The Pigeonhole: Letters from Berlin

An overview of – and extract from – a new 12-part multimedia series about Berlin…

Berlin has long captured the imagination of writers and beckoned as a home for creatives from around the world.

Letters from Berlin, a digital series published by The Pigeonhole, presents twelve weekly essays written by German and international residents of Berlin – including our very own Marcel Krueger. Each piece focuses on a different district of the city (Marcel’s covers his adopted Wedding neighbourhood) and includes multimedia content such as videos, artwork and music.

With contributors that include writers, journalists, translators, photographers, filmmakers, artists and theatre directors, Letters from Berlin aims to offer a multi-faceted, personal guide to the architecture, history, food, culture and people of the city.

The series launched on 20 July and begins with The Squirrel Principle, an essay about Prenzlauer Berg by Lucy Renner Jones. Below is an extract:

“Those same people who denounce the invasion of tourists that has taken over Prenzlauer Berg are generally incomers too, of course. The pecking order seen through the eyes of the native East German is as follows: the highest-ranking person is a bona fide East Berliner. He or she is allowed to complain about anyone and anything and blame everyone else for things not going right. For him, ‘tourist’ is a loose term of abuse for anyone who is not from East Berlin.

“Then come people from former Eastern Bloc states who lived here when the Wall was still up. Next come people from West Germany who have lived here since the Nineties, preferably those who squatted in a building in the Bötzowviertel and turned it into a café where a cappuccino is still under two euros. Then come Turks, usually those who used to live in West Berlin’s Wedding, and who hopped over the border after the Wall fell.

“Recently, I went into a mobile-phone repair shop to get a quote for my smashed iPhone display. The man, with an unmistakable Turkish accent, said it could be done for seventy-nine euros and would be ready in an hour. I was dismayed. ‘That much?’ I complained. ‘I thought it would be more like forty.’ He shook his head in disgust and said, ‘Dann gehen Sie doch zum Türke!’ – Then go to the Turk! Perhaps, after all, he was Kurdish.

“Then come the Vietnamese, who were honorary socialists until ’89 and now run vegetable shops or restaurants (and until recently, a wave of bubble-tea cafés that were quickly closed again after it was discovered that the drinks’ main ingredient was sugar). Then come the Western Europeans that moved here around the turn of the millennium and who have sublet contracts and small suitcases: Italians, French, Spanish, English. Then come Americans, because America is still the capitalist enemy. And in final place are the Swabians.

“Swabians are hated by just about anyone, even those who don’t know where Swabia is. ‘Swabian’ is almost interchangeable with ‘tourist’ as far as terms of abuse go. At least this is what the press would have us believe.But in this context, Swabia is in fact a mentality, not a geographical place: in Germany, Swabians have a reputation for being industrious and thrifty, for getting things done and investing wisely.

“The gentrification process needed to be blamed on someone, and so the cool Berliners decided to pick on a group that would not be able to defend themselves: the Swabians who are neither poor nor sexy. It was an attack on a minority, as there is no actual evidence that there are more Swabians than, say, Rührpottler, Saxons or neighbouring Brandenburgers in Prenzlauer Berg.

“An age-old animosity was stirred up mainly by remarks made in the press by the SPD politician and former Bundestag president Wolfgang Thierse, himself a long-time resident of Prenzlauer Berg: he accused the nest-thieving Swabians of organisierte Schwabenschaft (organised Swabianism), in which they had ousted the traditionally poor and working-class Berliners in Prenzlauer Berg and other districts to bag themselves lucrative jobs in the German media, government or culture sectors. This accusation had an unfortunate ring about it, and West German politicians in particular accused Thierse of racism and xenophobia. So what might have started as a light-hearted quip actually reignited a longstanding resentment between former Prussia and South Germany.

“Eighty-five per cent of the original population of Prenzlauer Berg has left the area since the Wall fell. That means fifteen per cent must still be living here somewhere. I make enquiries and am introduced by friends to a delightful retired couple in their seventies – let’s call them Herr und Frau Gruner – who have been in the district since the 1950s. Their water-tower apartment belongs to the Gewobag housing association. At first, I can’t believe my ears: the water tower at the end of Rykestraße is almost legendary. Didn’t Charlotte Roche write Feuchtgebiete there? Isn’t Maria Schrader able to jog around her entire apartment in a circle?

“But it turns out that the apartments are not private luxury condos after all. The Gruners were offered their present-day home after downsizing from their cavernous flat on Kollwitzstraße. During the communist era when there was no hotel infrastructure, it had once served as a place for their friends and acquaintances to crash when visiting Berlin. Herr Gruner was a Catholic priest under the GDR regime, and Frau Gruner wanted to avoid voting for a party she didn’t agree with. They moved to Prenzlauer Berg because it was a district of students and agitators, and it was affordable.

“‘I was an outsider then and I still am,’ says Herr Gruner with a grin. What is their take on the tourist invasion? ‘Many tourists come to look at the Wasserturm, probably because it’s in some guidebook or other,’ says Herr Gruner. ‘They stare up at the tower, murmuring to each other,’ says Frau Gruner, ‘but I don’t know what they see, because there is nothing here,’ she says. ‘It’s true,’ says Herr Gruner. “They come and sit in the cafés, hoping to meet someone from the GDR who can tell them how it was back then, but the only people they meet are other tourists. Everyone else left long ago.’

“I ask if they see themselves as members of a group that no longer exists in this area: they reply that the Lebensgefühl – or attitude towards life – that people who live in Prenzlauer Berg these days have is very different from the solidarity that used to exist in the GDR era. ‘Of course, the community has changed. It’s now driven by competition and vanity. There used to be more of a desire to connect with others. Most people nowadays live in flats bought by their parents,’ says Herr Gruner. ‘You don’t know that,’ interjects his wife. ‘How do you know where people get the money to finance their houses?’ He shrugs. ‘How else could they afford to buy here? There is no other explanation.’

“I ask if they feel that a golden opportunity has been squandered: an opportunity for people to live differently after the end of divided Germany.Anders leben, a Shangri-La? ‘Of course,’ Herr Gruner says, ‘but what’s replaced it is capitalism, and we all know that isn’t going to work indefinitely.’ Frau Gruner laughs. ‘Who benefits from all this here?’ Her hand gestures vaguely towards the window, beyond which the cafés and playgrounds on the Wasserturmplatz are teeming with bodies in the sunshine.

“‘After ten o’clock at night, this place is tote Hose: there’s nothing going on, everyone’s in bed! I don’t know why. Everyone wants peace and quiet. Die Luft ist raus, it’s all over and done with. We used to be a bunte Truppe, a motley crew of people who escaped the provinces. Now everyone’s the same. And there’s still pressure here – but now’s it’s economic, whereas it used to be political.’

“So those who moved here in the Nineties, like I did, in search for an alternative life, have managed to duplicate exactly what we wanted to escape. Anders leben, or a different lifestyle – what a narrow interpretation we’ve managed to come up with. Our lives in former East Berlin don’t represent a different outlook, just a different view of the same old landscape. The most radical thing you can do here nowadays, a friend remarked recently, is give your kid a bag of crisps in public instead of an organic rice waffle. In the past, we thought we were being alternative, but we were more enamoured with the way it looked like from the outside. T-shirts with slogans were as political as we got.”

You can read more of Lucy’s Prenzlauer Berg essay here, read more about The Pigeonhole project here.

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