Kreuzberg: Berlin with an Edge

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!”.

"Quirky, unauthorized sign on Adalbertstrasse in Kreuzberg borough of Berlin"

Quirky sign on Adalbertstrasse in Kreuzberg borough of 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.

"Oberbaum Bridge connecting both parts of the Kreuzberg borough of Berlin over the Spree River

Oberbaum Bridge over the Spree River

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.

"Mosque in Kreuzberg that was a key site in the first May Day riot in 1987"

Kreuzberg mosque

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.

"Görlitzer Bahnhof in Kreuzberg was a major railway station in Berlin prior to World War II"

Görlitzer Bahnhof

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.

"A failed projecct: Remains of small amphitheater in Kreuzberg, Berlin"

Remains of small amphitheater in Kreuzberg

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.

"A World War II bomb left this crater depression in Large bomb crater in Görlitzer Park in Kreuzberg borough of Berlin"

Large bomb crater in Görlitzer Park

Throughout Kreuzberg we saw graffiti and street art, although I’m never quite sure of the line dividing the two.

"Graffiti on wall in Kreuzberg, Berlin""Graffiti or street art? Kreuzberg, Berlin"

"Street art in Kreuzberg, Berlin""More graffiti on wall in Kreuzberg borough of Berlin"

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.

"Mural on windowless building in Kreuzberg gives it a three dimensional illusion"

Mural on windowless building in Kreuzberg

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.

"Unauthorized, but amusing street sign in Kreuzberg borough of Berlin. Culprit being sought!"

Unauthorized, but amusing street sign

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.

"Graffiti on a remaining section of the Berlin Wall along the River Spree in Kreuzberg borough of Berlin"

A remaining section of the Berlin Wall along the Spree

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.

"19th Century former Bethanien Hospital in Kreuzberg's Mariannenplatz, Berlin"

Former Bethanien Hospital in Mariannenplatz

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.

"Luisenstadt Canal in Kreuzberg"

Pool and park at the Luisenstadt Canal

This vantage provided a 360° view which included nearby buildings, the juxtaposition of clashing architectures and St. Mary’s church.

"St. Mary's Church as an example of the clashing architectures in Kreuzberg, Berlin"

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.

"Beautiful old Kreuzberg architecture marred by air conditioner in window"

Kreuzberg buildings

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.

"Satellite dishes dot the balconies of apartments in Turkish area of Kreuzberg""

Satellite dishes dot the balconies of apartments in Turkish area of Kreuzberg

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.

"SO 36 live music club in Kreuzberg, was considered punk rock's center in Berlin"

SO 36 live music club

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.

"Green Party headquarters in Kreuzberg, Berlin"

Green Party headquarters

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.

"Former WC on street of Kreuzberg Berlin is now a hamburger stand"

Former WC in Kreuzberg

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.

"Controversy surrounded the building of this McDonald's in Kreuzberg Berlin"

Controversy surrounded the building of this McDonald’s

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.

"Ongoing construction and gentrification in Kreuzberg Berlin"

Ongoing construction in Kreuzberg

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.

'Squatters took over a portion of land in Kreuzberg after the fall of the Berlin Wall"

Squatters in Kreuzberg

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.

"Chimney on tent put up by protestors in Kreuzberg Berlin"

Protestors’ tents in Kreuzberg

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?

"Firefighters with unflattering noses on monument in Kreuzberg Berlin"

Firefighters monument

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.

IMG_8288

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.

"Slogan on a t-shirt in a Kreuzberg shop: Welcome to Berlin. Now Go Home"

Slogan on t-shirt on the left: “Welcome to Berlin. Now Go Home”

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

48 thoughts on “Kreuzberg: Berlin with an Edge

  1. christopher

    I can’t believe you were just in Berlin. Not last week, right? The pictures don’t look snowy enough. I’ve just come back from Berlin and am driving back there in the morning. It would be great to meet you! Great pictures of Berlin. They really show the personality of the city. Did you see on TV today how the Eastside Gallery is being partially dismantled to make way for an apartment house?

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      Thanks for kudos. We were there until the 9th and left just before the snow. We did see the dismantling of the Eastside Gallery on TV and were a bit surprised since it’s become such an iconic thing to see there.

  2. Linda

    Fascinating! I’ve long wanted to visit Berlin since I devoured all Christopher Isherwood’s books when I was in my teens (think Cabaret if you don’t know his work….it was loosely based on one of his books). It seemed too complicated in the years when I used to visit Germany, and then when the wall fell I felt as if I wanted to think of it as it clearly had been before WW2, quirky, cutting-edge arty and liberal. I thought the troubles would have changed it, but it sounds as if they didn’t. You make it sound as if it has all the character I sensed in Isherwood’s writing!

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      I’ve not read any of the books but Cabaret had the same impact on me regarding Berlin. It was an amazing movie and it really conveyed a unique place in history at a very interesting time.

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      I agree on both counts. Berlin is great and Context Tours are awesome. The guides are so very good. A few hours out of even short trips has a big impact on the enjoyment of the overall visit. Thanks, Robert also helped fill in the blanks after I got back and started working on the post. It wasn’t cold by winter standards but was cold based on the drastic change.

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      Thanks. You’re exactly right about seeing things you’d never find on your own (even using sources, such as travel guidebooks) and that’s the beauty of the Context Travel Tours. The sign is the work of the same graffiti artist whose other sign is pictured lower in the post – apparently has the police pulling their hair out. Your comment makes me think of a tweet asking people what they think the sign (with the extra graffiti) is trying to direct/warn.

  3. Kren Dawkins

    My son is spending next summer in Germany, part of the time in Berlin. I’m forwarding your post to him. We always appreciate the “other side” of travel — the information you’d never find in a tour guide book. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      That’s exactly what makes Context Travel Tours so good. How exciting for your son. It’s always amazing how fast the time goes on trips. Short trips get us to more places with more diversity but there’s nothing like a month or more in a place to really get immersed.

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      Good point. I didn’t really think of it but it must have taken considerable time and I can’t imagine it could have been done without scaffolding and without the cooperation of the building owner. But that makes me think of a lot of graffiti that clearly would not have had cooperation and required considerable stunt work to pull off.

  4. Jennifer

    With such a busy week at ITB, we didn’t get to explore this area of Berlin at all. We did drive by the bridge on our Trabi Safari and I found it to be such a beautiful bridge. I definitely want to go back and explore more of Berlin!

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      We really felt the same way. We had planned to do more but ITB was consuming. We’d made our first visit about a year earlier but it was only a week end and we want to go back; much more to see and do.

  5. jenny@atasteoftravel

    Your post is particullarly well timed as we’re heading to Berlin in May. I was actually looking at this tour so it was great to see your photos and read about it. There’s so much to see and do there that it’s all a bit daunting at the moment!

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      It’s always the challenge to absorb all the information about new places and decide what to prioritize. I hope you get to include the tour. I think you’ll find it very interesting. There were many other photos I took that didn’t fit the theme of the post and many areas like the parks will be more beautiful in May.

  6. Leigh

    I learned a lot from this blog – especially considering I hadn’t heard of Kreuzberg before. It reminds me somewhat of Bogota with the omnipresent graffiti or is it art. Great idea taking the tour. I can’t imagine you’d get half of what you learned just by walking around.

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      Exactly right about not getting even half. Robert, our guide, was extremely informed and interesting. Thanks for your comments – glad you liked the post.

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      I debated taking the picture because you could take pictures of McD’s anywhere. However, it was good to hear there was significant opposition to this one; and I found the concept of a place known for radicalism, protest and even riots making concessions to the interests of small segments of their community.

  7. Just One Boomer (Suzanne)

    We took two Scala Reale walking tours in Rome. Scala Reale subsequently became Context Tours. There really is value added to a tour when the guide is literally an expert—-often with an appropriate Ph.D. For those planning to attend TBEX in Dublin, you can do a history tour with history Ph.Ds at Trinity College.

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      Absolutely! The value is very high. Our 2 recent Context Tours were done by PhDs, native to the areas of the tours. They are informed and often it is because they are very interested in the area and therefore they are also enthusiastic in their narrative. What a great combination and nice addition to any trip.

  8. Lisa @ Gone With The Family

    Loved the fascinating background information about an area of Berlin that I didn’t know existed. We had a Context Travel tour of the Vatican Museums in Rome that was part of their family program and it was wonderful – they do an incredible job!

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      I couldn’t agree more, incredible. I did find it fascinating and learned much more than I could relate in a short post. Krezberg was a fascinating part of a fascinating city.

  9. fotoeins | Henry

    As I was in the German capital for 9 weeks in the late-fall of 2012, I’ve been listening a lot to “Kreuzberg am Meer” (by Marteria, Yasha, and Miss Platnum), and I’ve been thinking a lot about Berlin, including the Kreuzberg Kiez. Great photographs with a cross-section of the neighbourhood; glad you had a great informative tour of Kreuzberg!

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      Thanks for the comments. It must have been great to spend that amount of time in Berlin. A few years back, we had over 3 months in NYC and it was outstanding. The tour was very informative and despite the cold lots of fun. Guide had a good sense of humor to match his knowledge and enthusiasm.

  10. Mary {The World Is A Book}

    Great narrative and photos on what looks like a wonderful tour. I’ve never heard of Kreuzberg but really learned a lot from this post. The amusing sign and all those satellite dish on the building made me smile. It’s wonderful to know you’ve had positive experiences with Context Travel. I’m looking into using them for a family tour in London this summer.

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      Thanks for the comments. Glad you enjoyed it. We’re 3 for 3 with Context Travel, all in the last year. All great experiences and relatively diverse but all informative – finding things you’d never get on your own. Nice addition to any trip.

  11. Salika Jay

    Hahaha…those traffic signs are hilarious but I’m sure the police is not so happy about such signs. For a moment I wondered what those signs mean. Good insight to Kreuzberg, Mr. TWS!

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      Robert said they were trying hard to find him/her. From your and another comment, I think it would be a fun tweet question – what do you think the sign is trying to warn/direct? It’s a really different kind of graffiti, using the context of the sign and extending it. They still make me smile when I see or think of them. Thanks for your comments.

  12. budget jan

    I always hear wonderful things about Berlin. My daughter who is an artist herself loved the art of Berlin. As far as the “is it art”or “is it graffiti” question. If I like it I consider it art, and if it doesn’t appeal it is graffiti 🙂

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      I like your dividing line for art/graffiti; I think that’s what I do – just never really put it into words. We’ve only had limited time in Berlin and hope to get back.

  13. Nancie

    The last time I was in Berlin the Wall was still up. In fact, my friends and I almost got arrested because we tried to go from East to West on our Eurail passes (innocent mistake)! At that time Berlin was a pretty unfriendly city. I hear so many good things about it these days. I definitely want to go back.

    1. Mr. TWS Post author

      I hope you make it back. I can’t imagine how much change you’ll see. It would really be an interesting trip.

  14. Andrew

    Neat. Despite being in Germany for so long I know very little about Berlin. We are at the complete other end of the country. We need to go hang out up there at some point.

    I have a pic of a similar no entrance sign from Montmarte in Paris. Love the green WC.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.