who wants to move out," said Irena Abraham, 76, who looks out of her apartment window at the rundown Steindamm office block.
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