Paul Scraton explores trendy Neukölln’s old heart...
It is a grey day in Berlin, which makes the Sonnenallee feel all the more gloomy. I am meeting my friend and Neukölln resident Julia at her apartment so she can show me the way to Rixdorf, an old village that still – just about – exists within the confines of the S-Bahn ring despite being swallowed by the city over a hundred years ago.
As we walk south, away from Hermannplatz, there is not much in our surroundings that suggests village life. This corner of the city is one of traffic and noise, takeaways and internet cafes, the electronic stores offering up second hand gadgets and tobacconists selling calling cards to five different continents.
People often comment that Berlin, for the most part, does not have the feel of such a big city. It’s quite spread out, with plenty of green spaces. Its fractured nature means there is no real centre, and people tend to orientate themselves around their neighbourhoods. It never really feels as hectic as London, New York or Paris.
Still, there are places, such as the Müllerstraße in Wedding, or the Potsdamer Straße in Tiergarten, where you get that big city feeling, and Sonnenallee has it too. And so it makes the contrast all the more striking when you turn down the Richardstraße and find yourself walking amongst half-timbered farmhouses, old stables that have been renovated but still betray signs of their original function, and cobbled alleyways that are lit, on this gloomy day, by what appear to be gas lamps.
The heart of old Rixdorf is the Richardplatz, one of those city squares for which the term “leafy” could have been invented. Here the dorf shares space with those classic five-storey Altbauten built as the city encroached at the beginning of the twentieth century. There are a couple of sixties houses in there as well, all right angles and boxy as if built from Lego.
But Rixdorf holds on, with the old blacksmith’s workshop at the centre of the square, still looking for all the world that if there is a horse that needs shoeing then these are the folks that can get it done. There’s a horse and carriage business across the street that has been ferrying brides, grooms and funeral caskets for over a hundred years. And tucked away in the corner is the old village church, which was built in 1648 following a fire that destroyed an even older structure.
We poke our heads inside the door to find a handful of neat red pews beneath whitewashed stone walls. This is truly a village church, just as those farmhouses, cottages and stables standing in the surroundings clearly still belong to a village.
Head out into Brandenburg and you will see much the same scene repeated from one small settlement to the next. Indeed, it could have the feeling of an historical recreation if it wasn’t so obviously lived in – if it wasn’t in Neukölln, and there wasn’t litter blowing across the cobbled alleyway, spray-paint on the old stone walls and the hustle and bustle of Karl-Marx-Straße wasn’t just a three minute walk away.
As the church shows, the old village of Rixdorf dates back at least 600 years, although the part you can still see today dates from 1737 when King Frederick William I of Prussia invited 350 Moravian Protestants expelled from Bohemia to come and live along the street to Berlin (now Richardstraße). This became known as Böhmisch-Rixdorf, located slightly to the north of the older, German village.
By the end of the nineteenth century, with the unification of Germany and the two halves of the village, the city to the south had grown ever closer, and the neighbourhood became something of a nightlife playground, with an increasing number of taverns, dancehalls and theatres springing up, all the while leaving much of the old bohemian village core intact.
At the beginning of the twentieth century Rixdorf was the largest village in Prussia, a place where Berliners went for drinking, dancing and anything else they could get up to once darkness fell. “In Rixdorf ist Musike…” went the saying, and plenty more besides. By 1911 the reputation of the neighbourhood was so bad that the old village name was cast aside in exchange for Neukölln, itself a historical reference to the original settlement on the Spree. This rebranded town did not maintain its independence for long, as by 1920 the new Greater Berlin was founded, its boundaries extending to its present-day extent, and Neukölln was subsumed as one of the districts of the wider city.
We end our walk by heading out from the village square past the gates to the old bohemian cemetery to the traffic and big city life of the Karl-Marx-Straße. We stop for coffee at the Café Rix, located in the complex that houses of Heimathafen theatre, plus a cinema and restaurants; one of those entertainment complexes that gave old Rixdorf a bad name but are now a point of local culture and pride for the Neukölln community. On a chalkboard behind the wall they are advertising a new locally brewed beer, and the menu comes with a history of the neighbourhood and the building in which we are sitting.
As so often in Berlin, we found that in searching for Rixdorf we could follow the story from village to town to city district in the very buildings we stumbled across. We learned that this corner of the city, where so many people from so many corners of the world built a new home, has a long history of immigration, whether it is from Bohemia, Turkey or Lebanon.
But mostly we discovered that Rixdorf actually exists: not as a sanitised model of a lost past, but as a regular, functioning, living-and-working kiez within the city, one not only worth exploring but one that’s very special indeed.