Berlin’s 37km-long Ringbahn was inaugurated in 1877. Built ostensibly for freight, it was soon afterwards made accessible to a general public – who initially spurned it based on the service’s high prices and the fact that most inhabitants of the city more or less lived, worked and socialised in the same neighbourhoods.
At the time of building, the Ringbahn circumvented the city outskirts on what was then more or less blank land. The city grew exponentially between the 1880s and the first World War, and though the Ringbahn still forms the A (inner city) boundary of the BVG’s transport zones, it now cuts through many expanded inner-city districts, such as Treptow, Neukölln, Schöneberg, Wedding and Charlottenburg.
Yet to walk the Ringbahn is still to trace the urban fringes of the city. While it crosses parts of the Spree and the Landwehr Canal in places, as well as a couple of major parks (Schloss Charlottenburg and Treptower Park) and quite a few residential areas, many of the latter feel run-down and peripheral, and much of the scenery is distinctly Ballardian: disused freight yards, industrial factories, looming concrete underpasses and roaring multi-lane autobahns.
Nonetheless, it made for an educational romp. To those who would say ‘why walk 40 kilometres over several days when you could have taken the train in an hour’, I would reverse the question: why experience your city, at speed, through a window, when you can enjoy lots of fresh air, discover parts of it you never knew, and be forever proud that you walked the exact shape of a dog’s head in Berlin?
This post records the second half of the journey, from S-Bahn Schöneberg to the starting point, S-Bahn Prenzlauer Allee. You can find the first part of the walk here.
Catching the train back to S-Bahnhof Schöneberg in the early dawn rewards me with a spectacular sunrise…
S-Bahnhof Schöneberg’s pub is definitively closed at this early hour (see the ending of Part 1). The sun is still making its way over the skyline as I start my tramp around this south-eastern section of the Ringbahn. I head along Torgauer Strasse, which once formed part of the Südringspitzkehre – the area where trains would loop into and reverse back out of to complete a circle around the city before the Ringbahn was complete—stealing a glance at (and a photo of) Alfred Messel’s gasometer, whose skeletal beauty seems even more fragile in the thin winter light.
The street skirts Schöneberg’s famous Rote Insel district, birthplace of Marlene Dietrich, residence of Hildegard Knef and home also of Franz Göll, an “ordinary Berliner” who kept incredibly detailed and informative diaries of his life throughout the twentieth century. But this is no time for diversions; not even into the area’s local “romantic nightclub”…
I do traverse nearby Hildegard-Knef-Platz though, as a tiny tribute to her extraordinary life, before reaching the deserted spaces around the oversized S-Bahnhof Südkreuz.
In order to get to the next station (S-Bahnhof Tempelhof) and stick to the Ringbahn as closely as possible, I schlep across Sachsendamm to Schöneberger Strasse. The steady thrum of early morning traffic and the sight of commuters heading to work prompts that pleasant feeling of witnessing the city roar (and in some cases whimper) into life. Interesting to think that just beyond this urban scene lies the quietude of one of Berlin’s most singular nature parks.
The electric billboards, of course, never sleep, asserting their oversized messages into the tired eyes of passing motorists day and night. We often believe we don’t notice such things, that our brains are capable of böocking them out. Advertisers know that this is not true—that even if we don’t rush out to buy their toothpaste or insurance plans immediately, their wares will be burned into our deep subconscious. As Daniel Kahneman pointed out in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, our penchant for suggestibility is, well, frightening.
Up ahead, neatly sillhouetted against the golden glow of the sun, more brands rise up against the skyline: Bauhaus (Swiss). McFit (German). McDonalds (USA) – the low-cost international icons of peripheral Berlin.
It feels good to turn off the busy road, and even better—considering the mission—to see a sign saying Ringbahnstrasse. The industrial building on the corner is impressive, too – it hosts the collection of the Museum für Post und Kommunikation (parts of which are exhibited inside an even grander nineteenth-century building on Leipzigerstrasse).
Ringbahnstrasse is also home to the BSR (Berliner Stadtreinigungsbetriebe), one of the biggest municipal waste disposal services in Germany. With almost 7,000 orange-overalled employees, around 2,000 vehicles and 18 public recycling, it’s likely you’ve seen them around.
Ringbahnstrasse leads to Tempelhofer Damm and the garish green doors of S-Bahnhof Tempelhof. But first I have to duck into a nearby cafe to ask if I can use the toilet. The middle-aged lady behind the counter obliges, pointing out between puffs of her cigarette that I should be quiet and try not to disturb the homeless man she has allowed to sleep in the back room. Sure enough, a snoozing figure is huddled against the silently blinking gambling machines. l decide to order a coffee; the lady joins me and lights another cigarette. She tells me about her life: how she is running the cafe temporarily to help a friend; how she decided to let the homeless guy in because people usually don’t; how she usually works as a nurse in a local hospital. Time, words and smoke mingle in the still air of the small space, until we realise we have been chatting for an hour. Not one customer has entered the cafe to disturb us. We say our farewells and I head to the station.
I pick up the route a couple of days later. Unfortunately the temperature has managed to drop to a cruel -20 degrees and it’s almost impossible to keep my hands warm enough to take photos, even with gloves. But the walking gives me just enough body heat to continue. I come across Karl-Pfennig-Haus, a grand old building that houses the offices of the famous low-budget manufacturing empire. The company was founded in 1907 by Kurt’s grandfather Albert Pfennig (in his native Alt-Moabit). When Kurt died in 2005, the square opposite the house was named after him (Kurt-Pfennig-Platz).
Seeing a street sign named Germaniastrasse gives me an eerie feeling, especially given it skirts the southern periphery of the Nazi-built Tempelhof Airport grounds. Populated mainly by car dealers and mechanics, a Video World and the offices of electronics companies (Kabel Deutschland, Uni Elektro), it’s classic Berlin edgelands. I put my head down and pick up my pace.
Oberlandstrasse—a street that looked very different at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and which today houses a few interesting buildings from the 1920s and ’30s: Jean Chandler’s German Kühlerfabrik AG (now a chemical factory), remnants of Paul Renner’s Gillette building (pictured), Otto Kohtz’s UFA studios.
Passing into the fringes of Neukölln, more familiar signs of human civilisation await: supermarkets, stehcafes…swinger clubs…
Visible evidence of Neukölln’s vibrant migrant community soon also begin to appear…
…innercity graffiti along Saalestrasse, after passing through S-Bahnhof Neukölln.
Despite being more firmly back into inner-city territory, the constant graffiti and dilapidated Altbau housing maintains a raw visual edge as I make my way to S-Bahnhof Sonnenallee.
A cute makeshift S-Bahn sign (there is no Rixdorf Bahnhof) alerts me to the fact I am walking along the edge of Neukölln’s bohemian heart; the posters remind me that I am loved by a whole host of heavyweight deities.
Despite having a photo of this street installation on the Sonnenbücke (which crosses the 4-km long Neukölln Ship Canal), I am still not 100% certain I didn’t imagine it.
The Kiehlufer has been slated for regeneration into a walking and cycling path, though the street today is lined by dilapidated backyards and low-key businesses. The sun is shining nicely though, and bouncing pleasantly off the frozen canal, which connects with the Landwehr Canal at its northern end.
Although I had been planning to pass below the elevated Ringbahn tracks and follow them along their western edge, I suddenly spy some steps. To my surprise, they lead me right to the tracks themselves. There are no protective fences, no barriers, and certainly no security around. Nothing stopping me from laying down and hugging or even licking the tracks if I wanted to – but I settle for a photograph. With the Allianz building glinting in the distance and snow-covered Plattenbauten huddling together, as if for warmth, to the east, I stand still for a while and appreciate the low-key weirdness of this hidden rip in the city’s urban fabric.
Walking alongside the tracks, what must have been a former freight area is now apparently used for the storage of construction materials. The graffiti on the containers (“Fuck Everyone”), tell me something I already knew: I am far from the first to discover the surrealism of this soundless non-place.
Soundless, that is, until the definitive rumble of a train grabs my attention. Suffice to say, this is the closest I have ever been to a moving train. The look of surprise on the driver’s face—I swear I saw his bushy moustache curl upwards at the edges—is not one I will forget anytime soon.
The train disappears into the distance and the cinematic stillness returns. Just as I am studying the curious animal tracks in the snow, an urban fox appears and runs away from me. I have reached a dead end. It’s either walk back or jump this tall wooden fence. On the other side, I land inside what appears to be a Turkish-run second hand car dealer. I’m slightly nervous as I walk past their office and out through their business gates, though in quintessential Berlin manner, the gathered employees nod warily rather than asking why I seem to have entered their premises from the wrong side.
A short walk brings me to the entrance of Treptower Park. It’s the first time I’ve seen it covered in snow and the sight takes my breath away somewhat. Strange that a memorial to 7,000 Red Army soldiers killed in battle around Berlin should feel like something from a Russian fairy-tale, but there you go.
Despite the below freezing temperatures, there are plenty of walkers out and about at the edge of the park, enjoying the blue skies, the mellowing warmth of the sun and the wintry delights of an ice-spattered Spree.
Remnants of the old glass factory that gave Glasbläserallee (Glass-Blower Alley) its name.
The shadows are getting longer as the sun begins to set around S-Bahnhof Ostkreuz. The locals used to call this historic station Rostkreuz, due to its general lack of maintenance. But renovations started in 2007 have smartened the place up, most notably with the 150-meter glass and steel train shed that lends the station a sleek, modern Berlin look.
The old and the new: the modern Allianz building (late 90s) and the distinctive old tower (1909-1912) that once stored water for steam trains.
Picking up the route again the next morning from Ostkreuz, I pass into Friedrichshain via Neuebahnhofstrasse. The first major building I spot are the striking Knorr-Bremse offices, expanded in the 1930s to plans by U-Bahn architect Alfred Grenander, whose brick veneer and sandstone reliefs glisten gorgeously in the morning light.
Neue Bahnhofstrasse flows into Gürtelstrasse and a part of Friedrichshain that stubbornly maintains (in places), an un-gentrified nineties East Berlin feel.
I get carried away exploring the surrounding streets and enjoying the local time-travel: squats, unrefurbished Altbaus, and grungy, post-Wende throwbacks like the Herman Schulz creative co-operative (edit: RIP).
The final day of the Ringbahn walk picks up again at Frankfurter Allee and continues through more graffiti, currywurst imbisses, discount supermarkets.
Before long a symbol of gentrification hoves into the view: a lifestyle supermarket offering high-end goods for correspondingly tall prices, weirdly at odds with the surrounding discount stored (PennyMarkt, Kaufland), and certainly with the blocks of East German social housing just across the train tracks. Nearby is S-Bahnhof Storkowerstrasse. The pedestrian bridge that leads to the station now is a mere shadow of what it once was: a 420-meter long steel bridge—nicknamed the Langer Jammer (Long Sorrow) or Rue de Galopp—whose windows allowed pedestrians to look down into the vast slaughter house complex that once occupied this area.
That area was built by the urban planner and architect Hermann Blankenstein, after whom the current street is named. The slaughterhouses (and stockyards) spread from the train tracks (via which the cattle were delivered) to the west of the area and defined this part of Friedrichshain for many decades. At their peak, over 1o,000 cows, pigs, calves, and sheep were slaughtered here on a daily basis, which brings to mind unimaginable smells and noises. Hardly anything is left of these major structures now, aside from some detailing on the modern conversions, and these three lonely former cattle buildings just off Landsberger Allee.
The S-Bahn tracks can be followed right below the Europa-Sportpark Berlin (the Velodrom and Schwimm- und Sprunghalle), built in place of the old goods stations in an attempt to host the 2000 Olympics (they were given to Sydney instead).
Though to return to the tracks upon exiting requires a fairly long detour back to bustling Storkowerstrasse…