On the Helmholtzplatz

Paul Sullivan profiles Prenzlauer Berg’s most troublesome public square…

The eight years I spent living on Prenzlauer Berg’s leafy, lively Helmholtzplatz were among the best of my life. My inaugural years in Berlin, this was where I fell wildly in love with the city and its tempestuous history, where I watched my son grow up, and where I enjoyed so many latte macchiatos and late-night drinks in the neighbourhood’s endless cafes and bars that I’m still trying to lose the extra kilos several years later.

I didn’t move too far away, and still find myself passing through the neighbourhood on occasion. Whenever I do, I’m assaulted by an inevitable array of associative memories, mostly connected with my son: pushing him around the square in his pram, frothy coffee in hand (mine, not his); helping him stay balanced on his first Dreirad (three-wheeler); sledging on the square’s shallow incline whenever there was snow. 

Dunckerstraße, back in 2010. Image by Paul Sullivan

Together we browsed overpriced wooden toys in bourgeois baby boutiques and purchased colourful children’s ‘tomes’ in local bookshops such as Shakespeare & Sons (before it moved to  trendier Warschauer Strasse), Buchbox and Prior & Mumpitz, whose friendly and knowledgeable owner, Martina, always managed to find the right book. And we occasionally played table tennis on the Platz too, though the tables were often occupied by other players, or being used as makeshift seating—or beds—by the square’s notorious (albeit perfectly innocuous in my experience) clique of drunks.

If this all sounds horribly cliched, that’s how it also feels to me, at least now, several years on. But when we—myself, my son, his mum—moved there as a family in 2008, we genuinely knew nothing about “Helmi” or Prenzlauer Berg. We had queued up to look at apartments right across the inner-city but the only one we liked, which happened to be the last on our list, was on Dunckerstraße, the long, cobbled street that borders Helmholtzplatz’s eastern edge.

The area’s gentrification process was arguably complete by the time we moved in. But in any case, I was smitten. As someone who grew up in a working-class family and subsequently had to work his proverbial British arse off to move himself upwards in life, I was proudly gratified and humbled to wind up here. If anything I had imposter syndrome wandering around these handsome streets, whose verdant chestnut, maple and lime trees and grandly restored tenements seemed to magically transport me to pre-war Europe…

Windmill Hill

Right below our apartment there was, and still is, a small museum called Zimmermeister Brunzelbaut ein Mietshaus (Master carpenter Brunzel builds a rental house”). For just a couple of euros, you can step inside this preserved home from the turn of the twentieth century. Smaller than its neighbours, it comprises a modest living room decorated with patterned wallpaper, simple wooden furniture and a plain, white-tiled Kachelofen (coal heated stove); a small kitchen with a charcoal stove; and an even smaller bedroom with just enough room for a bed.

Interior of the ‘Wohnungsmuseum’ (apartment museum) on Dunckerstrasse, Prenzlauer Berg. Copyright: Zimmermeister Brunzel baut ein Mietshaus

As if to counter the charming ‘retro’ aesthetic of the place, the museum guide pointed out during my visit that there were no electrical sockets (only around four percent of homes in Berlin had electricity at that time, since it was too expensive); that tenants usually gathered in the less spacious kitchen since it was more consistently heated (the Kachelofen in the lounge was mostly decorative); and that anything up to fifteen inhabitants might live here together. While we used our balcony one floor above for reading and growing tomatoes and sunflowers, a hundred years ago it would have been more likely used to keep chickens or rabbits.

The museum provided me with a convenient springboard to dive more deeply into the history of my new neighbourhood. I discovered that the area now known as Prenzlauer Berg only got its name in 1921; up until the mid-nineteenth century it lay outside the city boundaries—as demarcated by the Customs & Excise Wall—and consisted mainly of a few farms, breweries and abundant windmills. It was generally known as Feldmark or Windmühlenberg (Windmill Hill).

James Hobrecht’s 1862 urban expansion plan changed the area, and the city, dramatically. Commissioned as a direct response to Prussia’s feverishly paced industrialisation process, the plan involved knocking down the customs wall and extending the city limits to make room for the workers and their families already flooding into Berlin. Between 1849 and 1880—intensified by German unification in 1871—the urban population swelled from 412,000 to over a million; by 1914 it had doubled again.

“Windmill Hill” around 1800

As the old boundaries came down, the profit-hungry developers moved in on the gloriously large, empty plots, constructing factories and breweries, churches and schools, and of course housing for workers. To squeeze in as many people as was humanly—or rather, inhumanely—possible, they built their five-storey tenements narrow (property taxes were related to the frontal width) but deep, with several blocks behind one another, connected with courtyards just large enough to adhere to fire regulations. The blocks quickly became known as Mietskaserne, or rental barracks; so called because they were reminiscent of densely packed Prussian military barracks.

As well as overcrowded living conditions—which would eventually create typhoid and cholera epidemics throughout the city—the new residents had to contend with dirt and noise from the constant construction, smog from the factories, and harsh working conditions, though the latter were alleviated in some cases by Bismarck’s (reluctantly given) welfare reforms after 1881.

Then there was the lack of hygiene. A dearth of toilets in the housing blocks meant that people tended to urinate in public spaces and dispose of their wastewater and excrement in the street. As late as 1872, British social reformer Edwin Chadwick was wrinkling his nose and describing the city as the “most foul-smelling, dirtiest and most pestilent” capital in the civilised world, even claiming its citizens could be “recognized by the smell of their clothes”.

It was into this far-from-idyllic milieu that Helmholtzplatz was born. Its immediate precursor was a large ring-kiln brickworks, set up to exploit local clay deposits and create the key materials for the district’s expansion. Owned by the Deutsch-Holländische Aktien-Bauverein, the brickworks were part of a larger factory complex nicknamed ‘die Spinne’ that sprawled spider-like between Dunckerstrasse and Prenzlauer Allee. These premises included workshops for carpentry and iron in an attempt to bring the housing construction process under one roof.

James Hobrecht’s 1862 expansion plan

The company started construction around what is now Kollwitzplatz; some of the houses there still feature elements from “the spider”, such as parquet panels and stairwell columns. Building progressed northwards with a plan to decommission the brickworks upon reaching Danziger Strasse as they wouldn’t be needed any more, but the 1873 stock market crash happened first: the Bauverein went bankrupt in the mid-1880s, and its brickworks were blown up in 1885.

The subsequent public square, inaugurated in 1898 and named after German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, was built on top of the brickwork’s ruins, hence its slight elevation. According to historic reports, the square was not quite as popular as the public authorities imagined it would be. It allegedly smelled bad in summer (thanks largely to discarded rubbish), became a marshland of mud and puddles in winter, and attracted mostly stray cats and the homeless.

Money was spent on trying to improve the square, but not long afterwards the situation had deteriorated again, to the point where security guards needed to be hired to keep things in Ordnung. It would take several redesigns over the following century to create the pleasant green space that residents see and use today. The playground and dedicated grassy area, for example, were added in the wake of World War Two; a public toilet and ball court in the 1970s; protective walls, flowerbeds and raised fences in the 1980s. By this time, of course, Helmholtzplatz was officially in another country…

The LSD Viertel

Despite the almost three decades of post-reunification development that occurred between the demise of East Germany in 1989 and my arrival in 2008, there were still traces of the GDR all around. First of all, there was “R”, our kind-hearted, chain-smoking neighbour (with obvious mental health issues) who grew up in the former East, and had lived in our building since the 1980s; there was nearby Ernst-Thälmann Park, one of the last utopian residential projects of the regime, built in 1987 on a former gasworks and named after the former leader of the KPD (Germany’s communist party); and there was the tell-tale concrete lamppost right outside our house—a classic “RSL1” for the nerds—complete with distinctive circular head.

And there was more. While strolling towards the square one day, I happened upon a rare, un-refurbished hallway just a few metres from my house. The building’s front doors had been propped open: a clear invitation to step inside and admire up-close the attractively cracked paintwork, original stucco and floor tiles, the latter still in impressively good condition. As I stood there observing the hallway, an elderly resident emerged from the lift. I expected him to tell me off for trespassing, but he smiled and nodded, and beckoned for me to come with him upstairs.

GDR mural for the the 3rd World Festival of Youth and Students, discovered in a Prenzlauer Berg hallway. Image by Paul Sullivan

We caught the lift together to the fourth floor, where a couple of white-overalled decorators were busy stripping away the wallpaper in the stairwell. On one of the stripped walls next to the lift, was a faded mural: a circle, representing a globe, featuring three young people holding hands in Soviet Realist style. Some text around the circle read: 3. Weltfestspiele der Jugend und Studenten, 1951—“the 3rd World Festival of Youth and Students”. A quick Google told me it had been a major event organised by the GDR’s World Federation of Democratic Youth. The same mural was repeated on each floor.

I never discovered quite why they were there, but the powerful sense of having peeked into a vanished dimension stayed with me. I began to piece together some of the neighbourhood’s immediate post-war past, starting with how it had largely escaped the heavy Allied bombing that had reduced much of the city centre and West Berlin to rubble, but had endured instead intensive hand-to-hand combat during the Battle of Berlin.

After becoming part of the Soviet sector, it was more or less left in its war-damaged state, complete with bullet-riddled facades and crumbling backyards. For the first couple of decades, it seemed to just plod on as best it could. A 1965 DEFA film, Spielplatz, profiles a somewhat idyllic Helmholtzplatz: young kids playing contentedly on swings and seesaws, teens doing their homework, adults and seniors chatting pleasantly on benches and cheerfully playing chess.

But as it became increasingly apparent that no one was going to come and renovate the buildings, which still lacked private bathrooms and were dependent on coal-heated stoves, the local community began to change. Around 100,000 people left the district between 1975 and 1985 alone, many moving to the newly built Plattenbauten in nearby districts like Lichtenberg and Marzahn, which had central heating, running hot water and balconies that weren’t prone to collapse while watering their plants.

Helmholtzplatz in 1983. Image by Gerd Daniel. CC BY-SA 4.0

The vacated Prenzlauer Berg apartments were thus available for pretty much anyone who wanted them. Helmholtzplatz and its southern cousin Kollwitzplatz were especially attractive for squatters: a colourful mix of artists and activists, drunks and drop-outs, low-paid workers and punks. It was around this time that the trio of streets that run north-to-south through Helmholtzplatz—Lychener Straße, Schliemannstraße Dunckerstraße—became colloquially known as the LSD quarter, a reference not to the neighbourhood’s preference for psychedelics, but shorthand for its dissident ambiance.

Official scrutiny of the square’s community intensified accordingly throughout the eighties, with Stasi operatives observing the makeshift art galleries, underground poetry nights and meeting points like the August Fengler bar (one of the few GDR-era spots still around today). But they generally struggled to keep a handle on the area. Savvy residents met in private homes and ‘safe spaces’ such as the local Gethsemane church to rehearse their gigs, plan their protests, distribute their Samizdat literature, and undertake other clandestine activities. They also routinely swapped apartments to keep operatives on their toes; as the decade wore on, the writing for the regime was on the wall.

After the Wende

But after reunification, many within the “Helmi” community found themselves either forced or priced out of their squatted or low-rent homes. Many of those that remained experienced severe economic difficulties, and the square once again became a meeting point for alcoholics and drug addicts—not just locally, but from all over the city. The police made so many arrests it was officially designated a ‘danger zone’, and by the end of the nineties local media were going so far as to describe “Helmi”, somewhat improbably, as the “East Bronx of Berlin”.

Throughout the nineties, as the houses around the square were finally scrubbed up and sold onto a different class of renters, the new residents once again complained about the square’s ‘misfits’, and the local authorities once again continued to try and promote clean-up campaigns and social integration.

In 2001, yet another redevelopment was unveiled by Pia von Zadow, who worked hard to try and solve the abundant issues. The transformer building, erected back in 1929 and a popular hangout spot for local dealers throughout the nineties, became the Cafe Kiezkind, featuring an indoor sandpit and outside play area, and an in-house cafe serving coffees, waffles and cakes. The former toilet building, where drug users and drunks had also traditionally gathered, was turned into a functioning community centre—my son would celebrate a birthday there in 2014.

By the time I moved in, the Platz’s mix of middle-class families and beer-swigging punks had settled into a relaxed co-existence. In fact we barely noticed any disparity. Our nods or casual ‘hellos’ were usually returned, along with any errant ping-pong balls or footballs that came their way. Any violent or aggressive incidents were always kept within their own community, and were very seldom anyway.

Helmholtzplatz today. Image by Paul Sullivan

Although my recollections of life on Helmholtzplatz are largely happy, by the time I left in 2016, my life was in tatters. Everything I had built up in the previous years had imploded or was in the process of doing so: my relationship, this very website, my photography career. Around that time I also discovered my mother had cancer; a year later she was gone.

In an attempt to numb the emotional pain, I hit the self-destruct button—hard. Instead of spending time in the cafes or on the playgrounds, I was now to be found almost exclusively in the bars—there were, and still are, many wonderful ones, and contrary to some rumours that the district is a graveyard after 10pm, I frequently wobbled home in the early hours of the morning. I also met many fascinating people, many of whom had lived here or nearby in the GDR times, even if they didn’t do so now.

I often passed through the square on my way home. The drinkers were usually all gone by then—almost all of them, thankfully, had homes—and I would often sit on a ping-pong table (pretty much the only time of day they weren’t in use) or hunker down on a bench and sip my beer, not really wanting to go home. But I was lucky. I had the means to eventually turn my life around again, a luxury that many of the “Helmi” visitors don’t have.

When I go to the square nowadays, usually for a stroll around the charming streets followed by a coffee or beer at my former haunt Wohnzimmer, I sit outside and watch everyday life on the square unfold. It still has a reassuringly familiar aura to me, a heimat of sorts. The contrast of young families and alcoholics remains a curious one, but ultimately this is a big city and everyone should have their place. I sip my drink and think about the past—not just my past, but the pasts of the innumerable people that lived on and passed through this square since it was built; all those countless lives lived and long forgotten.

And I still find new vestiges of these pasts, distant and recent, on my strolls. Ghost signs or wagon tracks indicating pre-war backyard dairies. Pubs or bakeries that somehow survived their Ost incarnations. Former squats, old beer gardens, faceless fire walls where homes once stood. The stolpersteine that attest to the area’s once-burgeoning Jewish community. There are even some basements, according to Daniela Dahn’s Prenzlauer Berg Tour, published in 1987 in East Germany, where you can find parts of the old windmills that used to dot the area, though I haven’t personally discovered any yet.

On a recent visit to the neighbourhood I arranged to meet a friend in Speiches, a rock and blues Kneipe on Raumerstraße that was founded by Jörg Schütze, late bassist of GDR blues band Monokel. I never met Schütze (he passed away in 2020), but he used to live in Prenzlauer Berg, and was something of a dissident and local hero. At the pub a band was playing, and sitting right at the front of the crowded, smoky room was my former neighbour, “R”. She was alone, chain-smoking away, and looking as happy as I’ve ever seen her.

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