Paul Sullivan discovers there’s more to Berlin’s loveliest inner-city bay than meets the eye…
The soaring, cock-shaped Art Nouveau water-tower at S-Bahn Ostkreuz might be adorably photogenic, but it’s not the only reason to make a journey to the station. This historic—and historically busy—station is of course a major urban interchange, but it’s also the most convenient public transport stop for the Rummelsburger Bucht, one of the city’s most pleasant waterside areas.
In fact, the station’s former name, Stralau-Rummelsburg—it was renamed Ostkreuz in 1933—is a direct allusion to the bay, which today is still hugged by the Alt-Stralau peninsula to the west, and the Lichtenberger Rummelsburger Ufer to the east, and which has been undergoing some quite intense redevelopment in recent decades. Even now, two decades after the Wasserstadt Stralau project began building new homes on the peninsula, cranes and bulldozers are still rumbling and digging up mounds of earth along Kynaststrasse, which runs directly along the head of the bay.
Could this perhaps be some of the social housing the city so desperately needs? No chance. On the Rummelsburger Ufer side—right where a camp of 100 or so homeless people was unceremoniously cleared on a freezing February day earlier this year—the bay will get an 11,000 square-meter, seven-floor commercial office block called AXIS. Not just any old office block, mind you, but, according to the project website, a place to achieve an ideal “work-lake balance” (yes, they actually wrote that), where “inspiration, work and leisure merge” and whose architecture will “respond to the significant urban location with striking objectivity”. Which is strange, because the mock-up looks pretty much like every other office building in the city: extraordinary only in its unimaginative blandness.
AXIS, though, is fairly modest compared to the neighbouring project, which will take up a whopping 300-meters along the rest of the street. Named B-HUB, this 46,500 square-meter, eleven-storey-tall behemoth promises to be not just a “spectacular office building”, but a “refreshing” place for “exchange and retreat—a “hipster start-up hub” so “dynamic” and “innovative” that its own illustrative video comes with a ‘CEO-techno’ soundtrack, and visions of what seem to be exclusively white, mostly corporate-attired employees mingling and working deep into the night to admire the wonderful sundowner views from their upper offices and roof terrace. Excitingly, it will also contain a supermarket.
What isn’t mentioned so clearly on the billboards or the websites is that the building will also serve as a buffer against all the noise emanating from the adjacent S Bahn and the proposed A100 motorway, which has created major regular protests throughout the city. And that’s not all: if the developers get their way, there will also be a giant Coral World—which seems about as necessary for the city as another pop-up burger outlet—although this has been contested by residents and concerned citizens under the Bay For All campaign (you can sign the petition and donate here).
No surprises that the area’s largely well-off residents have also worked together with local officials and business investors to clear the former floating ‘pirate’ (anarchist) communities from the bay’s waters, namely Alt-Lummerland (which burned down in 2017) and its successor, Neu-Lummerland. And yet this long-standing corporate onslaught still hasn’t destroyed the many pleasant charms that the bay area offers; in fact—as is often the case when investors seek to reassure and placate local communities—it has actively contributed some public infrastructure.
These days visitors can not only find lovely riverside vistas, but also beer gardens and restaurants, places to rent boats and kayaks, cycling paths, playgrounds, and green lawns, and a popular climbing wall. Non-residents are also still welcome to squeeze themselves into the myriad riverbank nooks to drink a beer and enjoy the scenery. And, this being Berlin, there’s lots of history to be found too, including former palm oil and bottling factories that hark back to the area’s mostly forgotten 19th century industrial legacy, an orphanage for boys and girls, and a labour camp that morphed into a 20th-century prison and is now a memorial to its Nazi and GDR victims.
Karl Marx even lived here briefly, while author Margarethe von Bülow tragically drowned while trying to save a young boy who had fallen through the ice in 1884 (she was just 24). And venture far enough along the eastern side and you’ll spot a Finnish-built UFO-shaped ‘ski chalet’ that used to be part of the now-abandoned Spreepark—also now under development—across the water at the Plänterwald.
The best place to begin an exploration is Alt-Stralau, whose development includes a three-kilometer pathway—good for cycling as well as strolling—that has been renatured with around 30,000 reed plants and lots of sand, and runs all the way around the peninsula, returning you the head of the bay. It’s also the oldest part of the area, dating back to at least 1358 when it was mentioned in official records as “Stralow”. Existing primarily as a fishing village, it still possesses something of that charm thanks to being surrounded almost entirely by water; it’s also still popular with local fishermen who try their luck from the shores.
The western side of the peninsula, lined with houseboats and other vessels, runs parallel to Treptower Park, whose convivial hubbub carries gently across the water during summer. About halfway along the pathway, an info column marks the former home of Karl Marx, who was a fresh-faced nineteen-year-old when he lived here for several months in 1837. The inn he called home (now Alt Stralau 25) was destroyed in the war, but an adjacent park features two red sandstone steles erected by the GDR to commemorate him: one features a classic bearded profile, the other bears his famous quote: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” He probably wouldn’t have approved of Coral World either.
Farther along is the oldest building not only on the peninsula, but in the entire Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district: the village church and its cemetery, which both date back to the early fifteenth century. The cemetery lies right on the water and feels especially atmospheric to stroll around, with gorgeous, leafy views that extend right back up to the Allianz tower; as well as local notables and landowners, the graveyard is also home to some of the poor souls who drowned or killed themselves in the Spree or the bay.
Keep your eyes peeled as you continue along Tunnelstraße: at number 11, an unassuming patch of grass covers what used to be the entrance to the former Spree Tunnel, which was built by electric company AEG between 1895 and 1899 and transported passengers below the water to what is now Puschkinallee at Treptower Park. The tunnel was over 450 meters long, and the tram journey took around three minutes. But despite being extended to Köpenick in 1909, cracks were found in the tunnel walls and the tunnel was discontinued in 1932; after serving briefly as an air raid shelter during the war, it was flooded in 1948.
Just around the corner is the peninsula’s lively southern tip, whose views take in an iconic Berlin mix of the Klingenberg power station and an ever-changing mise en scène of boats (moored and floating), party rafts, kayaks and SUP boarders. From here you can also see the peninsula’s two small, historic islands— Kratchbuch and Liebeinsel (Love Island); the latter sounds romantic enough until you discover the name comes from a Theodore Fontane novel (Der Stechlin) in which the island provides a location for lovers—abandoned and together—to take their own lives.
The eastern side of the peninsula’s pathway is peppered with shipyards and lined with moored boats, conjuring up a pleasant marina ambiance that’s quite unusual for Berlin. It also leads past what’s left of the area’s industrial-era buildings, including a former palm oil factory that imported its kernels via slave labour from the former German colony of Togo and, at Krachtstrasse 9-10, the clinker-brick bottle tower of the former Engelhardt brewery, which designed by Bruno Buch between 1929-1930. Both historically listed structures have been transformed, quelle surprise, into luxury apartments—as has the former glass blowing factory along Glasbläserallee, which until quite recently was a popular and accessible local ruin. This building, though, was not purchased by a real estate company, but by a group of private investors, who hired Eyrich-Hertweck architects to sensitively transform the structure into residential apartments.
As romantically attractive as these industrial remnants are, their original functions contributed heavily to the excessive pollution that still plagues the waters here. Frequent wartime bombing raids didn’t help, leaving the sediment full of poisonous chemical toxins. In fact, the bay remains the dirtiest body of water in Berlin, which has been strangely omitted from the marketing campaigns. Neither have the investors so keen to build on the area seem to have committed to providing any of the immense funds required to clean the waters—some 250 million euros according to a 2016 study. Needless to say, swimming and fishing here is very much at your own risk.
Lichtenberger Rummelsburger Ufer
The pathway leads from Alt Stralau, around the head of the bay, to the Lichtenberger Rummelsburger Ufer, where the cheerfully ramshackle Rummelsburger Bar lingers on as a lonely symbol of the former DIY community nature of the area. This curvy stretch is named the Paul-und-Paula-Ufer after the well-known GDR movie Die Legende von Paul und Paula (1973) that was filmed here, and extends into the Zillepromenade (named after Heinrich Zille, for reasons unclear), which is lined on one side with modern housing developments, and on the other with railings and benches where residents and visitors can enjoy the vibes and views.
A kilometer or so along the promenade, on the Bolleufer, sit two buildings from the former Municipal Friedrichs Orphanage, which was built between 1854-1859 and designed by architect Gustav Holzmann, who also worked on the Anhalter Bahnhof. The original complex was much larger, consisting of four boys’ and four girls’ houses, a military hospital, farm building and nursery, and even a bathing ship for the girls and bathing area for the boys. The orphanage was widely praised for its abundant fresh air, decent drinking water, and swimming and ice skating opportunities: the children also got lessons in cooking, gardening, and shoemaking (boys), and babycare and housekeeping (girls).
Between 1877-1879 the aura of the area darkened somewhat when the city built a labour camp next to the orphanage. Based on plans by city architect Hermann Blankenstein, it’s official role was to serve as a rehabilitation centre for societal ‘misfits’—homeless folk, criminals just released from prison, the mentally challenged. But it morphed all too smoothly into a prison for “undesirable and inferior people” (including homosexuals) during the Nazi era, and housed several thousand political prisoners in the 1970s and 1980s by the GDR; in an ironic twist of fate, both Erich Honecker and Erich Mielke were briefly held here after the Wall fell.
Today the complex has been turned into condominiums, lofts and rental apartments and cheerfully re-marketed as the “BerlinCampus” for the tidy sum of forty million euros; one of the buildings (House VIII) was even briefly transformed into a hotel with former cells decorated in jaunty colours, and decorated with steel bunk beds and conspicuously absent television sets to create that authentic prison-cell-chic. The hotel closed in 2018. For a mere fraction of the price (250,000 euros), the city has created a memorial consisting of columns placed around the area, that tell the story of its three eras (Imperial, Nazi, GDR), as well as presenting the dramatic and tragic biographies of some of the former inmates; these are well worth spending some time with.
From here it’s a short hop to the OstBloc bouldering hall. Heralded by its distinctive red star logo, its hugely popular with climbers of all ages who can chew on pizza and relax on the generous riverside lawn after working out in the cavernous inside hall. On the other of the building side is yet another new development: the Hafenküche, an upscale café-restaurant with a pleasant outdoor terrace that has been open a few years already, but recently expanded into a separate beer garden space, and boat rentals.
Just at the end of the Hafenküche’s water-level promenade (a very cosy place for a drink and snack) sits Berlin’s one and only UFO. More specifically, its only UFO-shaped portable ski chalet, which is known as FUTURO13 and was originally constructed by Finnish architect Matti Suuronen in 1968. The distinctive house is made of fiberglass-reinforced plastic, and was originally purchased for the long-abandoned Spreepark across the water in Treptower Park.
It’s impossible to imagine now, but between 1927 and the 1950s, a huge outdoor pool and leisure complex existed right where the Hafenküche—and the bus station located just behind—are located today. Officially called Städliches Flussbad Lichtenberg, it was known colloquially as Freibad Klingenberg, and had an area of 50,000 square meters—almost the same as the B-Hub development at the other end of the bay—and contained 26,000 m² of sandy beach, a diving tower and four pools, drawing thousands of Berliners on summer weekends.
The Flussbad was partly heated by the see Klingenberg power station, whose distinctive white chimneys can be seen just beyond. The pathway currently ends here though, so unless you want to return via the adjacent streets and main road, you’ll have to go back the way you came: along what, despite all the rampant gentrification and polluted water, remains the loveliest bay in Berlin.