Prenzlauer Berg: A Personal Memoir

Rhea Boyden on life in Prenzlauer Berg in the nineties (and beyond…)

Photo of the author’s mother

At my secondary school in Ireland there was always a big emphasis on the study of German history and geography, and I always loved both classes. We learned all about Bismarck the Iron Chancellor, the Berlin Airlift, and we learned to draw the route of the River Rhine on a bare map. We studied the details of the most important industries in Germany from steel to coal mining. It was an important country: that much was impressed upon us in every way.

When my mother and my sisters moved to Berlin in September 1991, I was very excited about my first trip to Germany the following Christmas. My father put my brother and me on the bus in Ireland in December that same year, and we headed off on an adventure—to London, then onto Amsterdam, and finally across the border to Germany.

When we finally arrived at the bus station in brightly lit West Berlin, my mother was eager and delighted to be reunited with us, as any mother would be who has not seen her teenage children in months. We got on the U2 towards Prenzlauer Berg. The journey took an awfully long time back then, as the U2 had yet to be reconnected. This was before Potsdamer Platz became the biggest building site in Berlin (after Prenzlauer Berg itself, of course).

When we eventually reached Eberswalderstrasse and got off the train, I felt a little confused. I had had this notion that my mother now lived in fancy, industrialised, modern Germany and not in a ghetto of run down houses, with no shops to speak of and nowhere near as much light and life as I had seen from the bus as we traversed West Germany.

“Welcome to the Wild East!” my mother exclaimed. We walked the couple blocks down  (which had yet to be renamed Danzigerstrasse) to Schliemannstrasse, and proceeded up the stairs to the small apartment she and my sisters were living in. The hallway had bullet holes in it and old, peeling brown paint.

“Here is the toilet!” my mother said, pointing to a door on the landing of the stairwell. “We don’t have a shower, but the Stadtbad Oderbergerstrasse has fantastic showers that only cost one Mark and we go there a couple times a week,” she informed us.

Image by Gerd Danigel, Used with CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

A Bed On Top Of A Wardrobe

Suddenly it dawned on me that my mother and sisters lived in East Berlin, and not in the modern West Germany that I had learned about in my classes at school. Well, what had I expected? My mother has always been a nomad living on the edge, seeking wild adventures in her eccentric way, and this was her latest trip. She led us into the small apartment and our three younger sisters were delighted to see us. How we were all going to fit into this cramped space was a mystery.

We would be living together in close quarters in the same manner as the people had begun living in the tenements in the 1880s in Prenzlauer Berg. The neighbourhood had been developed to accommodate the many factory workers who were streaming into the city at that time, and conditions had not been great.

We also had to haul buckets of coal up five flights of stairs to power the tiled oven. I wondered what century we had landed in, but was curious, nonetheless, to learn more about my mother’s new home. My bed was a single mattress on top of a wardrobe. It became my nest over the next few years when I visited my mother, and I thankfully managed never once to roll off it and onto the floor eight feet below me.

The wardrobe, my mother told me, had been found on the street. “We have managed to furnish the whole flat from what other people have been chucking out when they leave,” she said, proudly. Indeed, people were leaving in large numbers. Between 1991 and 1998 Prenzlauer Berg lost more than 12,500 people, accounting for 8.7 percent of its population, mostly families with children who had headed West looking for work and a better life.

Perfect Timing

Despite the fact that unemployment rose to over three million in East Germany in the year after reunification, West Germans, and then increasing numbers of expats wanting adventure, kept coming to East Berlin regardless of how little money they had. Artists, writers and musicians especially seemed to intuit that Prenzlauer Berg was a place to head to after the fall of the Wall.

It was a time of transition and excitement, and there was a great sense of community in the neighbourhood despite the transient nature of its inhabitants. Suddenly, each block had its bakery, flower shop and bar that seemed to tie the community together, as had been the case further back in Prenzlauer Berg’s tumultuous history.

Many East Germans were able to start a course of studies that had not been available to them in the GDR. As one East German friend said to me: “The timing had to be right. If you were the right age, you had great opportunities. Those who were older were less fortunate.”.

He is now 46, and has a great job at a big construction company in the West, a position he has held for a decade now. The timing was perfect for him. It was a time to be creative, and those who could started bars and cafes. It was a time of idealism and new hope for many, in spite of the generally bad economic situation, and early post-Wall politics that seemed not to actively encourage foreign investment in the first years after the Wende.

My mother very much wanted to be part of this excitement and came here specifically for it. When we were even younger, she had lived in other bizarre places, and the older I get, the more I appreciate the fact that she had no intention of ever leading a conventional lifestyle.

The more obscure and outlandish the destination, the more it seemed to appeal to her. Having young children in tow never seemed to put her off either.

An Education In Travel And Tolerance

When she was 25, she announced to her middle class, well-settled and well-educated New England parents that she was going to move to Ireland and get a job in the theatre. She was armed with a degree in drama from Colorado College, a wooden bowl, and a black plastic bag flung over her shoulder. The bag contained her few hippy garments and her astrology books.

Her parents thought she was mad, and wondered why she was moving to Ireland in 1974 when any Irishman who could was coming the other direction. She did indeed get a job in the theatre in Dublin earning pennies, and worked there until my brother and I were born.

She also spent some time in a small village in Alaska working for a radio station and one of my sisters was born there in the dead of winter. For a spell, we also lived with her in Philadelphia. My brother and I were spending a year with her after having spent one with our father attending the local Catholic primary school in Ireland, and she promptly sent us to a local school in Philadelphia.

My brother and I swiftly discovered that we were the only white kids in an all black school. “It’s good for your education and will make you more tolerant of other people,” she told us. My sisters, who lived with my mother permanently in Berlin in the early nineties, were also getting an interesting education. She enrolled them in the JFK school in Zehlendorf, and they commuted there from Prenzlauer Berg every morning.

Back then, it took a long time to get from Eberswalderstrasse to Zehlendorf with multiple changes of trains required. They had to walk between Mohrenstrasse and Anhalter Bahnhof every morning and then every evening again. They spent a lot of time doing homework on the train, and their classmates could not believe that they lived in Prenzlauer Berg. Going to Zehlendorf in those days, was like going to another planet.

Even as several decades have passed, people still talk of ‘the Wall in your head’ when they talk about a native East Berliner’s fear of going to the former West Berlin – and a native West Berliner’s fear of going to the former East Berlin.

In 2006, I dated an engineer from Zehlendorf and he came to Prenzlauer Berg to visit me every week, but he clearly had a big problem with it. He was shocked and surprised by what he saw and experienced. He called it “Dunkel Deutschland”—Dark Germany—but he also saw the new economy emerging here and was confused by this.

“I can’t believe there are people sitting around in cafes with Macbooks,” he declared. The relationship didn’t last long because I found him too narrow-minded and stuck in his Zehlendorf lifestyle for my liking. It was a wonder to me to observe him observing Prenzlauer Berg, which seemed like a strange and scary foreign country to him.

Meat, Beer & Art 

Squat on Kastanienallee, 1990 by Renate Hildebrandt Image via Wiki, CC BY 3.0

In the early nineties, I did a lot with my mother in Prenzlauer Berg. I used to go food shopping with her and it was always an embarrassment. I was acutely aware how out of place this eccentric woman was standing in a butcher shop on the corner of Eberswalderstrasse trying to order meat.

The perplexed East German butcher tried to decipher my mother’s terrible German. She was not afraid of speaking and using her few words of German in a loud American accent. I would stand there, face growing ever redder in shame. It never takes much for a mother to embarrass her teenage daughter.

We would take walks through the Kulturbrauerei, which back then was covered in dirt and run down from GDR neglect before the cobblestones were laid and the premises renovated. I had always known that beer was important in Germany, but I had never learned that alcohol was the one luxury that people always had in the GDR, even if they were lacking for other goods.

Prenzlauer Berg’s breweries, I discovered, played a very important role in community life. They had been the largest employers in the neighbourhood spanning one hundred years from 1870-1970. They also ran many social programs and promoted education.

Each of the breweries also had a beer garden. Kulturbrauerei, Pfefferberg Brewery and Prater Garten—which is Berlin’s oldest beer garden—were all important places for workers to meet and discuss politics over a beer. Kulturbrauerei was founded in 1842 by the apothecary Heinrich Prells, and after his death was taken over by Jobst Schultheiss in 1853.

I learned quickly that the education I had received in Ireland about Germany had focused on the industrial and military history of the country, and not on the struggles of women, the working class and on the details of Germany’s politically active artists.

While standing at Kollwitzplatz, I wondered who this woman, Käthe Kollwitz had been, and why she had been important in Prenzlauer Berg. It turned out that she had been a talented painter, sculptor and printmaker who cared very much for the plight of the working classes.

She felt that the proletariat had soul and grit, and had an abundance of empathy for them. She portrayed their sorrows and struggles with poverty in her artwork. She also found the bourgeois class to be in many ways lifeless and pedantic and was critical of their lifestyle.

I can’t help but wonder what the many bourgeois residents of Kollwitzplatz in 2012 think of her when they stop and look at her statue there. Do they admire her as the supporter of the working classes?

Going East Again

The author’s mother in 2000, at Kollwitzplatz in Prenzlauer Berg

My mother applied for a job working at the cafe Anita Wronski at Wasserturm when it opened in 1993. “What are you going to do there?” I asked her. “I am going to cook!” she responded in glee. Another wave of teenage embarrassment welled up in me. “Cook?” I responded in horror. She was not only eccentric in her choice of where to live, but also in her ideas of what passed as edible cuisine.

She cooked some great dishes, to be sure, but sometimes she invented the craziest concoctions. I once asked her when she returned from work what she had cooked. “I made a cold kiwi soup,” she said. “It tasted okay”. I rolled my eyes at her. I felt sorry for the customers. Sometimes I would even go out to Falafal Daye on Danzigerstrasse to escape my mother’s cooking.

My mother may not have been a fabulous cook, but she had many other talents and she networked wonderfully in Berlin in the early post-Wall years. Our apartment at Schliemannstrasse seemed to always be full of interesting people. She gave English classes to many interesting East Germans, cast people’s charts and did astrology readings, and met all kinds of artists, musicians and writers who were flowing to Berlin at that time.

My friends were surprised to learn that I actually went out with her a lot to underground clubs to go dancing and drinking. We would go to the Hexenkessel and sit around the bonfire in the run down courtyard drinking beer. Or we would end up on the roof of a building to watch the fireworks on New Year’s Eve. I was new to Berlin and I didn’t know many people.

My mother’s friends became my friends. She even founded a small magazine in 1993 that she named “The Eighth Wave: An Irrational Journal”. Only she could come up with a name like that.

My mother left Berlin in 2001 and moved to China to teach English before eventually returning to the United States. I moved back to Berlin to work after completing university in 2000, and after she left she would send me e-mails from China saying how she loved it there, and I should come there and teach English.

“The food is wonderful here”, she would write. “The Chinese eat everything!” I was naturally skeptical of my mother’s idea of wonderful cuisine, but happy she was having a good time and was keeping an open mind as ever. “I am quite happy here in Berlin teaching English,” I would respond.

A Place Called Home: Part II

Over the past 21 years, I have watched Prenzlauer Berg change, but I still happily call it home. I see the changes, but I have somehow perceived them as gradual. Sadly the rooftops are no longer accessible on New Year’s Eve, and my friendly local bakery has been replaced by a chain bakery. But the Vietnamese who run the local flower shop and now Asian food store on my street have been there for years, and are thriving.

I still get the same quality of falafel served at Falafal Daye by the friendly Turks who I know well. My neighbourhood seems to retain a special sense of community that Prenzlauer Berg has always managed to do, despite the continuing turnover of people.

There are many more Macbooks in the cafes than in 2006, and I wonder if my Zehlendorf ex-boyfriend has ever come back to see the changes since then. And although I am single and have no kids, I know a lot of the neighbours’ kids and both they and their mothers are my friends. I still feel that Prenzlauer Berg has a lot of diversity, despite a lot of people calling it boring now that it is gentrified.

The stairwell of my apartment is now finally being renovated in 2012, and I watch the bullet holes being replaced with drill holes and new paint I am somewhat sad to see the hallway being painted, and it fills me with a strong sense of nostalgia for the first time I climbed my mother’s stairwell and observed the bullet holes and peeling paint back in 1991.

I have to endure being woken up by hammers and drills every morning during the reconstruction work, but I love my home and do not want to leave, despite the fact that my rent has gone up a bit I am thankful as ever to my mother for introducing me to this wonderful, vibrant neighbourhood that I have had the pleasure of watching change and evolve as I grow and mature with it.

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