By Mr. TWS
The Mayor General of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, said in 2004 that Berlin was “poor but sexy”. That characterization is shared by many Berliners and others, partly because it is exciting and edgy. Berlin also seems to be in a constant mode of change, prompting this characterization by French politician Jack Lang: “Paris is always Paris and Berlin is never Berlin!”.
Kreuzberg, the southwestern part of the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg borough located in the city’s center, embodies these aspects of Berlin. The borough was formed by joining the former East Berlin borough Friedrichshain with the West Berlin borough of Kreuzberg in 2001. The two parts on opposite banks of the Spree River are connected only by the Oberbaum Bridge. Understandably, the union has not been particularly harmonious with disputes such as where to locate the city hall, which was resolved only through a coin toss.
Recently in Berlin, I took a Context Travel walking seminar, “Kreuzberg, from Counterculture to Culture Capital” led by Robert Sommer. Temperatures had dipped to just above freezing with winds over 20 miles per hour (32 km/h), making note and photo taking a challenge, but I’m really happy that I didn’t miss the experience of getting Robert’s informed and entertaining narrative about Kreuzberg. The tour emphasized two themes — change (including the tour’s title concept, counterculture to culture capital) and the remaining evidence of WWII and the Berlin Wall. These aspects of Kreuzberg among others have made it legendary in Berlin (and elsewhere) and make the citizens chauvinistic about Kreuzberg and reluctant to leave.
Kreuzberg is one of Berlin’s poorest, most diverse, and most densely populated areas. It is also a traditional center of counterculture and art in Berlin. Kreuzberg was at the heart of the city’s industrialization and growth in the 1860’s, much of which was destroyed in World War II. Additionally, it was the only post-WWII area in Berlin with rent control, curtailing investment. Thus, Kreuzberg became a low-rent district attracting many post-WWII immigrants leading to its cultural diversity. Surrounded on three sides by the Berlin Wall, Kreuzberg was very isolated from the rest of West Berlin during the wall era, which contributed to it being the poorest area of the city. However, recent gentrification efforts are a source of unrest among the traditional counterculture residents.
The tour began at the mosque pictured above, an apt starting point as it was one of the key sites in the first May Day riots in 1987. The peaceful gathering broke into a riot when confronted by police and spread with looting and arson. As the story goes, the spoils of the looters from this site were given to poor Turkish immigrants. A supermarket on the site was burned to the ground and the revered location remained vacant and protected from new construction by the people of Kreuzberg until the Turkish community suggested this mosque. The site still symbolizes the counterculture representation of Kreuzberg that is part of its history and lore.
Violent riots have been repeated yearly to commemorate the 1987 event, though the attendees have changed from true revolutionaries to young arsonists and vandals migrating annually from around Europe and seeking a “happening”. In recent years Kreuzberg citizens and merchants tired of having their autos, businesses and neighborhoods destroyed and looted by outsiders have to some extent successfully implemented Myfest, a festival of music, food and drink, that has helped to mitigate the rioting and damage. The riots certainly are a key part of Kreuzberg’s reputation. Robert spoke of one of the riots shortly after the fall of the wall where the formerly East Berliners from Friedrichshain wanted to do their own May Day riot. They first went to Kreuzberg surprising the police with the extra numbers. As Robert quipped, they might have said: “Let’s go to Kreuzberg; those guys really know how to riot.”
The above-ground U-Bahn track identifies this as a poorer area where the expense was not taken to build underground (as in other Berlin neighborhoods).
Görlitzer Bahnhof, once a major train station in Berlin, was damaged by bombing in World War II and marginalized with the erection of the Wall. It was demolished in 1975 with only the small office and sheds remaining. The majestic pre-WWII Görlitzer Bahnhof has been replaced by the small present day U-Bahn station nearby.
The fall of the Wall and gentrification have contributed to the eclectic nature of Kreuzberg’s architecture resulting from rapid changes. Beautiful 18th and 19th century buildings are surrounded by 1970s buildings with no windows on one side because of the Berlin Wall or evidence of WWII damage.
One of two failed construction projects we saw was the remains of a small amphitheater condemned shortly after its completion because the stone used for the seating was too soft, crumbled and became a safety hazard. The seemingly omnipresent graffiti of Kreuzberg is also visible.
The adjoining rail works has been converted into Kreuzberg’s largest park, Görlitzer Park. The depression in the park (pictured below) resulted from a large bomb crater, further evidence of WWII damage.
Throughout Kreuzberg we saw graffiti and street art, although I’m never quite sure of the line dividing the two.
I don’t recall the location of the building below. I don’t think it was against the Wall though it does look like other buildings with a windowless side that would have faced the Berlin Wall. I liked the art and 3 dimensional illusion of the building, especially effective on this gray day.
I found the graffiti on the traffic sign below (and at the top of this post) amusing. However, these clever markups of traffic signs are not amusing to the police who are trying to apprehend the culprit.
Below is more graffiti from the significant portion of the Berlin Wall along the Spree in Friedrichshain just at the Oberbaum Bridge. The bridge was considerably damaged in World War II and later became one of the crossing checkpoints during the Berlin Wall era.
Kreuzberg’s Mariannenplatz is located the former Bethanien Hospital built in the mid 19th century. The Berlin Wall went up very near the hospital and because of this isolation it gradually was abandoned. It was targeted in the 1970s for demolition but saved by squatters (another Kreuzberg tradition) and citizen activists and used today as an art and culture center with different groups pursuing activities, such as performing arts, art studios, art exhibits and a printmaker’s workshop.
Another failed reclamation project was Luisenstadt Canal, built between 1848 and 1852 to connect the Landwehr Canal with the Spree River. Due to low water levels, the water became stagnant, quite smelly, and a health hazard, and so it was filled in during the 1920s. The gardens that were created on the site in the 20’s have been restored over the last 20 years from the heavy destruction suffered in WWII.
The canal was wide at its bend to provide room for ships to turn the corner. That section of the canal has been converted to a pool with the surrounding park pictured below.
This vantage provided a 360° view which included nearby buildings, the juxtaposition of clashing architectures and St. Mary’s church.
Below are several other buildings that I thought interesting and characteristic of some of the beautiful older architecture in Kreuzberg. However, in the photo below, the air conditioner in the window in the leftmost building has a negative effect on the aesthetic.
Many immigrants have been attracted to Kreuzberg over the years. In particular, there is a significant Turkish population. The only access to Turkish TV is through satellite. So the Turkish areas tend to be identified with a larger than usual proportion of satellite dishes.
The punk rock scene was one of the key aspects of Kreuzberg’s counterculture reputation. The iconic SO36 Club was considered punk rock’s Berlin center and continues to be an important part of the city’s live music scene. Incidentally, the name derives from the old postal code of SO36 for the eastern area of Kreuzberg that we toured.
Kreuzberg is the only Berlin borough where the Green party has a plurality. Pictured below is the Green Party headquarters in Kreuzberg, with a fish mural.
So what’s noteworthy about a WC with some graffiti? This WC has been converted to a food stand called Burgermeister with highly regarded hamburgers. I’m sorry that I didn’t get a photo from the front; the cold induced me to avoid lengthening the tour and I also really (but incorrectly) thought Robert was pulling our legs.
Fast food franchises are omnipresent in Europe, but in Kreuzberg there was considerable protest against this McDonald’s before it was built. However, the adjacent grade school lobbied very hard to allow it. This seems consistent with the theme of Kreuzberg’s counterculture, reacting with cooperation and amelioration to opposition by influential community members.
The construction shown below epitomizes the change in Kreuzberg: new building replacing beautiful older architecture and gentrification abhorred by longer-established residents and the counterculture.
Also contributing to Kreuzberg’s counterculture reputation is squatting. It seems to be a common historical practice unique to Kreuzberg in Berlin. As Robert told the story, after the fall of the Wall, squatters moved in and took over this portion of land erecting a shack that they continue to occupy today.
Additionally, protest is part of the Kreuzberg heritage. Protesters, who began their demonstrations at the Brandenburg Gate, moved to this spot in Kreuzberg, a more tolerant environment, when they encountered resistance. The chimney on the tent exemplifies the permanency of their stay.
This monument in Mariannenplatz seems to depict a rather unflattering nose on the firefighters. Was that intentional ridicule rather than a tribute since rioters could potentially view the firefighters as adversarial to their destructive objectives?
At the end of the pictured block below, after the erection of the Berlin Wall a famous journalist critical of the radical left, Axel Springer, built a large house close to and facing the wall in defiance. In retaliation, the East Germans erected 6 high-rise buildings (at least 23 stories) near the wall that overshadowed the house. To add insult to injury after the fall of the wall, the name of the street was dedicated to an arch-rival activist, Rudi Dutschke, often attacked in writing by Springer. In disgust, the journalist added another entrance and used his political influence to change the address of the abode to the perpendicular street.
Cold and gray as the day was, the tour was very intriguing. If you get to Berlin, carve some time to stroll Kreuzberg. Better yet, take the Context Travel walking seminar to really get a feeling of the uniqueness of Kreuzberg in edgy and sexy Berlin.
Disclosure: My walking tour was hosted by Context Travel, but my opinions are my own — as always.
This is our contribution to Travel Photo Thursday at Budget Travelers Sandbox