I never warmed to Berlin. I may have lived there longer than many an other place, the third longest in fact, but I was not enthused. A party town, a shopping destination, an investment opportunity, a hip and alternative place, a city where so many go to find themselves – none of these grabbed me about a town that pretends to be all things to all people. What repelled me most? The arrogant assumption that you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Much like New York.
So how do you make your home in place that leaves you alienated? Perhaps it was Anklamer Strasse, in Mitte, where we had our first apartment. Close by the line of the old wall – too close in fact, for we were within sight of the Mauerpark with its neo-Cold War propaganda against the DRR. I watched yet another apartment across the street transformed into a luxury complex, with the roof removed and a penthouse lowered in its place by crane. I heard Danish spoken on the street, in an area where they buy up Berlin apartments for a weekend in a ‘wonderful town’. Provincial people there are, asserting themselves in an obnoxiously arrogant fashion typical of those from a tiny country out in the big world. And I witnessed the DDR-era coal handler lose his job. Covered in soot from head to foot and with a cigarette permanently hanging from his lip, he knew not what he was going to do. He had worked in a corner between the apartment buildings, shipping stacks of coal in and out. No longer was it felt appropriate for such a primitive and filthy operation to be in an area favoured by the smart and upwardly mobile bourgeoisie. Much safer without all that coal dust for the 1.6 children and their expensive toys, not to mention serious fathers and mothers with large teeth and sharp angles.
Perhaps it was Warschauer Strasse in Friedrichshain, where some of the old apartments survived the war. Here at least were graffiti, broken footpaths, hole-in-the-wall eateries, the Eastside Gallery (part of the wall) and drunks on Friday and Saturday nights. But here too you can be grungily trendy and find expensive foodstuffs and eco-tobacco at the Biocompany shop across the road. Here you may spend hours in front of the mirror ensuring that your hair looks as though it was never combed, arrange the jeans to hang low, and ensure the stubble is just the right length. Here you had to make sure you sat in public view, rolling a cigarette, or walked along the street with a beer bottle in hand. After all, you’re alternative.
Perhaps it was the place on Flughafen Strasse in Neuköln, where there was serious graffiti and the entrance to the building looked like some drug-dealer’s den. It was the only place we stayed in the old west of town, with that rougher appeal I have come to like. More Arabic and Asian and African shops, more languages spoken on the streets, more smells and foods and whatever from around the world. But here were many of the unemployed who had made their way to Berlin seeking work. Young people from Greece and Spain and Italy descended on Berlin, unwittingly seeking revenge on the country that had screwed them over in the EU debt crisis. But there was little work for them here – unemployment runs at 40 per cent these parts. Africans too ended up in Neuköln, but not even the dirty jobs reserved for foreigners were open to them, so they stayed in cheap hostels, spilled out in the streets, at a loss for what to do with all that time on their hands.
So I took to walking and to my bicycle, to see what I could make of Berlin. Eastward my front wheel would turn, to streets with names like Karl-Marx-Allee, Karl Liebknecht Strasse, or Strasse der Parisser Kommune. Such areas are thinner in Berlin, especially when compared to places like Minsk or Red Petrograd, or the towns of eastern Germany where the communist era is still thick on the ground. Yet if you slow down, you can still find statues of Marx, the Kino Internationale, Kosmos, and Moskau Restaurant. Here you encounter plaques to the first president of the DDR, and the glorious Stalinbauten or Stalin Baroque – the ‘last great street of Europe’, where the majestic apartments speak of human space.
I began to notice a little more, particularly when I rode the Mauerweg on my bicycle, 155 kilometres mainly through forest and open land. Contrary to what one may read, many, many traces and relics of the wall remain. It may be a section of the main wall left standing in some open space, or a watchtower turned into a youth retreat. It may be sections of hinterland wall that are now used as fences, or pylons that someone has enterprisingly acquired for his own constructions. It may one of the many electrical boxes, a section of maintenance road, or light posts still used. And it may be a cement platform, a bricked-in railway station wall, the side of a house, or the foundation now used for another structure. Once I knew what to seek, I saw relics everywhere on my ride. The first half I rode in sections during winter. With U-bahn and S-bahn stops between 20 to 30 kilometres apart, I could have the track to myself. It might have meant walking the bike over slippery ice for parts, or seeking the next train station as my extremities began to freeze, but explore it I did. The last half I rode in one day during summer, streaking from Wannsee to Bernauer Strasse, through forests, over waterways, and across farmland, before slipping back into the city.
There I finally gained a feel for the new project that they had attempted in the DDR, if not across Eastern Europe. In our last days we lived close by Alexander Platz, where the Stalinbauten ends. Standing outside the Kino Internationale, my gaze went out over the simple lines of the apartment blocks and open streets. Given a clean slate by the destruction of the Second World War, the architects and builders enthusiastically set out to produce the space of a new society. Clean lines, light buildings, open spaces, and murals celebrating science, space exploration and the plenty of nature released by a new mode of production. Yet, it was not so much the individual buildings themselves but their relationship to one another that struck me at this moment. Here thought has been given to how they connect, to their angles and sight lines, to the sensation as one walks on the street or stands still as I was doing. Here function, aesthetics, simplicity and durability were the main concern – rather than jamming in cheap apartments for the sake of city taxes and quick profits by dodgy investors. Above all, I was taken by the physical sensation of air and space and openness in the lived reality of human collectivity. In a moment of epiphany, it seemed as though everything was in the right place. It reminded me of seeing gleaming high rises in the towns among the hills of Bulgaria. When the sun shines upon them at dawn, they gleam with the promise and eagerness that once was felt, for how communism manifests itself in the structure of space. Past tense? That feeling has not passed.