Joanna Greaves walks along Prenzlauer Allee and uncovers its multi-layered past…
It’s almost impossible to imagine that just 200 years ago, the area we now know as Prenzlauer Berg was open fields punctuated by the windmills that earned it the name of Windmühlenberg, or Windmill Hill. With the rapid urbanisation of the mid-1800s came mass worker housing in the form of five- and six-storey tenements with their characteristic Hinterhöfe, as well as schools, hospitals and churches.
Although Prenzlauer Berg wasn’t deemed important enough to be included in the 1920 Baedeker Guide to Berlin, it nonetheless played a major role in the city’s industrial and cultural expansion, particularly in relation to the burgeoning brewery scene that developed throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
By the end of the 19th century, the tenements had grown into overcrowded slums lacking adequate sanitation; a far cry from the orderly, pristine edifices that line the district’s streets nowadays. A large number of these houses escaped World War II relatively intact, though the GDR left the area to its own devices for several decades, providing the conditions for a fertile counter-cultural scene in the 70s and 80s that has, post-Wende, all but disappeared.
My first home in Berlin was close to S-Bahn Prenzlauer Allee, one of the few un-gentrified parts of Prenzlauer Berg on the district’s northern periphery. A constant flurry of activity, with streams of people moving between the quaint yellow-brick station, and the nearby bus and tram stops, it was – and remains – a place of transit rather than a destination.
Every few minutes an M2 tram would sweep up and down Prenzlauer Allee, travelling south towards bustling Alexanderplatz or north towards the quiet residential district of Heinersdorf. I took these trams often, regarding the large, traffic-heavy boulevard as most do: as a busy, largely unremarkable thoroughfare useful for getting from A to B.
But during those tram – and occasional bicycle – trips I began to notice enough architectural and historical curiosities to warrant exploring the street on foot and pay closer attention to the role the street has played in Prenzlauer Berg’s development.
The three-kilometre avenue bisects the entire district from Torstrasse in the south to Ostseestrasse farther north, and was originally built as a rural highway to the northern city of Prenzlau. The Torstrasse terminus was the original site of the Prenzlauer Tor, one of 18 gates in the former city customs wall, both of which were demolished to facilitate the mid-19th-century expansion of the city when Prenzlauer Allee began to assume its present-day incarnation.
Today the Grade II listed Soho House hotel curves sinuously around the corner that was once the gate. Built in the Post-Expressionist Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) style that originated in Germany in the 1920s, it began life as the Jewish-owned Jonass & Co department store until it was confiscated by the Nazis, who initially Aryanised it and then used it as the HQ for the Reich Youth Leadership.
After the war it housed the Central Committee of the Communist Party, transforming into the Institute of Marxist-Leninism in the 50s. After reunification it was given back to its original owners, and today functions as a symbol of the Berlin’s ongoing gentrification: a boutique hotel and members-only club, complete with spa, concept shop and year-round rooftop pool.
On the opposite corner, behind a creeper-covered wall, is the St Marien and St Nikolai Friedhof, which was constructed in 1802 and extended in 1814, a time when cemeteries were the only urban developments that stood outside the walls. The cemetery suffered some damage in the latter stages of the war and for a time during the last century it lay neglected.
Its most controversial resident is the 22-year-old Nazi hero Horst Wessel, author of the eponymous Horst-Wessel-Lied, aka Nazi anthem Die Fahne hoch (“The Flag on High”), who was assassinated by a communist and subsequently used as a martyr by Goebbels.
In 1945 the Soviet administration allegedly ordered the grave and its remains to be destroyed, but it was still there way into the 80s, visited occasionally by Neo-Nazis. Today the cemetery is an atmospheric place to roam, surprisingly spacious inside with many dilapidated and even bullet-riddled graves.
The cemetery also contains the installation Unvergessen by artist diekleinefraubraun, which is made up of the broken headstones of people whose plots, for one reason or another, have not been renewed (either there are no mourners, or they too have since died). On each stone the word Unvergessen (‘unforgotten’) has been engraved in gilded lettering. Its central concern – not forgetting – echoes the Stolpersteine, of which Prenzlauer Allee has its share due to its many Jewish residents up until the war.
A few steps north of Soho House lies one of the district’s most significant brewery complexes, the Bötzow Brauerei, one of fourteen operating in Prenzlauer Berg at the turn of the 20th century. The breweries began in the mid 1800s after it was discovered that the hilly terrain served well for building cellars and provided underground water that was useful for beer making. The Bötzow brewery, established in 1864, quickly became one of the largest in Germany.
Where there’s beer you can often also find politics, the saying goes, and that’s true in Berlin perhaps even more than in other places. A memorial stone on the corner of Prenzlauer Allee and Saarbrücker Strasse commemorates the formation in 1919 of Karl Liebknecht’s Revolutionary Committee in the Bötzow brewery’s beer garden – which at its peak could accommodate six thousand drinkers – though neglect has sadly rendered its lettering largely illegible.
After the War, the brewery became a storage facility and later functioned as a warehouse for Western goods. After years of post-wall abandonment, during which it was used for one off events and underground raves in the cellars, it was bought by German entrepreneur Hans Georg Näder, who has created a high-end restaurant, cocktail bar and art gallery, and has plans for more developments on the site.
A couple of blocks north, at number 227, the main site of the Pankow Museum can be found in the compound of the former Gemeindedoppelschule built in 1886. The site comprises the Wasserturm Bibliothek, the Volkshochschule, an archive, reading room and an administration office. Of most interest to visitors is the Sebastian Haffner Kultur und Bildungszentrum whose exhibits include photographic documentation of the changing face of Prenzlauer Berg over the decades and centuries.
Particularly interesting for me were the “before and after” shots of individual buildings in Oderberger Straße, which show each residence in its pre-Wall condition, complete with crumbling façades and war damage, and its post-Wall reincarnation as a pastel-hued slice of prime real estate.
The Immanuelkirche, across from the museum, is a red brick neo-Romanesque church with a 68-metre tower. The church, built on land donated by the Bötzow family and consecrated in 1893, has been a protected monument since 1985. The stretch between the church and Danziger Strasse is lined with the customary assortment of bars, shops, bakeries and florists, including the charming Cafe Hilde and – slightly further along Metzer Straße – the district’s longest-running Kneipe, the Metze Eck, whose time-warp interior includes photos of the district’s windmill days.
The streets along the western edge of Prenzlauer Allee lead into the pretty Kollwitzkiez, while those on the eastern side form a border to the Winskiez. On this eastern side, further north, lies the Bezirksamt, yet another walled complex of yellow-and-red brick buildings.
Anyone who moves to the area will have spent time wandering the complex’s cobbled lanes, old-fashioned lamps and heavy wooden doors and going through the bureaucratic procedures that formalise their city residence. Built by prolific planner and architect Hermann Blankenstein, whose works include schools, hospitals and Berlin’s fourteen original Markthallen, the site was initially built as the Friedrich Wilhelm Urban Hospital and Hospice with a mortuary – or Leichenhalle – in the chapel on Prenzlauer Allee, and a homeless shelter.
Parts of the complex were occupied by the Nazis (who established a memorial hall in the Leichenhalle), and after the war the Soviet military administration used some of the buildings as, among other things, a prison for the interrogation of suspected Nazis and political opponents. Information panels throughout the grounds give the history (in German) of some of the buildings and their previous incarnations; the artwork Fragen underlines the brutalities carried out in one of them by wrapping ‘questions’ around one of the buildings in white text.
A panel at Haus 3 features copies of letters from 16-year-old Fritz Naujoks to his mother while he was detained there in 1945-46. Naujoks was charged with counter-revolutionary activity and damaging the prestige of the Soviet leader by singing a satirical song about Stalin. At his tribunal, he was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment in a labour camp but was released in 1954. There is also information about the conditions in the cellars of the house where those accused of plotting or committing Nazi crimes were held and interrogated.
Opposite the Bezirksamt, streets lead to the shops, bars and cafés of the Helmholtzkiez, while next door is the Zeiss Großplanetarium. The planetarium was opened in 1987 on the site of the former gasworks after they were demolished to make way for the Ernst Thälmann Park. The dome, which glows blue after dark, contains a telescope made at the Carl Zeiss optical factory in Jena.
Occupying a few blocks between Erich Weinert Strasse, Ostseestrasse and Gubitzstrasse, is the Wohnstadt Carl Legien, a Bruno Taut and Franz Hillinger development constructed between 1928 and 1930 and named after a prominent union leader. Built as a reaction to the neighbourhood’s cramped tenements and gloomy courtyards, the estate epitomises the new Weimar-era ethic that high-density accommodation should incorporate green spaces and maximise access to fresh air and daylight.
As with so much else in this part of the city, this quiet and unassuming complex has been subject to political intervention over the years. The streets, originally named after socialist union leaders, were renamed in the 1930s after World War I battles and later after murdered communists and resistance fighters.
Busy, loud and aesthetically nondescript it might be, but a walk along Prenzlauer Allee charts nothing less than the history of the Prenzlauer District as well as Berlin’s transition from orderly Prussian capital to a battlefield of 20th century ideologies and beyond.