There is no reason for this walk except for the locations of two appointments; one in Friedrichshain, the other in Hohenschönhausen. I call them both up on Google Maps and ask for the distance between them. A half second later and I have my answer: Six kilometres and an hour and twenty minutes when travelling on foot. Half an hour on a combination of trams. Fifteen minutes in a theoretical car. Outside it is overcast and blustery, but the forecast is that it should remain dry. Walking it is.
I start out from the RAW complex beside the railway tracks, below the bridge at Warschauer Straße. At home I have a reproduction of a 1902 street map of Berlin which tells me that this used to be a railway maintenance yard, part of a network of lines and stations in this corner of the city that linked Berlin with territories far to the east. Now it is a hub of cultural venues; of bars and clubs and galleries; a poster on an outside wall promises a swimming pool. Inside the walls appear to be held up by spray paint and fly posters.
These are familiar streets, in an area of Friedrichshain still predominantly built out of six-storey tenement blocks that spread out from the old city as part of Berlin’s expansion in the second half of the 19th century. After the war, when this was East Berlin, most of the buildings remained coal-heated and crumbling. After the Wall came the squatters and the artists. Then the real estate developers. Then the tourists. This particular street feels like Friedrichshain in microcosm: dog shit on the pavement and scaffolding on the last un-renovated buildings. A muffin shop and a tattoo. Pulled pork and exposed brick. Craft beer and posters for American trainers.
I pass by a strip of cafes, bars and restaurants. On summer evenings the pavement terraces are filled with patrons, but now most of the tables and chairs are locked together. Maybe it is too early in the day. Maybe it is too late in the year. Whatever the reason, there is not much life on the streets; a strolling couple and a small group of hungover tourists; parents with their prams; an underworked waiter supervising the arrival of a drinks delivery, cigarette hanging limply from the corner of his mouth.
I pass a heavy metal bar that has been on the corner longer than I have lived in Berlin. I only went in there once, back in the first months of my time in the city. Fifteen years ago. I can picture the table we sat at and who I was meeting there. I am no longer in contact with any of them and I idly wonder what they are all up to as I cross the street and head up towards the wide expanse of Frankfurter Allee that splits this neighbourhood in two, a boulevard that starts out life as Karl-Marx-Allee on Alexanderplatz and heads east; a parade of ‘palaces for the people’ built to replace the ruins of the Second World War.
DIE YUPPIE SCUM
The slogan on the wall is intended to intimidate, but it only makes me think of The Simpsons.
Beyond Frankfurter Allee I discover a new bookshop. It feels like a sign of hope in an increasingly depressing world and so I go inside and find myself telling this to the woman behind the counter. She smiles with recognition and tells me in turn that she has only been open since Saturday.
That’s why I opened the shop, she says, as her dog sniffs me suspiciously. I wanted to surround myself with these stories… not those ones, you know, out there…
She does not elaborate on the stories that she is insulating herself from. Perhaps she is thinking about the AfD, a right-wing populist party that achieved a strong showing in the Berlin elections ten days ago. A block away from the bookshop is one of the few remaining squats in Friedrichshain, a place where they are also reflecting on the election result. It seems like the career of Berlin’s interior minister is pretty much done, and that the occupied houses have survived longer than the man whose mission it was to clear them out once and for all.
HENKEL GEHT – WIR BLEIBEN
For now at least, they are staying put.
When you walk any city you can see and experience the fault-lines that exist between neighbourhoods and areas, whether they are official boundaries or not. Frankfurter Allee was an interruption of the 19th century district that still stands to the north and the south, but a little bit further up the hill and things change more dramatically. Here a whole section of the city was once given over to the central slaughterhouse, a huge agro-industrial complex designed to help feed the growing city. Now the remaining industrial buildings have been repurposed to house supermarkets and bike shops, and the rest of the complex has been filled by big box superstores and terraced townhouses standing in neat rows. One of the street names translates as ‘New World’, while under the skeleton frame of one of the old slaughterhouses desire paths criss-cross a patch of scruffy, litter-speckled grass.
Like so many places in Berlin you can feel the layers of the city’s history: the remnants of the 19th century industrial buildings; the 20th century East German tower blocks that look down from the other side of the S-Bahn tracks; the 21st century townhouses that offer a new version of suburbia for urbanites. I cross the railway using a covered iron bridge and descend into a very different cityscape, one built out of concrete and central planning. These concrete-slab blocks were built in the German Democratic Republic to replace those old tenement blocks, an imagined community built out of nothing in the early 1970s. In the windows above a Greek restaurant a series of photographs tell the story of the estate, from architects model to the arrival of the first cranes.
In many places across the former GDR these Plattenbau estates are much derided for their thin walls and their anonymous nature, but here it feels like you imagine the planners had hoped forty years ago when they laid out those models for members of the central committee. Thousands of apartment windows look down on a car-less central plaza, and on ground level are all the services one could imagine needing: supermarket and doctor’s surgery, florists and bookshop, library and pub. The trees and bushes are well-established and soften the effect of all that concrete. If you worked from home you could go weeks without ever needing to leave the estate.
And then, out the other side, and I am walking along another of those six-lane roads that link the centre of the city with the outskirts, and from perhaps the best of GDR urban design I am left small and insignificant, surrounded by perhaps the worst. Here it looks like it was designed on Sim City 2000. A big block of residential… HERE. A smaller block of commercial… HERE. A big block of industry… Not in Berlin, not any more. Everything feels oversized and after a walk through 19th, 20th and 21st century versions of Berlin and all the while surrounded by people, I now have the wide pavements to myself. No-one is walking here, even though tens of thousands of people must live in apartments that I can see from where I am standing.
The monotony of the walk is broken by one of the few remaining election posters still standing in the central reservation as the traffic streams by on either side. It is from the AfD, and reads like a racist prose poem:
To the immigrant I say:
Don’t thank Allah, instead
the ordinary people. Don’t thank
Merkel, but instead
the Germans, on whose taxes
you are living.
On the website of one of the local newspapers you can drill down to read the election results for a cluster of streets. Where this poster stands, the AfD received 20% of the vote, second only to the Left Party. One local at least seems to have been unimpressed with the poster, writing a ‘review’ in big black letters across the face of the candidate:
I move on, the walk have turned into something of a slog by now. And yet, even though I have travelled down this road many times by tram, car, motorbike and bicycle, there are still some things to discover now that I have slowed my progress down to a walk. I notice properly for the first time the waterworks and the beautiful architecture given to functional buildings such as these in the late 1800s. I come across a small colony of allotment gardens, compete with grills, gazebos and garden gnomes. I pass by a mobile sauna, incongruously parked up by the side of the road.
On my 1902 map of Berlin the waterworks were the only buildings standing in this corner of Berlin. Some new streets had been laid out, and dutifully marked on the map, but were as yet unnamed and empty. In September 2016, as I reach my destination, I walk across a new collection of streets, laid out but as empty as their historical counterparts, that stand between a housing complex, the six-lanes of traffic and the IKEA superstore. After six kilometres of walking through (east) Berlin, it seems that although this city may give the feeling that it is ever-changing, as history is layered upon history, some things remain the same.
Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton