Berlin’s Neighborhoods: Past and Future

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By Andrew Curry

How many lives can one city have? Quite a few if the city is Berlin.

Royal capital, imperial seat, economic powerhouse, center of enlightenment … before becoming a synonym for decadence in the 1920s and ’30s, then a Nazi stronghold. Bombed, invaded, occupied in World War II. Suddenly divided in 1949, exuberantly reunited in 1989, and now again the capital of a unified Germany.

This year marks a quarter century since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Berlin continues to boom amid the reminders of its extraordinary past—a complex, sometimes dark, history it is intent on neither forgetting nor denying.

I was a boy the first time I saw the Wall, a 96-mile barrier erected in the 1960s by the Communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) to isolate non-Communist West Berlin and keep GDR residents from defecting.

Visitors peer through a remnant of the Berlin Wall, 25 years after its fall. (Photograph by Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson)
Visitors peer through a remnant of the Berlin Wall, 25 years after its fall. (Photograph by Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson)

My family lived in Poland intermittently in the 1980s while my professor mother researched its political system. Periodically we’d make the long drive to West Berlin for provisions. Each time that the Wall, a ribbon of reinforced concrete topped with barbed wire, would come into view, my body would tense. We’d join the lines of waiting cars at closely guarded Checkpoint Charlie, the main crossing point for Americans. Stone-faced guards in grayish uniforms would peer into our car, study our faces. The tension was palpable.

When they waved us through, I’d watch in awe as the bright colors and lights on the Western side rushed toward us—neon signs on shop-lined Kurfürstendamm, supermarkets full of produce, streets filled with traffic—all a vivid contrast to the monotone, slow-moving cityscapes of Poland and East Germany. Those memories made West Berlin synonymous with sophistication, excitement, and abundance.

In 2005, I moved to the city, in part for the avant-garde art and music scene but also to live in a place where centuries of history were informing a new urban vision. I learned German, then met, and married, an American opera singer who’d been compelled by Germany’s passion for classical music to move there.

Folks like us, flocking here from other parts of Germany and from around the world, have helped cement Berlin’s reputation as a capital of creative ferment. We’re even contributing to a new, multicultural German future. My wife and I had a baby Berliner in February—and were not surprised to find the hospital’s maternity ward reflecting the city’s diversity. We heard lots of German, but also English, Polish, French, Turkish.

I’m the first to admit there are parts of the city I don’t know as well as I’d like. But this is not an easy city to fathom.

“Berlin has no real center, just neighborhoods,” says Berliner Ulrike Poppe. “And each is very different.”

So I headed out to four neighborhoods to find true locals who would show me my adopted city through their eyes, to deepen my understanding of how Berlin has changed in the 25 years since the Wall tumbled, to find vanishing vestiges of the Cold War—and to see what may be in store here in the future.

Prenzlauer Berg: Faded Splendor Revived

Italian-themed fare fills Casa Istoria, or "history house," a restaurant in Prenzlauer Berg. (Photograph by Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson)
Italian-themed fare fills Casa Istoria, or “history house,” a restaurant in Prenzlauer Berg. (Photograph by Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson)

More than any other neighborhood in Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg has transformed itself since the fall of the Wall. As I stand in Kollwitzplatz, a shady square today lined with restaurants and occupied twice a week by an organic farmers market, I find it almost impossible to imagine the soot-coated place this was when it sat in the middle of Communist East Berlin.

Paradoxically, it would be the soot—a thick mix of coal dust and flaking plaster—that would help protect some of the best architecture in the city. Prenzlauer Berg’s elegant century-old cobblestoned streets and apartment buildings—scores of which have been designated as historic—earn it comparisons to Paris.

Ulrike Poppe moved here in 1971 as a wide-eyed 18-year-old from the quiet East German countryside and now lives in a book-lined apartment just off Kollwitzplatz. She recalls a very different cityscape.

“Everything was falling apart, if not from war damage, from neglect.” Bullet holes dating to World War II scarred crumbling facades. Families shared toilets on rickety staircase landings. Rats swarmed back courtyards.

Another local, Martin Fissel, a computer programmer in his 40s who was born a few blocks away, has his own recollections. “I remember ice blocks in front of the shops; there was no refrigeration,” he tells me over beers one night.

In the 1980s, troublemakers—including Poppe, who founded a group called Women for Peace in 1982 and spent weeks in jail—couldn’t get housing in new apartments on the outskirts. So they chose to fend for themselves in abandoned buildings in Prenzlauer Berg under the eye of the Stasi, the secret police.

“They harassed me for years,” she says, pausing on the sidewalk to fish out a cigarette. “I rarely smoke, but when I start talking about those times I need to.”

As we pass Tukadu, a bead store just off Kollwitzplatz with kaleidoscopic window displays, a smile returns to her face.

“Prenzlauer Berg was where people who wanted to be free—artists, thinkers—could find a place,” she says. “Most of the opposition to the German Democratic Republic lived here.”

When the GDR collapsed, this alternative haven became a boomtown. Investors rushed in to renovate prewar buildings. Fashion labels, edgy stores, and art-filled restaurants—such as Casa Istoria, whose Sunday brunch and deep cups of milky coffee remain my favorite cure for the aftereffects of a late Saturday night—moved into abandoned stores. Kastanienallee, an avenue that ascends through the heart of the neighborhood and once skirted the Wall, earned the nickname Macchiato Mile.

“Now there are so many cafés,” Poppe says as we stroll under chestnut trees, “and something new always is brewing.”

LIfe mimics art along the Spree River, which runs through Berlin. (Photograph by Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson)
LIfe mimics art along the Spree River, which runs through Berlin. (Photograph by Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson)

As we walk, I take note of a bilingual kindergarten, organic grocery stores, and a burrito joint named Maria Bonita, a hole-in-the-wall run by American expats, with eight stools, fuchsia-colored walls, homemade tortillas, and the best guacamole east of the Americas.

St. George’s, an English-language bookshop on nearby Wörther Strasse, anchors an English-speaking expat community. Its collection of books on the history of Berlin is unparalleled (in English, anyway), and after-hours musical performances and readings draw eager audiences. On balmy summer nights, though, it can’t compete with a landmark just six blocks away: the Prater beer garden, said to be Berlin’s oldest, where neighborhood stalwarts and newcomers have gathered over frothy glasses of hefeweizen since the 1800s.

It’s dark as we return to Kollwitzplatz. Poppe steers me toward a modernist bronze statue. “Käthe Kollwitz,” she says, naming the notable expressionist artist who lived on Kollwitzplatz from the 1890s to the 1940s and inspired its name. I ask Poppe if Prenzlauer Berg still feels like home. Looking around, she nods.

“Kollwitzplatz is an area for the rich now, and I hear more English than German on the streets,” she answers. “But I would never leave.”

Neukölln: Mixing Things Up in a Mixed Neighborhood

Step into Azzam, a shawarma restaurant in Neukölln, and German is the last thing you’ll hear.

“Many patrons are students, speaking every language you can imagine,” owner Mohamad Azzam tells me during the lunch rush, the smell of grilling chicken skewers filling the air.

“These days I’m as likely to hear ‘bonjour’ or ‘shalom’ as ‘inshallah.’”

This popular Palestinian eatery, where black tea flows freely and the pita is plentiful, opened ten years ago in what for centuries has been Berlin’s immigrant district. Part of the West Berlin quadrant administered by the U.S. after World War II, Neukölln attracted guest workers from Turkey and elsewhere with factories that remained open during the first years of the Cold War.

In 1961, however, the Wall went up on its eastern edge, and the bottom fell out of the local economy. Neukölln soon degenerated into one of Germany’s most notorious ghettos.

“The world ended here,” says Andreas Altenhof, artistic director of the state-funded Neuköllner Opera.

When I moved to the city nine years ago, I would have hesitated to bring a woman to the neighborhood after dark. But after a friend tells me he’s performing in the opera house’s piano bar, my wife and I decide to attend. We get a table and order two Eisschokolade—German ice-cream sundaes—as our friend steps on stage. His show is a mash-up of pop songs interspersed with readings of suicide notes. I feel uncomfortable, but the Neukölln crowd, ever open to the unorthodox, applauds loudly.

A few days later, I meet Altenhof for tea in the now quiet opera house bar and ask for his take on the area’s many changes.

“Neukölln,” he explains, “has drawn immigrants since the 1800s, when thousands of hard-working Bohemians settled here. Richardplatz still feels like a Czech village, with its brick buildings and converted stables.” These include the centuries-old blacksmith shop Schmiede am Richardplatz, in the square’s center. The clang of hammer on anvil is ringing out as workers craft cast-iron candelabras and other objects by hand.

After the Wall came down, Altenhof says, half of Neukölln’s residents found themselves unemployed or on welfare. Nearly a third were Turkish or Arab immigrants. Many Berliners referred to the area as “Kleine Istanbul”—“little Istanbul”—and steered clear. Now, transformation has gripped Neukölln, in part thanks to the closing in 2008 of Berlin’s main airport, Tempelhof, after 80 years of operation. The city converted its thousand acres into a green space in the heart of Berlin, though keeping the landing strips.

Berlin goes green in tree-filled Wannsee, a neighborhood on the city's outskirts prized for its lakeside villas and lake beaches. (Photograph by Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson)
Berlin goes green in tree-filled Wannsee, a neighborhood on the city’s outskirts prized for its lakeside villas and lake beaches. (Photograph by Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson)

I had boarded flights at the Nazi-era terminal, still one of the largest buildings in Germany (and now an events space). These days I bank my bike into the park and glide along the 3.5 miles of traffic-free runways alongside Rollerbladers, runners, and skateboarders. On windy afternoons, kites clot the sky, rising on the fragrant smoke of hundreds of barbecue grills.

Neukölln’s proximity to the park, and to the new Berlin Brandenburg International airport expected to open in 2016, has sparked demand for its apartments. Adding to the cachet: a bevy of new restaurants and clubs, such as Sameheads, a bar, club, and boutique next to a halal butcher. Run by three British brothers, decorated with old TVs and a portrait of Andy Warhol (hung high on a wall like a patron saint), and known for its DJ sets and costume parties, it’s a magnet for an eclectic clientele.

The newest immigrants? Young, well-educated refugees from the tottering economies of southern Europe. Spanish, Italian, and Greek have joined Arabic and Turkish as languages heard more often. These changes are music to Altenhof’s ears.

“People used to exit the subway and run to our ticket office, they were so scared,” he says. “Now we have visitors who are touring the area discover us by chance.” Once again the world is coming to Neukölln—and this time Neukölln is ready.

Wannsee: Country Appeal in Berlin’s Leafy Lake District:

If Prenzlauer Berg and Neukölln are Berlin’s urban heart, lake-scribed Wannsee is its green lungs. As the subway whisks me out to this neighborhood on Berlin’s southwestern reaches, apartment blocks give way to wide boulevards and, within a few miles, the Grünewald (“green forest”), 7,400 acres of conifers, birches, and small lakes threaded with paths. Soon, summer cottages flicker past, and I know I’m close. The train stops at Wannsee, Berlin’s premier summer escape since the 1870s.

Wolfgang Immenhausen, a retired actor, greets me in the courtyard of the feedstore his great-grandfather founded in 1900. The barn—a “gas station for horses,” says Immenhausen, once fueling the carriages of well-heeled summer residents—is now part of Mutter Fourage, a rambling art gallery, concert space, and organic deli. Immenhausen leads me toward the café, suffused with the smell of coffee and quiches. Only the cobbled floor gives away the space’s past life as a stable. Showing me around, he regales me with his sunny memories of the postwar era, when Wannsee (Wann Lake) was in the American sector.

“I remember GIs conducting combat exercises in the woods and flirting with our German fräuleins,” he says, with a chuckle. On summer weekends, “it seemed as if the whole city was crammed onto the lake’s sandy beaches.”

It sounds so idyllic, I’m reluctant to bring up something that happened before Immenhausen was born. But there’s no way to come here and not mention the Wannsee Conference. That’s what historians call the 1942 breakfast meeting, in a palatial villa overlooking the lake, at which 15 Nazi bureaucrats planned the systematic extermination of Europe’s Jews. Immenhausen nods. “They didn’t have torture chambers here,” he notes. “But in a German, bureaucratic way, they organized a system of death.”

The villa is now a museum, the Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz. School groups crowd its parquet floors, murmuring quietly as they file through the conference chamber, a powerful room where past and present crash together. Portraits of the bureaucrats who set the Holocaust in motion hang on walls like mug shots. Immenhausen notes the museum didn’t open until 1992, 50 years after the fact, part of a shift in German thinking that started when Immenhausen’s generation pressured its elders to come clean.

“As long as the generation of culprits was in power, there was little urge or courage to expose the history,” he says.

Out the room’s bay windows, sailboats scud across the lake, returning me to the present—where it strikes me it is Immenhausen and his coevals I should thank for the Berlin I call home.

Bar, fashion space, and nightclub, Sameheads is the creation of British brothers drawn to the reinvigorated Neukölln district. (Photograph by Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson)
Bar, fashion space, and nightclub, Sameheads is the creation of British brothers drawn to the reinvigorated Neukölln district. (Photograph by Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson)

Friedrichshain: Where Communist Officialdom Held Sway

Anyone wondering what East Berlin was like during the Cold War should head to Friedrichshain, east of the Spree River, for a stroll down Karl-Marx Allee, an imperially wide boulevard that East German officials built, and named Stalinallee, in 1953. (That name would fall out of favor by 1961.)

“Architecturally, the avenue takes after Moscow, except a little smaller,” author and longtime Friedrichshain resident Lutz Rathenow tells me. We’re standing on Strausberger Platz, looking across four lanes of traffic at a grand fountain with no pedestrian access. On either side of us, apartment buildings reserved for Communist Party elite rise like cliffs. “The question is why the street is so wide, when we didn’t have many cars.”

The answer lies with East Germany’s leaders. Friedrichshain, an industrial center badly damaged in World War II and assigned to the Soviet quadrant, was where they hoped to build a model Communist city. They designed Karl-Marx Allee with parades and cheering crowds in mind. The avenue remains a dominant feature. Look beyond it, though, and you enter another reality.

“Friedrichshain always changes,” Miriam Hollstein, a friend who has lived in the district since the Wall fell, tells me over schnitzel at Schneeweiss (“snow white”), a restaurant inspired by the distant Alps. “Even I always find something new.”

Change sure has come to Boxhagener Platz, once trod by the working class. It now is home to brewpub Hops and Barley. “This space, originally a butcher shop, works for our brewing operation,” the bearded bartender tells me over a fruity pilsener.

Even Karl-Marx Allee has been recast. Near Rathenow’s flat I find the former Café Warschau (Warsaw), shuttered after the Wall fell. Its mosaic entryway, once the toast of East Berlin, today leads into the Computerspielemuseum, a shrine to five decades of video games.

I’m excited to find my ticket includes unlimited lives on programs from my youth. One device in particular attracts me—a Poly-Play, the only arcade console the GDR made. I begin playing a Pac-Man knockoff, Wolf and Hare, when a boy sidles up. “Can I have the next game?” he asks in German, probably wondering what an adult is doing with the joystick.

Many icons of Communist days are gone, Rathenow notes, but Friedrichshain is so tied to that era that visitors still look for concrete topped with barbed wire. “People ask for places where you feel old East Berlin.” As proof, he sends me to the Stasi Museum, once headquarters of East Germany’s secret police. Stasi records on East German citizens fill miles of shelves. “They had 15,000 pages on me,” Rathenow says. “It’s something to be proud of.”

The top attraction is the office of Stasi head Erich Mielke, preserved just as it was when democracy activists overran the building in 1990. The cheap paneling, brown polyester carpets, and low ceilings make me feel hemmed in. Yet the idea of an American journalist strolling through what may have been the highest-security floor west of Moscow imparts a thrill.

I have one more stop: the East Side Gallery, the longest bit of the Wall still standing. Murals made by artists from around the world right after the Wall was breached shine like pages in a concrete coloring book. One, especially, grabs me: “The Kiss,” depicting Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and East German leader Erich Honecker in an intimate lip-lock.

The cycle of reinvention, incorporating the past into the future, seems unstoppable. Rathenow can’t imagine living anywhere else. “I go two kilometers in any direction and find a different city. Here, I can buy tomorrow’s paper tonight. It’s addictive.”

I can’t imagine starting a family anywhere else.

This feature, which first appeared in the November 2014 issue of National Geographic, was written by Andrew Curry, who has written about Germany for Smithsonian, Wired, and Slate magazines.

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