Postcards from the Edge, Part Six: Borderland Suburbia

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Over the next few months I will be walking around the outskirts of Berlin, starting each walk where I finished the last, until I complete a loop of the edge of the city. These walks will be written up for a new book project, and here on Under a Grey Sky I will publish some postcards from along the way…

The path runs right through the middle of the field, a dusty trail that has smoothed away the ploughed furrows on either side. A hundred metres to the right is the Berlin Wall Trail and the edge of the city. Where I am walking would have once been a restricted zone. Now it is the last stretch of Brandenburg before the city limits. I am aiming at a collection of pastel yellow houses; a new estate occupying what had once been a farmer’s field, then the border fortifications of the GDR and then a field again. This mini-suburb, only partly finished, clings to the bottom of Berlin like a barnacle on a ship’s hull. Some of the gardens are neat, lawns laid and patio furniture waiting for the summer to come. Others are still sandy soil, the tracks of diggers and trucks still visible where one day there will be grass and trampolines, barbecue sets and wooden decking.

As the path approaches these new houses the ploughed field gives way to a patch of uncultivated and unbuilt land, an edgeland space about the width of a football pitch between the countryside and the new suburbia beyond. This land, presumably where the construction crews of the new estate parked their vehicles and their portaloos, now contains the remnants of all the activities that come to unclaimed spaces such as these; places that are neither here nor there. A fly-tipped refrigerator. The burned circle of a bonfire. Empty beer bottles. Dirt bike treads. And then, two steps, and my feet leave the squelchy, muddy ground and hit the tarmac of the new street.

I move quickly through the estate. The houses feel too-close together, the gardens mean. You’d better get on with your neighbours.  I follow the road around and now it is right on the boundary to Berlin, the new estate facing the more established West Berlin suburbia of detached houses and allotment gardens on the other side. It appears the authorities have been unable to agree on shared infrastructure, as two streets run parallel to each other, divided only by a line of raised kerbstones. On the Brandenburg side the street is new, recently-laid and smooth. In Berlin it is uneven, potholed and neglected. The Berlin Wall is long gone, but here at least the dividing line is clear to see. Borders can still make a difference it seems, even when the concrete and wire are nothing but a three-decade-old memory.

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One thought on “Postcards from the Edge, Part Six: Borderland Suburbia

  1. Phil Scraton

    This is a thought-provoking post and I’m really looking forward to the full story. In the early decades of the 20th Century ‘Chicago School’ social researchers within the University of Chicago’s then recently formed Sociology Department, traced the transitionary forms taken by urban redevelopment of the fast-expanding city. Through carefully observed and closely plotted primary research in communities, they introduced the the notion of ‘zones of transition’ – the hinterlands of social dislocation and disharmony within ever-evolving and expanding industrial cities. The key principle was that in the ‘struggle for space’ the moneyed class living relatively close to the centres of ‘young’ cities eventually move from their grand houses, selling them to multi-occupancy speculators who rented them to working class families. The move to the outskirts, enabled by the refinement of transport systems and the arrival of the motor car, became more pronounced with the expansion of a burgeoning ‘middle class’ on whose existence advanced capitalist economies depended. This ‘jump over’ of urban developments in transition went a stage further in the UK with the arrival of ‘new towns’ and ‘industrial estates’ built around well-established cities. Families living in declining inner-city housing, often in tight-knit social communities, were metaphorically ‘air-lifted’ out and ‘parachuted in’ to these new developments. Around Liverpool, for example, many of these medium to high rise estates built in the 1970s already have been razed to the ground – social engineering experiments condemned by the planners’ lack of understanding of social cohesion and ‘community’. In Ireland, where I now live, the economic boom that became known as the ‘Celtic Tiger’, bank-rolled primarily by European subsidies, came to an abrupt halt in 2008 leaving entire housing estates half-complete – foundations laid, sewage systems installed, first floors constructed – with bankrupt architects’ plans blowing on the chilled breeze. Your post, Paul, not least the photograph of modern middle class ‘mansions’ butted up against each other, brought all this back to me … it captures perfectly the ‘moment’ of transition, hinting the backstory of urbanisation and revealing the imposed uniformity of aspirational middle class living while giving a nod back to a past lost to the bulldozer and the dumper truck. Meanwhile, back in Liverpool and numerous other broken seaports, the inner-cities’ rat-infested warehouses and pump rooms whose bricks and mortar can tell a thousand stories of the privations of those who worked within, now house the newly affluent whose priorities are not restricted to the fine view across the River Mersey to the Welsh Hills, but their proximity to a rejuvenated City.

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