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

THE KU'DAMM   (This is a list of things to avoid.  Contact information certainly will not be listed.)

    There is a certain sociological interest in strolling through the West Berlin high shopping district along Kurfürstendamm, long known as the Ku'damm, just to have it register as a contrast with the more funky districts closer to where the Wall ran.  If nothing else, check out the nearby Kaufhauf des Westens, aka KaDeWe, a department store with a level devoted to a truly spectacular variety of sensational foods.  Before the fall of the Wall, KaDeWe served the purpose of taunting everyone on the other side of the Wall, really everyone in the Soviet sphere, with its absurdly over the top commitment to luxury in all aspects.  For people whose hope of getting a scrap of meat, any meat, was to wait in line shivering for hours without even knowing what they would get at the front of the line, if they were lucky and the supply held out, the option of buying twenty-seven different types of ham at KaDeWe loomed forever large in the imagination.  So visit if you must, but move on quickly and don't linger.  The area is loaded with all the same luxury-good shops one sees in every big airport in the world; it's boring. 

    Yes, I know every visitor to Germany from the Western world has heard the tale of Checkpoint Charlie, the most famous of the former German-German border crossings within the city of Berlin.  Yes, I know it's one of the few locations in Berlin you'd actually heard of before arriving in the city and yes, I know you think it's an absolute must in terms of achieving a truly authentic experience of the history of the city.  Sorry, Charlie.  It just ain't so.  In fact, the actual checkpoint building itself was removed from its original location on Friedrichstraße back in 1990 and now lives on in the AlliiertenMuseum (Allied Museum) in Dahlem, a sleepy southwestern district of Berlin.

    What's left, sadly, is mostly just a tourist trap.  The building there now is an imitation, the "guards" dressed in World War II Allied uniforms are, of course, simply actors and if you believe that the countless tables of WWII military regalia are echt, then there's a bridge in Brooklyn you simply MUST see.  The Haus am Checkpoint Charlie Museum is not completely without interest.  It's a museum with all the charm of a good garage sale - and that's meant as a compliment - focusing on the more spectacular attempts of the East German population to get over, under, around or through the Berlin Wall.  However, it's certainly worth noting both that the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie Museum is a private enterprise with no affiliation with the city and that Berlin opened the official Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall Memorial) in 1998.  Hence the garage-sale feel.  If you're really interested in the Wall that divided this vibrant city, I suggest you head off to Bernauer Straße 111 (U8 Bernauer Straße) and check it out.

    Let's be clear.  Friedrichshain is one of Berlin's most interesting and exciting districts.  With the remnants of the punk and squat scene in the north, bordered by an urban development project straight out of Edward Scissorhands (seriously, check out the area around the Landsberger Allee S-Bahn stop), the gritty yet cool feel of the old Deutsche Bahn grounds along Revaler Straße and even the tasteful yet decidedly luxury-oriented redevelopment out towards Ostkreuz in the southeastern part of the district - not to mention its history as part of East Berlin and the eerie opulence of the buildings along the former Stalin Allee, now tastefully renamed Frankfurter Allee - Friedrichshain has a total package that rivals any other district in the city and then some. 

    This is one of the many reasons why the generic bar and café culture along Simon-Dach-Straße feels like such a gut shot.  Reader, you can do better.  You deserve better.  With the exception perhaps of Paul's Metal Eck (which isn't even on Simon-Dach-Straße), most of these establishments (there are about twenty, which together offer nearly two thousand outdoor seats) date from the mid-1990s, at the earliest.  This entire two or three block span, in fact, is a great example of an early (and mostly successful) plot to transform a beautiful former Eastern neighborhood into a cash cow in the Western sense.  Instead of plopping yourself down at forgettable café number seventeen, walk a few blocks further east or further south and find yourself a true Berlin original.

    As enamored as most Berlin guides are of what was once the largest construction site in Europe, I have never understood the attraction.  So it had the first traffic light in Europe?  Remind me why I should care?  Once one of Berlin's most important public squares and the heart of the city after it was named capital of the Deutsches Kaiserreich (the German Empire) in 1871 (and was the first part of Berlin to receive electric streetlights in 1882), Potsdamer Platz was virtually destroyed in the Second World War and then ripped in half by the Berlin Wall.  The Berlin Wall itself was never a single continuous concrete slab, of course, but instead a complex system consisting of an outer wall and inner wall located as much as five hundred meters apart from each other and presided over by guard towers, spring-guns, attack dogs, land mines, and other delights, giving this area between the outer and inner walls the aptly earned nickname of Todestreifen (death strip).  The space needed for these death strips was made by razing every building in sight.  The death strip for the section of the Berlin Wall at Potsdamer Platz was the largest one within its entire length of 167 kilometers, ensuring that Potsdamer Platz must have been a strong contender for the most desolate place in Berlin during the twenty-eight year reign of the Wall, moldering in a shadow of its former glory.  German director Wim Wenders clearly thought so, which was why he filmed sections of his haunting film "Der Himmel über Berlin" (that is, "Wings of Desire") inside this death strip.

    When the Wall finally did come down, Potsdamer Platz was one of the first and one of the most heavily frequented crossings.  With its nearly 150 acres of prime, central real estate, it became a heavily anticipated symbol of what the new, reunified Berlin could become.  Unfortunately, the results of the massive redevelopment effort there are at best a disaster and at worst a scandal.  You'd never know looking at the place today that decades of planning and construction went into achieving this result.  The entire area was divided into four sections and each section was sold off to a developer, despite the interest of hundreds of other investors.  No thought was given to how these showcase developments might or might not be integrated with the rest of Berlin.  About all that can be said with conviction about the new Potsdamer Platz is that it now carries the dubious distinction of being the most central place in Berlin where you are almost guaranteed not to find a single actual Berliner.  Like Times Square in New York, Potsdamer Platz attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists with cameras in tow and necks craned skyward.  Sony Center and Bahn Tower?  Empire State Building and Conde Nast Building?

    All of this being said, there are numerous excellent cultural institutions in or near Potsdamer Platz, including the German Museum for Film and Television as well as the Kulturforum, a collection of institutions including the Berlin Philharmonic, New National Gallery and Gemäldegalerie.  The Berlinale (Berlin International Film Festival), the city's answer to Cannes, is held at Potsdamer Platz every February.  These are all certainly worth your time; in fact, one could even say that you're encouraged to check them out despite being forced to come near Potsdamer Platz to do so.

    It's a funny thing to bear witness to the rebirth of a city, and a funnier thing still to bear witness to the rebirth of a city of the size and importance of Berlin.  All the same, those of us who found ourselves here at the dawn of the twenty-first century and who have stayed on have been able to watch the German capital transform before our very eyes. 

    Perhaps nowhere else in the city is this as obvious as at Rosenthaler Platz.  Located at the intersection of Rosenthaler Straße, heading north from the bustling shopping hub of Hackescher Markt, to Torstraße, a major east-west artery with more than its own fair share of shopping and restaurants along it, and Weinbergsweg, a café-and-restaurant-choked extension of Kastanienallee, this was one of the most exciting parts of the city twelve years ago.  You came here for the wide variety of informal (or even illegal) casual bars and clubs, funky eateries and artist studios.

    Scarcely a trace of this remains.  Today the artists are long since departed to Neukölln and Wedding, the studios have been replaced by (mostly sterile) galleries, and the very existence of the few remaining clubs is constantly threatened by noise complaints.  Defaced from one end to the other with luxury hotels, chains, hostels which have lost an "s" (thus making them hotels) and an array of anonymous and overpriced fast food restaurants, Rosenthaler Platz now rewards a visitor only with the opportunity to people watch the improbable spatial interaction between international scenesters and international businesspeople as the one group dwells in overpriced former hostels and the other within overpriced luxury hotels.  Rosenthaler Platz may well have earned questionable bragging rights for being the area with the second most luxury hotels per square meter, coming in right after the infamous Pariser Platz at the end of Unter den Linden.
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