“Alexanderplatz is both the GDR capital’s architectural centre and the city’s central point of attraction and a favourite meeting place where thousands of Berliners and people visiting the city meet every day at the World Time Clock for a walk in the new socialist city centre.”
(From the 1980 guidebook, Berlin: Capital of the GDR)
Twenty-three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, people still use the clock as a meeting point. The House of the Teachers is still adorned with a suitably inspiring, socialist mural, and the television tower still gazes down upon the whole scene. But much else has changed on the Alexanderplatz. The old Centrum Department Store is now the Galeria Kaufhof and got a facelift eight years ago, the Pressecafe is now a steak house, and the old Interhotel Stadt Berlin has had a couple of new names even in the time I have been in the city. Even some post-Wall changes, such as the text from Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz that once graced the facades of the buildings on Karl-Marx-Allee have now faded, although if you look closely you can still see the outline of some of the letters washed away by time and the elements.
In the past ten years the re-development of Alexanderplatz and the surrounding area has accelerated, with the opening of the enormous Alexa shopping mall and the new Saturn building on the edge of the square. The tram lines have been re-laid and all the major international shops and fast-food outlets can be found somewhere around the square. But if the area is no longer a “new socialist city centre”, the echoes of the German Democratic Republic and the brave new heart of (one half) of the city that was built out of the ruins of the Second World War in the 1960s can still be heard.
Before that, and the war that reduced much of the city to rumble, the Alexanderplatz was a bawdy commercial district, full of traffic and nightlife and surrounded by some of the worst tenement slums in the city. My GDR guidebook describes it as an “island of entertainment amidst a sea of social misery”, and much as we might find the wide open spaces of Alexanderplatz and the monumentalist Karl-Marx-Allee that runs out from the square to the East somehow a little inhuman in scale, it no doubt marked an improvement in the immediate living conditions. Not that many of the population were around to witness it, as the areas surrounding the Alexanderplatz had long been home to the city’s Jewish population, numbers that increased with East European Jews who fled to Berlin, only to suffer discrimination, confiscation of property, deportation and murder at the hands of the Nazis.
When you spend a lot of time in a place you don’t always notice the extent of how it changes over time. In my first weeks in Berlin I was staying on the Rosa-Luxemburg-Straße, and often wandered down to Alexanderplatz to grab the paper, a coffee or just stretch my legs. I have written before about this feeling of suddenly realising the extent of the changes, and last week as I killed some time on the Alexanderplatz it struck me again.
It was too early for the shops to be open – even in a commercial space such as this one the stores mainly only start to do business at around 10am – and in this strange moment between the pre-work and pre-school rush hour and the opening of the shops, the square was surprisingly quiet. Most of it was blocked off, as they were about to build it some kind of wooden huts that could be for Oktoberfest (it wasn’t clear) and delivery vans unloading pallets of produce out the back before re-loading with the cubes of neatly bundled cardboard boxes, squashed flat. I walked through, past the handful of patient folks waiting by the clock, towards the station – taking care not to be squashed flat by the shiny, new, and dangerously quiet next generation of city trams.
Out the other side, at the base of the television tower, a small gathering of people was beginning to form that could, if the weather stayed fine and clear, develop into a long, bad-tempered queue. There was no sign of the card sharks that sometimes prowl the concourse, but the construction workers were already drilling and boiling up vats of tar, as part of the ongoing improvement process of the area that has been taking place since I moved here over a decade ago and which will probably never be finished.
I bought a coffee and walked around a little more, looking out across the open space of this much maligned corner of Berlin, and I couldn’t help but feel a wave of affection for the place. Maybe it was because my first experiences of Berlin were so tied up in this area, and it was a similar time of year. Cool, crisp autumn days in 2001 and now the same almost eleven years later. A funny feeling, the amount of time, and yet it is somehow reassuring that despite all the changes in both my life and on the Alexanderplatz, it does not feel all that different and neither do I.
Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton