On the Kopenhagener Strasse

Rhea Boyden celebrates 10 years of living on one of Pberg’s most time-resistant (and creative) streets…

Image by Alpha Smoot

An acquaintance who lives in Mitte, a few meters from an underground station, thinks I am crazy to live on Kopenhagener Strasse in Prenzlauer Berg because it’s so disconnected from public transportation. He does have a point. My street is 800 metres long, Schönhauser Allee is the closest station to my apartment and it is 700 meters away; but it is a fantastic street with a fascinating history.

Kopenhagener Strasse runs parallel to the Ringbahn from Schönhauser Allee to Schwedterstrasse. Though most of the street is comprised of typical turn-of-the-century Mietskaserne housing, several of the buildings were built in Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) style between 1900 and 1910.

The most prominent and impressive building though, is the red-brick Humboldt transformer station that was designed by the industrial architect Hans-Heinrich Müller and was built between 1924 and 1926. It provided Prenzlauer Berg with electricity right up until June 1993.

In 2000, the transformer station became the home of Vitra Design Museum, which moved out after a few months. Various events have been hosted there since, including a Kunstsalon in November 2008, though today it mainly serves as an outpost of Zalando Shoes and Fashion.

The young, international employees often gather for Friday evening drinks across the street at Kohlenquelle Bar, a former coal storage building – “Koppe” to the locals – that’s sited on the corner of Sonnenburger Strasse and Kopenhagener Strasse

Kohlenquelle serves an excellent lunch with daily specials as well as their standard menu of Käsespätzle (Swabian noodles) goulash, risotto and soups. If you don’t mind the famously “laid back” service, it’s a great spot to enjoy a leisurely meal; and if you’re a history fan, you should check out Juhani Seppovaara’s short documentary all about the building and its fascinating past.

Back in the not-so-recent past, Kohlenquelle also hosted the popular Mittwochsclub in the cellar, a fairly riotous Wednesday night throwdown with an emphasis on electro and global beats. Punters needed a password and the bouncer’s main job was to keep everyone quiet as they came back out, so as not to disturb the neighbours.

Sugafari. Image by Alpha Smoot

Kopenhagener Straße is punctuated with regular playgrounds, partly a product of the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. There’s a ‘jungle playground’ where Kopenhagenerstrasse intersects Rhinowerstrasse, and the excellent Moritzhof Children’s Farm lies at the end of the street near Mauerpark, where the wall once divided the French and Soviet sectors. On occasion, I hear the distant bleat of a sheep or crow of a cockerel and completely forget I’m in the middle of a city.

The farm was created after much negotiating with politicians and the Berlin senate, in 1998. By April 2000, the animals had moved in, the same mix of sheep, goats, chickens, geese, ponies, rabbits and guinea pigs that families can find there today (alongside pottery and basket making classes).

Sweet-toothed strollers will want to visit the fabulous Sugafari. Its owner, Alexis, a cheerful and sociable man with a full head of blond curls, told me that his goal is to obtain one sweet from every country in the world. He already has a pretty impressive stock with candy from North and South America, Asia, Europe, Africa and New Zealand; many expats have apparently thanked him for stocking their favourite sweets from home – the perfect cure for homesickness. (Note: he usually opens his shop in the afternoon, but the bulk of his business is done online).

Across the street is Nix Wie Wein, a fabulous wine shop run by a delightful East German woman named Heide Pellmann. In 1996, Pellmann quit her well-paid job at a bank and a year later opened the shop. She stocks 300 different types of wines and spirits from Germany and overseas.

Pellmann runs a successful business and it is easy to see why: she’s easy going, passionate about her job, knows all her regular customers by name and takes the time to talk to them about the origin of the different wines and how to best enjoy them. She also hosts frequent wine tastings.

Some evenings when walking home from work I stop and have a chat with Wolfgang Gross who runs a black and white photography studio. He was born in Mitte in 1956 and grew up in Prenzlauer Berg. He has embraced the changes that have taken place in the neighbourhood and does not seem too upset by gentrification. He has been teaching black and white photography in his studio Licht Mal since 2002 and business is good. In the past many of his customers were younger students, he says, but these days he caters to an older crowd.

Gross is just one of the many creative people who live on Kopenhagener Strasse. A 2008 study by the geography department of Berlin’s Humboldt University counted 45 actors, authors and painters living here. The study identified a major protagonist in the street’s creative cluster: Steven Otto, a Canadian investor, who in 2000 bought three buildings and rented the apartments mainly to artists who did not have a steady income. The street today still has several galleries, an architecture office, a graphic design studio, a bookshop and various other small creative ventures.

A few doors down from the Licht Mal photo studio is the hair salon Herr Hasel. Even though the prices for a wash and a cut have increased slightly with gentrification I have remained a loyal customer over the years. One reason is that they have a piano in the salon and have frequent solo performances by talented local musicians. It is not often that you can get your hair cut to the sound of live piano music.

Image by Alpha Smoot

The laid-back atmosphere of the street makes it fairly easy to come into contact with the locals. Many of the mothers organize informal flea markets and clothes exchanges right on the street in the summer. There are also frequent street barbecues and parties, and the neighbours come out and share food and drink and get to know each other. Some residents near the Ystader Strasse corner of Kopenhagener Strasse take full advantage of the wide footpaths to cultivate gardens in various vessels, including zucchini, corn, tomatoes, herbs, sunflowers and many other flowers.

Since the fall of the Wall, nearly every building on Kopenhagener Strasse has been renovated, but two elements of the street help retain a nostalgic aura: the shiny cobblestones and the fact it’s not a main thoroughfare. For this reason it has been a much-used set for several ‘Ostalgie’ films over the years; parts of ‘Sommer Vorm Balkon’, ‘Der Rote Kakadu, ‘Das Leben ist eine Baustelle’ and several others were filmed here.

A few years ago I came home from work to discover that the Berlin Wall had actually been re-built on my street; I was only allowed past the ‘checkpoint’ after assuring the film crew that I lived there. And film crews have even overtaken my house before too: though it has been since renovated, two years ago it was still in its post-war/pre-wall state – i.e. run-down and riddled with bullet holes – and the hallway also attracted the film crews.

As I approach a decade of living on this street, I never tire of my 700-metre walk to the underground. In the morning, as the sun rises and shines directly down on the street I’ve come to greatly appreciate the peaceful walk, which allows me contemplate my day ahead. On the way home, I enjoy stopping by the various shops and greeting the owners and neighbours who, yes, have become my friends. Ten years is a long time, but I could easily spend the next decade here.

All Images by Alpha Smoot

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