On the corner of Prinzenallee and Osloer Straße I wait for the tram, standing on the platform of the stop between the currywurst Imbiss where they grade their sauces by how red it will make your face and the old pub on the corner that was a den for serious drinkers when we first moved to this neighbourhood five years ago but which now sings over its polished wooden tables as the canary in the coalmine of gentrification. Except, as I wait for the tram and look down Prinzenallee, past the pub towards the Spielothek and its slot machines, towards the Späti with used mobile phones in the window and the line of kebab shops, halal butchers and shops advertising cheap calls home to wherever home may be in this neighbourhood with the highest number of foreign-born residents in the city, I can’t imagine that you could gentrify Gesundbrunnen. It was once a spa town, north of the city. Then came the railways and industry and then the bombs of the Americans and the British and as the Berlin Wall cut it off from its southern and eastern neighbours the industry had long fled, never to return. The printworks is a cultural space. The factory on Osloer Straße is a children’s museum. The bus depot is a dance studio. The queues at the unemployment office are long.
Here comes the tram. It is an imposter, one of the few lines in this city that breaches the old East-West border. Look at a tram map of the city and it is like the Berlin Wall never came down. But it did, the first hole opening at Bornholmer Straße in November 1989, across the bridge that the tram I am waiting for will soon take me as I travel from Gesundbrunnen into Prenzlauer Berg. The bridge rises up, over the top of the railway lines and past the allotment gardens and the Lidl supermarket where the checkpoint once stood. Into the east, towards my destination.
The tram, the M13 arrives, and it is busy with post-work traffic. If you life in the north-eastern suburbs of Berlin this tram and the U9 from Osloer Straße is the quickest route to Zoo Station. There are no seats and so I stand, in the bendy bit that helps the tram negotiate the corners, as my neighbours drink their knock off beers, stare at their phones or flick through the pages of the book. It makes me happy, on this weekday evening in August 2016 that there are more people reading books on the M13 tram than there are swiping and prodding at their phones. We move through the last few hundred yards of Gesundbrunnen, of West Berlin, slowly climbing up the Bösebrücke and through the old checkpoint. From the crest of the bridge we can look down the tracks towards the centre of the city, the spire of the Zionskirche and the TV Tower above the rooftops of Mitte. We used to live down by that church, the bells reverberating around our bedroom each Sunday morning. When we moved north, from Mitte into what people still call Wedding it took a long time for me to not think of that old neighbourhood of ours as home. As we rode our bikes through Arkonaplatz, sometimes past our old front door, I was convinced one day we would live there again. Not any more. Have you seen the prices?
Prenzlauer Berg gives way momentarily to Pankow and then we hit Weißensee. I am getting closer to where Katrin lived when the family moved south to Berlin from the Baltic coast in the months after the Berlin Wall came down. For a while they lived in that nowhere zone, between the lake and the Sportforum where the old Jewish cemetery meets the Schultheiss brewery and the gaps are filled by a petrol station and a McDonald’s, a headstone workshop and a chain of mechanics. Since we left Prinzenallee the streets have been lined with election posters, a parade of letters. SPD. CDU. FDP. The Greens and the Left Party. The Communists with their picture of Marx and Engels and Lenin. The Alternative for Germany. As we move through Weißensee to Hohenschönhausen I think that there are less right-wing posters than elections past but not far from the Sportforum, where the GDR trained their elite athletes and where a group of refugees are now being housed, I see the letters NPD for the first time. They have to hang them high, the election posters of the Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands to stop them being vandalised.
In the shadow of tall Plattenbau housing blocks, the concrete slab apartments of the German Democratic Republic, I change from the M13 to the M6. The M13 will head south, towards Friedrichshain and the Oberbaumbrücke. The M6 will take me further east, along Landsberger Allee towards Marzahn. This is the IKEA tram now, ever since the new superstore was opened, and the tram east from Alexanderplatz is filled with not-yet-stressed couples on the hunt for bookshelves and table lamps. In the other direction those who have survived the experience attempt to load flatpack furniture onto the tram, and carry their screw-in lightbulbs in a paper bin that was cheaper than buying one of those blue, crinkly carrier bags.
I have been coming east on the M6 tram for almost fifteen years. It takes me to the estate of apartment blocks, set back from Landsberger Allee, where Katrin’s parents have lived ever since I have known them. Their stop is separated from the estate by a patch of empty land, divided by streets and lit by lamps and yet never built upon apart from a self-storage unit that appeared a couple of summers ago. Long grass waves in the breeze and I once saw elephants grazing here, kept off the tram tracks by nothing more than a single strip of plastic tape. Unless the circus was in town, back then no one used that tram stop. Now it is the closest stop to IKEA, and when I climb down from the M6 tram there are a line of people waiting with pot plants and those blue bags, waiting to be taken back into town, following Landsberger Allee down towards Alexanderplatz.
I walk down the middle of the street between the empty fields of grass and wildflowers towards the building where Katrin’s parents live. There is a small precinct of shops; a bakery, a florist’s, an estate agents… there used to be a bar but it closed down years ago. The journey has taken about half an hour and yet I feel a long way from Gesundbrunnen. And yet these familiar streets are still part of my city, my own personal Berlin, filled with memories and stories just like Osloer Straße, Zionskirchplatz and the other places I have, for however long, called home.
Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton