At the site of old mineral spring – the Gesundbrunnen that gives our district it’s the name – the Panke river flows between the red-bricked halls of a former vault-factory and the clumpy grass of an underappreciated park, complete with a football court that local legend has it started the careers of at least one of the three Boeteng brothers. Their faces look down upon the nearby Badstraße from a Nike-sponsored mural. The sports company also dressed up the football court and invited the brothers along to launch an advertising campaign in the gritty urban decay that is our ‘hood. The sign that hung over the gate to the concrete pitch was stolen within days.
But don’t get the wrong idea. That was probably just a souvenir-too-tempting for a football-mad youngster from the neighbourhood, and if our area does in fact have a slightly ropey reputation it feels distinctly undeserved on this Sunday afternoon as we walk beneath sunshine and through a swirl of fairytale flower pollen that coast the path along the banks of the Panke. Along the way we pass plenty of remnants of the districts industrial past and post-industrial present, from the old bus depot-turned dance studios and the courthouse (still in business), to the old armaments factory that over a hundred years ago became a homeless shelter, providing a bed for writer Hans Fallada during a particularly nasty alcoholic phase.
We can make out the red brick and chimneys through the trees and other overgrowth of the former factory, badly damaged and left to post-War ruin. Since then it has stood pretty much empty, aside from some form of fame as the set for the film version of Günther Grass’s The Tin Drum, substituting Cold War Berlin-Wedding for wartime Danzig, but as we pass know we can see some life among the crumbling ruins and we wonder amongst ourselves what might be to come.
From here the Panke has reached the final stretch of its 33 kilometre journey from its source just beyond the edge of Berlin’s city limits to where it tips into the Spandau Ship Canal. Once the Panke ran all the way to the Spree – and a small channel, little more than a ditch, still does – but for me the Panke ends when it passes beneath an ice rink in the shadow of the massive Bayer-Schering pharmaceutical complex and into the canal, only a few steps away from the border between Mitte and Wedding. This district boundary has been reduced in the last decade to little more than a neighbourhood demarcation, but it once marked the dividing line between East and West Berlin, when it was marked not by a line of trees and a crooked green sign on the Chausseestraße, but a checkpoint, barbed wire and concrete, patrolled by young men from the provinces with an instruction to shoot anyone attempting an unauthorized crossing.
Such thoughts could make even a sunny Sunday walk a little gloomy, so we push them from our thoughts as we turn north and follow the paved trail along the bank of the canal. Along the Panke we have had the path pretty much to ourselves, but now the grass verges are thronged with people – young women reading intelligent-looking books, a Turkish family grilling by the water’s edge, and a handful of fishermen, their lines stretched from resting rods as they sip from lukewarm beers, waiting to catch their supper. At Fennstraße we have to leave our waterside path, the park undergoing a reconstruction that leaves it sandy and off limits behind hire wire fences, so we pick our way through the streets and beneath the high, futuristic sweep of the ICE tracks that passes beside the rooftop of an old 19th Century Mietskaserne building, until we reach the Nordufer.
Here we are in sight of the water once more, tempted by the number of cafes and biergarten spilling out from ground floor of neighbouring buildings, but we have an appointment on a nearby rooftop and a private beer garden just for five, so we pick up the pace and press on, the walk just a few more steps from being over…
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig