Bertie Alexander on life in one of Berlin’s most maligned districts…
In her novel Book of Clouds, Chloe Aridjis writes of the stark ‘mantra of Communist housing’ that rises up to the East outside Berlin’s Ring Bahn, which circles the inner city. The narrator describes the tower blocks (Plattenbauten) – which lack the romanticism of Frankfurter Tor or Karl-Marx-Allee – as ‘looming and vast…concrete edifices [that] overwhelmed the horizon.’
They might not be romantic, but neither do Berlin’s Eastern suburbs possess the gritty glamour of Paris’ riot-ridden banlieues; nor are they dotted with the trendy neon clubber haunts and electric galleries found around East London’s fringes. They’re often considered to add little or nothing to the city’s character. Irrelevant and detached, they are usually treated indifferently at best; a wrinkle of the nose and a withering pronouncement: ‘nichts da’ (nothing there).
Marzahn-Hellersdorf is usually held up as the worst of these Eastern districts. Incorporated into East Berlin in 1949 as the GDR’s solution to their massive housing problem, the district’s infamous Plattenbauten were built around the charming older village of Alt-Marzahn from the mid-60s onwards. By 1979, 4,000 apartments had been built, and by 1986 Hellersdorf officially became its own borough, though the two are still commonly referred to as one district.
Today the horizon is still dominated by those clusters of concrete blocks featuring pre-assembled bathrooms and kitchens, sometimes coloured in pastel hues or decorated with pebbled concrete, but mostly a bland, uniform grey. Add to that rumours of Russian gangs, cigarette-smuggling Vietnamese mafia and high profile neo-Nazi occurrences (such as a recent hate-fuelled campaign by the right-wing National Democratic Party (NPD) to prevent the conversion of a former school into a refugee home), and it’s little surprise that most people visiting or living in central Berlin are unlikely to make it out this way.
My own discovery of Marzahn came early on. Brand new to the city and both financially and geographically challenged, I found myself heading there on the S7 one day to view an apartment. I watched from the train window as the central city started to fall away after Lichtenberg. As we headed past Springpfuhl, I felt like I was on a train bound for Poland, Belarus or even the blood-red heart of the former Soviet Union.
S-Bahn Marzahn had none of the attractive dilapidation and edgy shabbiness that had come to define Berlin in my short time here. Gone were the ornate balconies and the cascading ivy, the peacock punks and general jumble of eccentricity. Instead I faced a large, empty car park and a shopping mall, its name – EASTGATE – emblazoned across the front in garish red capitals, pretty much the only colour there was.
Standing under a sky the colour of slate and looking at the grey tower blocks standing around me like inscrutable concrete sentries, I must admit I felt somewhat depressed. The flat I had come to view was on the sixth floor of one of these anonymous blocks. The two existing tenants – a German and Canadian in their early 20s – were crouched over a laptop inspecting the results of the recent general election, and discussing how once again the highest concentration of NPD votes in Berlin came from Marzahn-Hellersdorf. My heart sank a bit lower.
‘Yeah, but you can tell who they are,’ my prospective flatmates assured me. ‘You just need to keep away from them. And not speak English.’ I left the flat and tried to find my way back to the tram-stop. It was dark by now and I got lost along the paths that snake in and around the Plattenbauten. My heart jumped when I was confronted by a wheezing old man walking his dog. ‘Hast du Feuer?’ he asked — and then thanked me heartily when I handed him my lighter.
It transpired that the man lived directly below my new flat, with his wife. I passed them most mornings and they would greet me cheerfully while pulling their growling old terrier behind them. The dog, as it turned out, was the only source of animosity I ever experienced in Marzahn. No one took issue with my British accent, and the fears of neo-Nazis quickly proved unwarranted.
Indeed, the fact that Marzahn-Hellersdorf is home to the greatest number of Vietnamese and German-Russians in the city, only adds to its character. On the 10-minute walk to the S-Bahn station from my flat I would pass two illegal cigarette Handelsplätzen (trading spots). You can find these in many spots around the city, and they consist of a Vietnamese man or woman hovering nonchalantly next to a varied assortment of cigarette packets that stand like toy soldiers on the ground.
This is pretty much all that is left of the Vietnamese mafia which was rife in Marzahn in the 1990s. The decade saw a string of deaths plague the district as an underground war raged between two principal gangs. The war was officially announced as over in May 1998 with the collapse of the two factions. Smuggling still continues, but is now run by a multitude of smaller groups and is much more low-key. Today you are more likely to see Vietnamese flower stands and vegetable stalls than the Handelsplätzen.
The Russians in Marzahn-Hellersdorf number some 13,000, mostly descendants of German immigrants invited to Russia by Catherine the Great in the 18th Century. Since being permitted to return to their homeland by Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, more than two million have chosen to do so, though as the German language was banned in the USSR during World War One, then later repressed under Stalin, many of the returning Russian-Germans were unable to speak their native tongue. Consequently, not only can Russian be heard all over Marzahn-Hellersdorf, it’s also possible to buy Russian newspapers and groceries, and watch televised Russian football matches in bars.
The grey mood that initially dominated the area gradually started to give way. My flat was just off the tree-lined Mehrower Allee, and a short walk in any direction brought me to recreational spaces — a football pitch, a small park. I would find elementary schools and children’s play areas everywhere, mostly left over from the GDR years when Marzahn was giving birth to more babies than anywhere else in East Berlin. There was a shopping mall not far from my flat, complete with bank, pharmacy, grocers and a couple of supermarkets. For more extravagant evenings out, the mall offered an Asian take-away and carpeted bars with televisions and arcade machines.
I found a job and settled silently into my new community, joining the throng of centre-bound commuters each morning: adults sucking on cigarettes, children bundled up on their way to school, Vietnamese women restraining their boisterous toddlers. I hated these journeys in and out of the city at first, especially while stranded at cold, bleak stations like Ostkreuz or Friedrichsfelde Ost, something my Neukölln- or Friedrichshain-dwelling friends would never experience.
In an attempt to avoid the monotony of the BVG routes, when the weather was fine I would get off at different stops along the way home and continue the journey on foot. Often I would wind my way through the back alleys and cobbled streets of Alt-Marzahn, the first known record of which dates back to 1300 when Albert III, then ruler of Brandenburg, granted the village ‘Morczane’ to the Friedland Cistercian Abbey.
The gothic church that serves as the centrepiece of the village was completed as late as 1871, and like the mill on the hillock overlooking Alt-Marzahn, some of the houses have been rebuilt in the old style after suffering damages during the Second World War. The cobbled streets are authentic, however, and are well preserved due to the restriction of through-traffic since the 1980s.
Walking under cherry blossom trees behind the M8 tramlines you enter the village – and a different world. Your eyes are likely to be drawn to the sunflower yellow of the old solicitor’s office to your left as soon as you enter the village. Further in there is the old Landhaus (country house) with chairs and tables outside and stone steps leading up to the entrance, and beyond that the Marzahn cultural centre constructed in rose pink bricks.
The village is laid out in a diamond shape with old stables at each end. In the middle is a stretch of greenery with the church and, beyond that, a small First World War memorial. A couple of rickety benches have been placed opposite the dark, rectangular memorial, where one can read the faded names of the 20 or so men from Marzahn who died in the war, alongside the year of their birth and death. The grass is long and unkempt but also thick and luscious, providing a colourful bedding for both church and memorial. The village is very quiet; the sound of the busy Allee der Kosmonauten is suppressed into a pleasantly distant rumble.
Walking back from Mehrower Allee on these silent evenings I would often see a fox nonchalantly stroll across my path or hares hopping around in the moonlight. In the mornings I would occasionally pass a nonplussed crimson squirrel. I came to appreciate the peace and quiet, especially after hectic days and nights within the Ring. The weekends were almost as quiet as midweek. Looking out from my balcony, I would usually only hear the birds in the trees, children laughing in the distance or a little old lady trundling home with her shopping trolley.
I also discovered one of the area’s biggest attractions: the Gardens of the World (Gärten der Welt). Built for Berlin’s 750th anniversary in 1987, these gardens consist of nine areas designed by native artists and gardeners from around the world. There’s a Chinese ‘Garden of the Reclaimed Moon’, a Tuscan garden celebrating ‘Old Europe’ and a maze designed in the style of the one at London’s Hampton Court. Expansive and quiet, they’re a gentle place to spend a morning or afternoon.
I sometimes climbed the Ahresnsfelder Berge, the foot of which was just a 10-minute walk from nearby Jan-Petersen-Straße. At the top, it’s possible to look out across the grey concrete and green trees of Marzahn-Hellersdorf. On a warm day, the air is often thick with the smell of barbecue and the cries of children, dogs and tinny music emanating from cheap, portable speakers.
Further east you can walk past grazing oxen and slow-running streams towards the tranquil village of Eiche and its crumbling church where women quietly tend to flower beds in the graveyard. Turning south, you can actually leave Berlin briefly before entering the district of Hönow at the end of the U8. Alternatively you can walk north from Eiche, curling around the hill towards the village of Ahrensfelde – the first village outside Berlin – where you can pick-up some cháo (rice soup) and a beer from a hut maintained by a wrinkled Vietnamese woman.
It was exactly this suburban peace that had brought and kept my flatmate there, a 24-year-old student originally from Lichtenberg. With copies of the red-bannered Junge Welt strewn about her she would vigorously refute negative stereotypes about the district. ‘It’s just old people and children here – families and quietness. I’ve seen fights and muggings at Zoo Station, in Kreuzberg and Neukölln, but never here!’
She told me of the regular documentaries that showed juvenile delinquents complaining about their prospects against typically bleak backdrops. ‘But they don’t show the swimming pools and football pitches and pet shops. They don’t show all the children walking to the schools here! People in the West will never come here simply because it is the East. They may not even want to go to Gärten der Welt.’
It’s hard to know what’s the future holds for Marzhan. The population is currently diminishing and places that are merely quiet now may well be derelict in a couple of years’ time. One venue that has fallen victim to the dropping population is Kino Sojus located just off Allee der Kosmonauten. This old cinema was built in 1981, principally to provide a place for Erich Honecker, General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party from 1971 to 1989, to deliver speeches to large audiences.
Kino Sojus’ first screen was opened a decade later and in 1999 a discount cinema chain from Hamburg bought the place and began screening films at prices as low as €1.99. Despite this, the cinema closed down in 2007 and there is little chance of the venue opening up again. It sits, empty and dilapidated, a figure of foreboding for the quiet shopping and entertainment centres of Eastgate in Marzahn and the Spree Centre in Hellersdorf.
Gentrification, that scourge of the modern metropolis, tends to occur after an area becomes fashionable — but Marzahn is certainly not that. Located so far from the centre, it is unlikely that young artisans will set up cafés and galleries here any time soon. It’s more likely, though, that people who have lived within the Ring for their whole lives will be pushed out by rising rents. In 2013, 1,300 families were displaced (up from 1,200 in 2010, according to the Berlin-Brandenburg Trade Union Federation) — these families tend to move to further-flung suburbs like Marzahn.
Perhaps, like me, these inner-city refugees will learn to love the area. Chloe Aridjis writes of the unexpected beauty one can find in the tower blocks: ‘Dusk was falling but the silvery light suited the place, which seemed both frozen in time and strangely futuristic.’ Standing on my balcony at dawn after a night out in the city, I sometimes fell into a similar kind of rapture, watching as the rising sun pierced the veil of morning mist and glinted off the pastel tower blocks.
There’s a secret pleasure in not being caught up in the incessant hype and stereotypical lifestyles of Berlin. True, it’s not what I had come to Berlin for— but who really wants to find what they expect when they embark upon an adventure? Besides, when you look closely enough, grey can indeed shimmer like silver.