In front of a small storefront in Berlin’s lively Neukölln neighborhood, Yunus and Talu Tüntas are hard at work. It’s sunny and hot out, but that doesn’t seem to phase the two brothers, or their young apprentices, who are huddled over Yunus as he tightens the screws on a bike that the team are currently upcycling.
It’s the middle of a long July afternoon, the sun high and bright in the sky. On one side of Yunus and his assistants, cyclists zoom by on a bike path which is separated from the busy street by a line of parked cars. On the other, a steady stream of every kind of person from the local neighborhood—young professionals and pensioners, shop owners and day drinkers, children and their parents—walks by on the chaotic sidewalk. In the middle, tools are set out across a makeshift desk next to a bike on a repair frame. Here, amidst the urban din, a teaching oasis thrives.
“Young people are the adults of the future,” says Yunus. “we need to begin to work out the idea of environmental responsibility and awareness with them.”
For Yunus and Talu, that means working with teenagers from Neukölln, mostly low-income youth with migrant roots, on everything from bike repair to local clean energy projects. Both skilled bike mechanics, the two brothers have been helping other young people since they themselves were teenagers, slowly building their organization, the Taschengeldfirma, and integrating the environmental emphasis which has become one of its hallmarks. Much of this emphasis comes from the interests and ideas of the founders themselves.
”We are living in a world where it’s easy to believe we are not a part of nature anymore,” says Talu. “We think there is no connection but in every part of our lives we are connected to nature, and we need to work with it. As Taschengeldfirma we want to share and promote this idea, which is why we are so motivated to combine our social and educational work with environmental work.”
Journey toward environmental teaching and learning
When the Taschengeldfirma (“Taschengeld” in German is a compound word which means “pocket money,” which the teenagers earn while working on the organisation’s projects) started in 2009, the focus wasn’t necessarily on climate change or the environment. The group’s origins are in social integration projects, aimed more generally at helping young people to learn important life skills and find their way in German society. Over time, the Taschengeldfirma’s office on Flughafenstrasse in Neukölln has become a sort of meeting point (“Treffpunkt”) for a hodgepodge of social initiatives aimed at people of all ages. Talu and Yunus connect community members, young and old, to everything from language courses to housing to people who can help with navigating German civil bureaucracy.
“We help anyone who wants or needs help,” says Yunus proudly. It’s a big job, and the random nature of requests from neighbors and local community members can sometimes command an outsized share of his and Talu’s attention. Everyone in the neighborhood knows the Taschengeldfirma, and people constantly come by to ask for help with all sorts of problems. Still, the emphasis on teaching and youth remains.
In addition to Yunus and Talu’s own interests, this commitment to teaching is a big part of what initially motivated the brothers to bring an environmental focus into the Taschengeldfirma. Both brothers had a background in repairing bikes, and came up with the idea of a community bike workshop as a means of promoting environmentally-friendly transportation while sharing their repair skills with others. As it turned out, the plan came at a serendipitous time, coinciding with a major change in Berlin’s urban geography: the transformation of the old Tempelhof Airport, which is located nearby.
Situated on nearly 1,000 acres in the geographic center of the city, Tempelhof has been witness to the full scope of Berlin’s modern history, right up until the present day. The site has historical roots as one of Europe’s first passenger airports, and later as the primary location of the Berlin Airlift, which saved West Berlin from a Soviet blockade during the early Cold War. In the 1930s the Nazis built a massive terminal building which was supposed to be a grand entrance into the imperial city of Hitler’s dreams; instead, the airport became a US military base in 1945 and one of the major markers of the post-war American presence, which lasted until 1994. Today Tempelhof stands as a reminder of Germany’s complicated history and a symbol of the new pluralistic society in which Yunus and Talu were raised. In 2015, when Germany made the humanitarian decision to accept over 1 million refugees from Syria and other places affected by war and conflict, the terminal building became a temporary home for 10,000 of the new arrivals.
The end of Tempelhof’s commercial use in 2008 created a unique urban planning question for Berlin, namely around what to do with the land. It also created an opportunity for the Taschengeldfirma. After Tempelhof was converted into a park in 2010—first temporarily pending future plans for development, then permanently in a public referendum in 2014—Yunus and Talu started their first “fix your own bike” workshop in an old East German van which the brothers had acquired and set up inside the park. The workshops gained popularity, and kick-started the Taschengeldfirma’s broader focus on urban sustainability and mobility. It also connected the organization to one of the most exciting new movements in Berlin: envisioning the re-use of a massive plot of land in the middle of the city, one with immense significance as part of Berlin’s tumultuous past, now wrapped up in its multicultural, idealistic, grassroots-driven present.
“In the beginning we were part of a monthly exhibit in Tempelhof,” explains Talu. “The goal was to show lots of different projects from the community. We had a food kiosk and our first bike workshop. We didn’t know what to expect, but people were really interested in the workshops and as more people participated, we saw that this was something which really fit with the new identity of Tempelhof. Bikes are the main means of transport inside the park, down the old runways for example. But there was no opportunity to repair bikes or for cyclists to engage with each other. So we got the idea, talked to the park management, and that’s how it all began.”
Rising from the ashes
The bike workshops, and the entire Taschengeldfirma, almost came crashing down in 2015 when the van and its contents mysteriously caught fire and were destroyed. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, but the fire threatened to derail the dreams Talu and Yunus had for the bike project and for the Tachengeldfirma’s future as one of the promising social initiatives taking place inside Tempelhof. “We thought it was the end,” Yunus says matter-of-factly—until the scale of the bike project’s impact truly became clear.
“While we were cleaning up this mess, so many people, supporters, came by and helped—with financial donations, by donating bike tools…. anything they could really. Until then we thought this was just a local neighborhood project. But we were getting donations and support coming from all over Berlin. We realised pretty fast: okay, we cannot stop and walk away from our responsibility of being here. We need to keep on going.”
Re-situated inside an old shipping container which the organisation also received as a donation following the fire, the Taschengeldfirma launched a new Tempelhof bike workshop in 2016, teaming up with a group of students from Berlin Technical University to construct a small wind turbine to power the shipping container. Today the windmill is complemented by an array of solar panels on the roof; together, the two sources of clean energy provide more than enough electricity for the bike workshop and container. There is talk of eventually wanting to expand the project further and export some of the energy to the local neighborhood. For now, there is an outlet on the outside of the container where anyone can come and charge their devices with clean energy produced on the spot.
Energy, education, social integration, community—these are the values which Talu and Yunus hope to promote through the Taschengeldfirma, by teaching youth and bringing people of all ages together around a common theme. In doing so, Talu sees respect for the environment as something that can fulfill the organization’s broader mission of helping to bridge social and cultural barriers.
“The natural world is something we all share. Environmental issues are a way for us to engage people who wouldn’t have necessarily been interested in our social mission; at the same time, it’s a way for us to help the teenagers we work with to respect nature and see the possibilities for themselves in the industries of the future. We are all responsible for nature, and I think it’s a great example of something we can all work on together.”
Plans for the future
The Tüntas brothers are busy. In the last year they have upcycled nearly 100 bikes, converted the office on Flughafenstrasse into a second workshop, designed and built an e-cargo bike, added the solar panels on top of the Tempelhof shipping container, and continued to work on a range of additional side projects, such as a wind-powered open air cinema. In each of these projects, a dedicated group of teenagers from the surrounding neighborhood have been involved as apprentices and active participants. This month, Talu and a few friends of the Taschengeldfirma finished putting together a small art exhibition inside the shipping container, featuring a rap video that the teenagers made with the help of some professional filmmakers and musicians.
Each of these projects has an educational and community-driven component, but they are also about further developing the organization and its possibilities going forward. The bikes are now an entirely self-financing project where each bike sold, rented, or repaired helps to support the social activities of Taschengeldfirma. Talu sees the bike project and general evolution of the organization as an opportunity to further connect its neighborhood role with various new business and cultural activities around renewable energy, tourism, and urban mobility. Recently the Taschengeldfirma has begun partnering with local bike tour guides, who rent out the upcycled bikes for tours around Berlin. The tours have also become an opportunity to showcase the organization and inspire visitors who may not have learned about such a project otherwise.
“Our idea is to keep looking for how we can work in a more commercial way — and then re-invest that money in the Taschengeldfirma,” he explains. “It’s a circular process. At the same time as we generate new resources for ourselves, we will also create opportunities for the young people we are training here to be a part of those enterprises.”
The activities of the Taschengeldfirma show how society’s challenges around climate change and the environment can ultimately be an opportunity—not just for new industries and green jobs, but at a more fundamental level, for the way we engage with our neighbors and become involved in our communities. Climate change is real and it is serious and it is happening right now. But our response is also unfolding in real-time. That alone creates the space not only for local community action but also for finding new intersections between environmental issues and other pressing challenges in society.
The connection between social inclusion and environmental responsibility promoted by Yunus and Talu is just one of many examples of how the climate crisis can help us all come together in bigger ways to address some of these challenges and make a difference in the world. Given the scale of climate change, bikes may seem like a small drop in the ocean, but at a global level, the European Cyclists’ Federation estimates that increasing the share of urban transportation with bikes and e-bikes by as little as 8 percent could result in a 10 percent drop in the world’s CO2 emissions by the year 2050. Seen in this light, community-driven efforts to encourage cycling from groups like the Taschengeldfirma start to look pretty important.
On Flughafenstrasse in Berlin Neukölln, each year the repair and re-use of upcycled bicycles, along with the Taschengeldfirma’s many other social and environmental projects, helps to engage and support dozens of talented young people who may have otherwise fallen through the cracks. Looking ahead, Talu preaches the value of continuing to think locally.
“In German we have an expression: Der steter Tropfen höhlt den Stein. It means, ‘The constant drop wears down the stone.’ But what it really means is that small victories are important. There is a lot of potential in the little things. They build momentum and they often last for longer. I hope people will continue to see the value in taking initiative at a local, neighborhood scale—because the impacts and the effect on people are real.”