A few Saturdays ago I was invited north from our (west Berlin) neighbourhood of Wedding to the north, and our friends in the (east Berlin) district of Pankow. These two once stood on opposite sides of the wall, but even through those long years of division they were linked by the bridge on the Bornholmer Straße, which would be the first breach in the structure on that famous November evening in 1989, as well as the waters of the Panke that run south from its source just beyond the Berlin city limits, through Pankow to Wedding and eventually into the River Spree. It also runs past our house, so it seemed like the most logical (and traffic free) way to head north, following the footpath and the neatly painted signs that mark the route of the Panke Way.
The first stretch, through Wedding, took me on a well-trodden route between the sixties housing blocks and allotment gardens of this multicultural and working class corner of the city, until we passed beneath the railway bridge and entered Pankow, right where the river makes its sedate progress through the Bürgerpark. In the summer this is one of our favourite haunts, with its playground and wide open fields for football, its sausage grill and beer garden, with ice creams and even a small library beneath the trees. On this November day the park was quiet, aside for an old couple sitting beside the bandstand, where no music will be played until the spring, and the dog walkers and joggers for whom there is no off season, however chilly the weather.
Out the other side of the park and the path followed a street now, the Panke hidden away at the bottom of gardens that I could not see, let alone access, but it was not long until it opened out again with the entrance to the Schlosspark, the gates to the palace grounds and gardens of the Schloss Schönhausen, and the start of the Majakowskiring. The palace was once the residence of the first President of the German Democratic Republic Wilhelm Pieck, and its out-buildings would later be used for the “Round Table” talks between the two Germanys and the four occupying forces (UK, France, USA and USSR) as part of the eventual reunification of Germany.
It was quiet in both the gardens and the park, with the afternoon threatening to give way into evening even though it was barely 3pm, and so I hurried along the Majakowskiring to take a look at the collection of villas – half built in the 1920s and half seemingly in the past couple of years – before it got too dark to peek over fences and between the branches of overgrown bushes. I was interested because this oval shaped street was the residence of most of the GDR bigwigs up until about 1960, when paranoia drove them north to a fortified compound outside of the city by the lake and Wandlitz. But in the early years of the GDR, before the wall was build, they all hung out here, from Walter Ulbricht to Otto Grotewohl and Erich Honecker, or in-favour members of the cultural elite such as Johannes R. Becher and, oh so briefly, Rudolf Ditzen – a man for whom a nearby street is named, and who is better known to readers around the world as Hans Fallada.
As I explored the cobbled streets that were once the stomping grounds of the great and the good of the post-war workers and peasants utopia, my hands began to get cold. It was clear that winter was upon us, sneaking up on autumn whilst some leaves were still on the trees. We thought we had more time left, even if Lidl was stocked with Christmas decorations back in September and the festive markets were about to begin… but changes often come in November, and even when you least expect it. Just ask Erich Honecker and the rest of the gang about that…
Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton