Home Book Summary Table of Contents Max Hofstetter
The Berlin Book of Lists

    This multi-kulti borough in what was formerly the American sector of West Berlin has been the hot new area of town for years now, but still the fresh energy continues to bubble up.  From the residential areas near the former Tempelhof Airport with mom-and-pop shops crammed next to Turkish bakeries to cheap eats galore and some of the funkier clubs and bars in town, Neukölln offers the visitor a rich range of options. 

    Crammed just as close as you could get to East Berlin and the Wall without being shot, Neukölln missed out on the notoriety and popularity that Kreuzberg enjoyed during the years of divided Germany, serving instead as a symbol of many of the problems facing the Federal Republic of Germany, notably the persistent difficulties associated with integrating so-called "guest workers" and other immigrants into German society.  With over 310,000 inhabitants from 160 nations, Neukölln is by far the most diverse district in the entire country.  In 2010, 40 percent of the inhabitants were of non-German origin.

    Ten years ago Neukölln was a district most visitors to the city would never see, either because they didn't know enough to be interested or because they were actively warned to stay away.  Today, it is a playground for international hipsters.  If you stop to have a coffee on Weserstraße, you can almost watch the gentrification take place in real time as corner stores, Turkish cafés and small shops shutter to make room for gallery after gallery, bar after bar.

    Berlin's Tempelhof Airport, best known to most North Americans for being the primary landing point for cargo flights during the Berlin Air Lift, closed in 2008 and its subsequent conversion made it the largest park in the city, at more than 300 hectares, topping even the Tiergarten in size.  With the expected completion and opening of Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport sometime in 2013, Neukölln will have finished its transformation from neglected outer borough to a virtual Berlin welcome card as the first central district most visitors to the city will see.

    Long dismissed as the less dynamic, less glamorous East Berlin neighbor of hip Prenzlauer Berg, known mostly for the student-oriented main drag of Simon-Dach-Strasse with its lineup of bars, Friedrichshain has come into its own as Prenzlauer Berg has sunk from past glory.  Here you find at one end the former Stalin Allee, now Karl-Marx-Allee and Frankfurter Allee, a wide boulevard lined with showcase apartment buildings from the GDR time, which to this day look like large wedding cakes fresh from the confectionary's, and at the other, the East Side Gallery, the largest remaining intact section of the Berlin Wall, and beyond it, the Spree River.

    Like most of Berlin, Friedrichshain is riddled with contradictions and identity crises.  While Simon-Dach-Strasse is reminiscent of any main bar strip in any international metropolis, the landscape changes sharply just a few blocks farther up as the district is bisected by the former Stalin Allee, East Berlin's major highway to the satellite cities built like clockwork on regular plans.  By 1989 more than a third of the city's population lived in the satellites of Marzahn, Hohenschönhausern and Hellersdorf. 

    Crossing the Allee brings you into North Friedrichshain, site of the last dying gasp of the Hausbesetzung (house squatting) scene that made up both the history of West Berlin as well as the early years of the unified capital.  Riddled with graffiti that serves both as abstract expression and concrete communication, trendy haircuts and a polyglot of drunken conversation gives way to torn leather jackets, hair dyed in every hue of the rainbow and one of the world's largest urban canine populations.

    Affectionately referred to as "Little Istanbul," Kreuzberg is the epicenter of the integration debate that still rages through Germany.  A wonderful little factoid about Berlin: It has the largest population of Turks outside of Turkey.  In fact, more Turks live in Berlin than in any city other than Istanbul and Ankara.  Beginning in the 1960s, West Germany allowed guest workers from Turkey to enter the country to rebuild the nation.  Starting with a few more than 7,000 workers in 1961, the estimated population has now grown to more than four million persons in Germany of Turkish background.  Nowhere in Germany are there more Turks than in Berlin and nowhere in Berlin are there more Turks than in Kreuzberg, Neukölln and Wedding.  Despite nearly ten years of fast-paced gentrification, there are still parts of Kreuzberg where you will see signs in Turkish and numerous places where you can enjoy deliciously authentic Turkish cuisine and delicacies ranging from kufta to baklava.

    Kreuzberg actually consists of two distinct halves, each fiercely supported by their hangers-on.  Named for their respective postal codes of 36 and 61, these two sections could scarcely have been more different, although the current pace of rapid gentrification in Berlin certainly does mean a forced plastering over of many of these differences.

    Kreuzberg 36 ended at the German/German border and was famous in the 1980s for its intransigent squat scene, with dozens and dozens of buildings being occupied and frequent violent skirmishes with the police.  Every May 1st tens of thousands of police from around the country flood the streets of Kreuzberg 36 attempting to avoid replays of the 1980s when storekeepers literally erected barricades around their stores to prevent them from being looted.

    Kreuzberg 61, featuring the famous Mehringdamm and Bergmannstraße, has always functioned like the cultured city cousin of rough-and-tumble Kreuzberg 36.  Marked by a smaller Turkish population, numerous cozy cafés, antique and vintage stores and a jaw-dropping array of restaurants, including many of Berlin's best, this part of town is the perfect place for an extended shopping trip, allowing you to escape the dreaded Ku'damm.

    Oh me, oh my, the hype of Prenzlauer Berg has finally said goodbye.  Location of my first apartment in the city a decade ago and for years the most popular, most desired neighborhood in post-unification Berlin, you're most likely to hear of Prenzlauer Berg now as "Parents"lauer Berg, as it was referred to by an ironic girl singing an ironic song in the ironically named venue West Germany (in Kreuzberg) in 2008.

    Largely a working class neighborhood throughout the years of East Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg's post-Wall popularity was thanks in part to its new central location in an expanded city and a circumstance unique to the former East: a pronounced lack of population.  When the Berlin Wall finally came down, East Berlin emptied out significantly.  One of my favorite early 1990s anecdotes concerns apartment-hunting in Prenzlauer Berg: "Just find a place you like, throw a rock through the window, climb on in and it's yours! The city will come by at some point and sort out a rental contract."

    The district had also become popular in the later years of the GDR with artists and Bohemians, whose reputation grew to mythic status when Jane Kramer published a series of "Letter From Europe" articles in The New Yorker  magazine commenting on such intriguing developments as the apparent fact that the Prenzlauer Berg intellectuals of this period seemed to be fascinated by French deconstructionist thinkers such as Jacques Derrida in large part because the Stasi had instructed its agents to talk them up.  The point was simple: The more these would-be activists played cat-chasing-its-tail intellectual games, or argued about the non-meaning of non-meaning, the less they were likely to agitate against the Communist East German system.  Far better to have them tied up in such antics, rather than following the example of Wolf Biermann, who emigrated from West Germany to East Germany when he was seventeen years old, became famous for his protest songs, making a name for himself as the Bob Dylan of Germany, and was ultimately denounced by the GDR regime as a "class traitor."

    "With three hundred thousand informers, the Stasi was not so much a mirror of East Germany; to a large extent, it was East Germany," Kramer writes in one of these articles, collected in the 1996 book, THE POLITICS OF MEMORY.  Elsewhere, she writes: "There are people in Germany who believe that the Prenzlauer Berg scene was a Stasi invention, and that it was all about the German language - about controlling the political possibilities and 'subversive' uses of German by taking a generation of would-be Biermanns and getting them out of the house to meetings and readings and underground presses, where they could be watched and encouraged to betray themselves, and then diverting them from politics and protest with obscure texts and sophisticated aesthetic models they had neither the education nor the experience nor, often, the wit to understand.  … Of course, it is impossible to know if the Prenzlauer Berg style was a cynically programmed style, or a mirror image of the obfuscations of official agitprop, or a commentary on it, or simply posturing adolescent verse."

    After spending the 1990s as ground zero of the new Berlin and its burgeoning international art scene, the new millennium saw Prenzlauer Berg grow up.  Strollers began replacing bicycles, though they were being pushed by new mothers who were also adherents of the punk movement, with black leather skirts, piercings and tattoos, and they in turn were replaced by droves of the more mainstream, equipped with well-paying jobs and disposable incomes, which naturally unleashed the infernal machinations of a real-estate boom that saw prices more than double. 

    As the first decade of the twenty-first century drew to a close, one of the most significant things about Prenzlauer Berg was the number of establishments forced to leave due to the fussy new residents' complaints about noise, chief among them Magnet, one of Berlin's most venerable live music venues, which made the move to Kreuzberg in 2010.

    Actually, you could get by without spending much time in Mitte, the central district, formerly in East Berlin, that was the most quickly remade by the arrival of so-called NMA types (Neu Mitte Arschloch).  In general overpriced and crowded with bureaucrats in suits, still the area does offer such highlights as high-style Clärchens Ballhaus, where you can go for tango lessons amid the dilapidated grandeur of high-ceilinged walls that almost seem to be moldering before your eyes. 

    Full of contradictions, Mitte seamlessly combines the extremes of Berlin.  Nowhere else in the world is the red light zone (prostitution is legal in Germany, as you'll see for yourself if you ever walk down Oranienburger Straße after dark) also located directly within the city's most ubiquitous tourist zone, replete with families dangling cameras, pedestrians scanning guidebooks and groups of thirty rolling suitcases behind them.  On this same street, Oranienburger Straße, one of Berlin's most famous and longest lasting squats is only now finally coming to an end, the beloved Tacheles, which still managed to be more artistic enclave than tourist trap until well into the mid-2000s.

    Mitte still features Berlin's most established gallery scene, with scores and scores of locations all throughout Auguststraße, Brunnenstraße and the surrounding area, these days all the way from the Friedrichstraße and Chausseestraße to Rosenthaler Platz.  Featuring some of Berlin's best-known landmarks, such as the sprawling boulevard Unter den Linden and the Brandenburg Gate, Mitte was traditionally the cultural center of the city and remains so today, with the Museum Island, three of the city's five state theaters and two of its state opera houses.  Although it can feel sterile and tourist-infested at times, Mitte can also be an invigorating, insider's experience, providing, of course, you know where to go.

Copyright © 2012 Brandenburg Books.  All rights reserved.