The Cathedral of the North

A Berlin story:

Outside the church a young woman pushes her bike up the cobblestoned incline that leads from the street to the door, passing by flower beds cut back for the winter and a slender post covered in words and images that, if you press on one of the small, silver buttons, will tell you the history of this building and its surroundings in a number of different languages. She doesn’t have time, and anyway, she has heard them before. Her bike is laden with shopping bags – in the basket and hanging from the handlebars – and she needs to get home. These are not supplies picked up on this square around the church; she had to ride to the supermarket and push her bike back. There is a shop on the corner, its neon sign suggesting you might find stacks of fresh produce in crates on the uneven pavement beneath. But look below and the pavement is bare. No fruit today or any day. Behind the windows, headless dummies model elegant clothes.

When the church was built it was known as the Cathedral of the North, standing atop the city’s highest hill. The slopes of the hill were once covered in vineyards, beyond the city walls, but by the 1860s, when the cornerstone was laid, the city was reaching out. To the north, to the east and to the south new neighbourhoods were built to house the workers arriving from the provinces and beyond. They were to provide muscle in the factories and breweries that powered a city’s rise from minor royal seat to the metropolis at the heart of the Empire. By the time it was consecrated a war had been won and the Empire was indeed born; the Emperor himself coming to the top of the hill to mark the occasion.

The forces that created the need for a new church high on the slopes would shape what followed, helping create stories that would be told by the families who made a home within earshot of the church bells and the disembodied voices sounding from the slender post at the bottom of the cobblestoned slope. They were tales of the poverty of those first decades and the welfare organisations developed in face of rampant hyperinflation in the aftermath of the first war; the destruction of the roof in the bombing raids of the war that followed; the emergence  from that conflict into a country and system where the church was given a new role right on the fringes of the new society.

This corner of the city had always been a place of dirty air and poor sanitation, ever since the vineyards were replaced with houses and their coal-burning stoves and the fields that surrounded them with factories and breweries. In the now-divided city, the situation would only get worse. Brown coal in the houses and inefficient factories belching smoke. Whole forests dying beneath clouds of acid rain. To the east, nuclear reactors went into meltdown, the fall out respecting no borders, whether built of iron, concrete or steel. In the church a library was created, a place for young people to meet and to plan their protest. The environment was first, but the whole system was coming into question. The authorities responded to what they were up to, and the church was raided. It was attacked by thugs as the police looked on. It didn’t feel like it at the time, but they were the impotent spasms of a regime whose time was soon to pass.

And after? The woman with the bicycle moved here at the start of the new century. It was still a place where the reputation lingered on; a reputation of young people standing up to one regime and a young pastor, remembered in a sculpture by the walls of the church, standing up to another. When she arrived the shop on the corner still sold fruit and vegetables, and the bar next door was home to a large painting of Rosa Luxemburg. In those years before and after she arrived the neighbourhood was transforming itself. Coal ovens were ripped out. Elevators were bolted to the outside of walk-up tenement blocks. Balconies too. Bomb site gaps were filled in, the new apartments boasting floor-to-ceiling windows at ever-higher prices. The air at the top of the hill became cleaner; the streets too. People left, and were replaced by others, like the woman with the bicycle. It wasn’t long before those who had arrived also began to leave. A population churn. Rosa was first. Then the young family upstairs. Then the grocer.

The woman remains, for now. If she ever wants to move, she’ll have to leave the neighbourhood. The prices are now too high. More of her old neighbours have gone. Others are clinging on. Theirs is another story of this city, another story of the surroundings of the hilltop church, to be added to the rest that live on in the stones of the Cathedral of the North.

Words & Picture: Paul Scraton

1 thought on “The Cathedral of the North

  1. Deena Haydon


    Nice piece!

    It is amazing how places change within relatively short spaces of time. Great that these processes are being documented, and with stories about the people as well as the politics of change.

    Talk soon,



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