Paul Scraton reports on life in his Gesundbrunnen kiez…
It is just past midnight on the Osloer Strasse. I emerge from the U-Bahn station onto the wide, dark boulevard. There are not so many people about. At the corner of Drontheimer Strasse a couple of drunks stagger out from their smoke-filled corner kneipe, bellies full of gassy pilsner and cheap shots of korn.
The lights in the kebab stand across the street burn brightly but there are no customers. A few steps up the street and patients stand on the steps of the hospital, smoking inadvisable cigarettes. I am about a hundred metres from home when a couple of young men approach. At a guess I would say they are of Turkish origin and they are wheeling a bike.
We pass without eye contact and then one of them turns to call me back.
“Excuse me,” he says, “Would it be possible to ask you a question.”
I am wary, but he is extremely polite.
“Do you want to buy this bike?”
I smile and wave my thanks but no thanks and he wished me a pleasant evening. They wheel the bike away into the gloom. It’s a good story, I think, as I push open the heavy door to our building and its three courtyards, nine staircases, and almost a hundred mailboxes nailed to the wall. I climb the five flights of stairs and a story of Liverpool comes to mind, of the man parking his car and leaving his dog behind.
“Mind your car for a pound?” a little boy says.
“No need. I’ve got the dog.”
The boy pauses, scratches his head.
“He can put out fires then can he?”
Positive and negative stereotypes right there, all present and correct, into one tiny story. What more can you want. I have no idea where I heard it first. In the apartment I tell Katrin (my wife) about the boys and the bike and the one about Liverpool. She smiles.
Typical Wedding, we might have said. Typical Liverpool. Places with reputations, and not always positive ones. The neighbourhood of Wedding, to which we moved in autumn 2010 is one of those corners of Berlin that gets written about in the tabloids and provokes mutters from your German acquaintances when you tell them you have found an apartment in the district.
Then you tell them about the rents.
This is a poor neighbourhood, with a large immigrant population. As of 2008, the Gesundbrunnen quarter of Wedding had 35% residents of foreign origin, the highest in the city. It is a place where the shopping streets are filled with casinos a world away from the glamour the name might imply, pfennig-stores and telephone shops advertising cheap calls to all corners of the world.
There are Turkish supermarkets and barbers shops and those members’ clubs with the smoked windows and the insignia of Istanbul football clubs hanging on the door. When I first moved here I felt more wary walking the streets. I did not like the implication, of what it says about me.
Wedding ist anders, goes the saying and compared to the trendy neighbourhoods of Mitte to the south and Prenzlauer Berg to the east that is certainly the case. But it did not take the gentrification of former East German neighbourhoods that once stood sullenly on the other side of the Berlin Wall to develop this reputation for difference.
In the 1920s and 1930s Wedding was a rough and tumble working class district that routinely returned Communist Party deputies to various parliaments, even after the rest of Germany appeared to be falling under the Nazi spell. Red Wedding was contrary Wedding, and it continues this spirit to this day.
How many Berlin districts have their own magazine? Der Wedding is produced by a small team at the Exrotaprint complex, a former print-works that is now an artist, cultural and social centre, with a cheap weekday canteen, studios and workshop spaces, and a programme of classes that includes yoga, music and German courses for new arrivals. Der Wedding is big and glossy and irreverent, celebrating the everyday life on these streets, and is cheaper if you buy it within the boundaries of the district than if you get it anywhere else.
Other people can have their opinions about Wedding but for some of the residents it is not so much a case of “no one likes us, we don’t care”, but more “we like us, and that’s all we care about.” Which is not to gloss over the fact that for many people life in Wedding can be tough. There is no escaping the economic realities of the neighbourhood. You can see it in people’s clothes and in their faces, in the state of the buildings and some of the cars parked on the streets.
But if it is dangerous then it is all relative. Compared to Charlottenburg? Probably. Compared to certain parts of London, Liverpool or Leeds? You’ve got to be joking.
On a crisp winter’s day we leave our apartment and take a walk along the Panke. The small river is as controlled as a canal, and walking along the water’s edge beneath the hanging branches and leaves of the weeping willow trees it takes me back to childhood walks along the Leeds-Liverpool canal in the village where I grew up.
It is peaceful here, even as we cross the Soldiner Strasse, at the heart of a small area of territory that even in Wedding has got itself a bad name. A footballer at the World Cup described it as “Berlin’s Soweto”, which manages to be amusing, dumb and insulting to all sides at the same time. Never ask a footballer for social-economic analysis.
The crisis point for the neighbourhood came around the millennium, and various groups were formed to try and bring some positive energy to the Soldinerkiez. In 2001 the Kolonie Wedding was founded, setting up studios and galleries in what would be otherwise empty shop fronts, and once a month host coordinated vernissage weekends with walking tours between the different venues.
So now between the butchers, the bakers and the international call shops, there are small galleries and studios…and although it is not possible to judge the impact that the project has had looking in from the outside, it is a decade later and they are still there.
Beyond the Soldiner Strasse the footpath takes us through one of those contrasting urban landscapes that Berlin so often provides. On the one side of the Panke huge housing blocks painted cheerful colours but nevertheless fine examples of soul-destroying post-war architecture surround a grassy and muddy overflow basin for the river.
On the other side of the water is a garden colony, those very German of allotments, with little wooden houses hanging over the water, neat rows of flowers and vegetables, and Berlin and German flags hanging limply in the still, winter air.
At the end of the path the river passes beneath a railway line and we walk a little way along it to find the arch where we can duck through. It is a handful of steps, past stagnant ponds of water, but twenty years ago it would have been impossible. We emerge into the weak sunlight and the neighbourhood of Pankow, the neat park and the petting zoo, and a traffic-jam of pushchairs outside the corner café. You are now leaving the French sector. Welcome to East Berlin.
This contrast between east and west, that has so definitely spun around in the past twenty years, is no more apparent than on our bike ride to work along the Swinemündestrasse. To the north, past the Gesundbrunnen shopping centre, we ride along a pedestrianized zone of school, library and squat apartment blocks, all built after the war and yet not ageing as well as their neighbours just across the Bernauer Strasse.
Across that street in Mitte, once in crumbling and smog-stained East Berlin, the old tenement blocks have been almost completely renovated, with the rent-hikes that fashion, high ceilings, and well-designed playgrounds bring with it. And here you have to be a little honest. Which side of the little row of cobblestones that is all that is left of the Berlin Wall that once divided the Swinemündestrasse would you actually like to live?
I’ve lived in both, and in the end it is purely a financial question. Life is cheaper in Wedding. Your money goes further. If money was no object, would I choose to spend my days on and around the Osloer Strasse? Probably not. No doubt it is the same for many of my neighbours, that list of 90-odd names by the doorbells of our old, three-courtyard building. But there are signs that not everyone thinks like I do, and that there are people for whom this is home and they would not choose to be anywhere else.
On Seestrasse, at the gateway to Wedding at the end of the motorway, there is a house on the corner painted in brilliant red and with a slogan to welcome all the drivers parked up at the traffic lights:
I have to admit that now, when I see it, written in uncompromising Berlin dialect, I find myself having a little shiver of pride and I can’t help but nod my head.
Me too, I think.
All images by Paul Scraton