Alexanderplatz: The People’s Square (A Fictional Tale)

It was one of those interminably grey December days—the sort that feel like someone placed a giant saucepan lid over the entire city and walked off. From where I stood, below the S-Bahn tracks on Alexanderplatz, the sky looked featureless and forlorn, an extension of the square’s own vast, monotone bleakness. As well as being depressingly grey, it was freezing: arschkalt as the Germans, with their penchant for arse-related phrases, tend to say. 

I reluctantly inhaled the familiar scent of stale piss and sausages and watched the local pigeons strut around in a kind of lethargic daze. The way they stumbled around, ignoring the grease-spattered KFC boxes on the floor and adjacent puddles of dried vomit made me wonder if they’d inadvertently snacked on some discarded crumbs of smack or MDMA. The faces of the people passing by looked as grey and stony as everything else. Hunkered down into thickly padded winter jackets, hands stuffed firmly into pockets and hats pulled down over pinkened ears, their expressions were pinched from the cold—although to be fair, Berliners often looked this way in summer too. I had the fleeting sensation that this was how life must have felt in former East Berlin; so many of the photos I had looked at for research seemed similarly monochrome and oppressive.

It was 12:50. They would be here soon. I rummaged in my leather shoulder bag for a final check: iPad, yep; photography books, yep; warm flask of sugary British tea, yep; emergency bretzel—everything was in place, just as it had been when I’d checked ten minutes earlier. And ten minutes before that. My nervousness, exacerbated by the grim scenery, was doubtless due to this being one of my newer tours—and knowing that I was relying just a little too much on the group not being very au fait with the square’s history. 

Alexanderplatz, 1969. Image by Horst Sturm.

“Paul?” A man, tall and good-looking, was standing in front of me, regarding me quizzically with beady brown eyes. The collar of his thigh-length black coat was turned up against the cold. He wore beige slacks, dark blue sneakers and a canary-yellow beanie that only partly covered his long hair which, like his dark stubble, was flecked with grey. I placed him in his early-to-mid forties.  

“Guten Tag!” I replied in my faux-jolly tour guide voice. “And you must be…Fabian?”

“Yes…one of them,” he said with the faintest trace of a German accent. “I’m the one that booked the tour. The others should be along in just a moment.”

“No problem at all,” I purred, automatically looking at my watch again. “In fact you’re a few minutes ear—” 

The air exploded with a loud burst of saxophone. A busker had apparently managed to set up right behind me while I was waiting and had started to play, with a great deal more enthusiasm than skill, the solo of George Michael’s Careless Whisper. I rolled my eyes at Fabian, who smirked back, and we instinctively moved away from the S-Bahn bridge and towards the main entrance of the station. When the busker was out of earshot, I asked him as casually as possible if he already knew much about Alexanderplatz. “As a matter of fact—” he began, but stopped and raised a gloved hand to a group of men walking towards us.

There were four of them, a curious ensemble of varied shapes, ages and gaits, all dressed identically to Fabian: thigh-length black coats turned up at the collar, beige trousers, dark blue sneakers, canary-yellow beanies. I was too bemused to comment and felt it would have been anyway imprudent; these were paying clients, after all, and it was surely some kind of company uniform or an in-joke that would eventually be revealed.

I smiled good-naturedly as the quartet greeted Fabian with a barrage of handshakes, hugs and high-fives. When done, they looked at me expectantly. “Everyone, this is Paul, our tour guide,” said Fabian, taking the initiative. Four bright yellow beanies nodded curtly. “And these,” continued Fabian, gesturing vaguely towards his colleagues, “are the other Fabians. Let’s say I’m Fabian One, then we have, from left to right, Fabian Two, Fabian Three, Fabian Four, and Fabian Five. Obviously you’ll get the numbers mixed up but there can be no excuses on the names!” 

Fabian One smiled at me and the others smirked, some of them a little sardonically. 

“Well that’s…interesting!” I managed. “Five Fabians in one group! That’s definitely a first. Like a kind of mini Fabian Society!” I grinned, proud of my spontaneous little joke. The five faces looked at me blankly. 

“Well, I suppose that’s more of a British thing anyway,” I mumbled. “I’m from the United Kingdom by the way! You may have heard of it? A small and increasingly irrelevant island just off mainland Europe run by a bunch of psychopaths? Ha-ha! I believe you Germans refer to us as Inselaffen…? No? Okay! Apparently not. But okay well it’s really nice to meet you all and thank you for booking the tour. Since it’s a little, mh, arschkalt today, shall we get started?”

I led the group over towards the World Clock, silently cursing my misfortune at getting a group of weird, humourless Germans on such a cheerless day. I decided as we walked that I would skip some of the square’s early history. I found that whole mediaeval era pretty dull anyway and probably they would too but I was really just hoping to end the tour a little sooner so we could all go home and get warm. As we gathered under the famous cylindrical clock, I pulled the iPad out of my bag and began my preamble.

“I presume you already know something about this strange-looking landmark here, officially known as the Weltzeituhr, or World Clock? It dates back to 1969 and is one of the many here symbols of the GDR, the regime responsible for the current, that is to say fairly bleak, look of the square. The East Germans actually expanded Alex to four times its size before the Second World War, which explains its unsettlingly huge dimensions. But the clock here, which I actually find to be an architectural highlight, was inspired by the Uraniasäule, which was situated at this very location before the war. The twenty-four sides represent the major time zones around the world and the motor that turns the clock was built by Trabant, the company famous for building the classic East German cars that still pootle around and pollute the city today. Did you know, by the way, that some Trabants had two exhaust pipes?”

The group looked at me quizzically.

“It was so they could be used as wheelbarrows!”

I gave it a second or two for the joke to land but they just kept staring. I decided it must be a language issue and moved quickly on. “The clock’s biggest claim to fame is probably serving as the starting point for the demo on the 7th October 1989, which ended at the former Palast der Republik, now the re-built Stadtschloss, which saw some 1,200 protesters arrested. We’ll talk more about East Germany and the fall of the wall a little later but let’s first travel back through some of the older history of Alex—of which there’s a lot! Although it dates back to the thirteenth century, the square really started to come into its own in the eighteenth-century, as we can see from this engraving here.”

Königstraße and Alexanderplatz, view to the north. Image by L. L. Müller, 1784 via Wikipedia.

I swiped past the initial images on my iPad until I came to the image in question, tilting the device so they could all see it. “This is how the view to the north, towards what is now Prenzlauer Berg, looked in 1784. A very different vista I’m sure you will agree. The route where these trams currently trundle back and forth was known as Königsstrasse. It was the main road linking the Royal City with one of the city gates, the Georgentor, which was roughly over where the busy main road now is. The gate’s name was changed to the Königstor in 1701 after Friedrich, the first King of Prussia, ceremoniously rode through it, and the square was named Alexanderplatz in 1805 when Russian Tsar Alexander I, was welcomed to the city at the same gate.”

Half of the group were focused on the image, while the others were looking north with an air of what seemed like some kind of engagement. Plumes of cold air streaming from their mouths as they exhaled. “Looking more closely at the engraving,” I continued, “we can see that a stone bridge crossed the former moat. That was built in 1771 and was called, yep, the Königsbrücke. We can also see some prominent buildings of the time. The place here on the right is the Haus zum Hirschen, also known as the House with 99 Sheepsheads for reasons you can look into yourselves if you’re curious. The inn was one of many new buildings commissioned by the king following the devastation of the Seven Years’ War. It was built in 1783 and located approximately where that GDR eyesore known as the Haus des Reisens currently stands.”

I noticed at least two of the Fabians side-eye each other as I pointed towards the offending tower block.

Das Haus mit den 99 Schafsköpfen

“The Haus zum Hirschen briefly hosted one of Berlin’s most prominent architects, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, responsible for some of the city’s most prestigious buildings, including the Berlin Cathedral, the stately Neue Wache and the Altes Museum over on Museum Island. Lining Königstrasse on both sides we can see some elegant colonnades. These were designed by Carl Philipp von Gontard, an architect so important they named a nearby tram stop after him right outside the S-Bahn.” I jabbed a thumb behind me to indicate the S-Bahn station we had just walked from. “Even Schinkel didn’t get his own tram stop. Each of the colonnades was crowned with a balustrade and sculptures and although they were built a very long time ago, guess what? These colonnades can still be found in—”

“Heinrich-von-Kleist-Park,” yawned the shortest Fabian in the group. He had the audacity to roll his eyes and stare obnoxiously beyond me as he said it.

The royal colonnades in Heinrich-von-Kleist-Park, Schöneberg. Ansgar Koreng / CC BY-SA 3.0 (DE)

“Yes, correct,” I said sniffily, adjusting my shoulder bag. I was starting to feel annoyed as well as slightly unnerved. Luckily I had another fact-bomb, something they certainly wouldn’t know. “And in an interesting twist,” I announced through a slightly forced smile, “it is said that none other than Henrich von Kleist stayed at the Haus zum Hirschen just a few days before his suicide down at Wannsee…”

“Not true,” snapped another of the Fabians; he seemed something of a hipster with a tattoo of a tiny dolphin visible on the upper part of his neck and the kind of elaborate, well-groomed moustache you’d expect to find on an award-winning mixologist. “It was a different von Kleist from Frankfurt-an-der-Oder,” he huffed. “That error was cleared up years ago.” 

Someone in the group sniggered and I felt some warmth rise to my cheeks. “Hm well, I wasn’t aware of that,” I bristled. “In any case, and as you presumably also know then, the subsequent era, roughly between 1815 and 1848, was known as the Biedermeier, which represented a move towards middle-class comforts and an embracing of the arts. The square grew more distinguished during this time. Over where Galeria Kaufhof now stands was the former house of famous cartographer and engraver Johann David Schleuen; Gotthold Ephraim Lessing penned his comedic play Minna von Barnhelm while living there. The Königstädtische Theater, the first private theatre in Berlin, opened in 1824 where the Alexanderhaus now is just behind us. It had space for an impressive 1,600 visitors and the king himself came along to the opening performance. By the early 1820s, the square had its own gas lanterns and the cattle market was moved over to Landsberger Strasse since it didn’t fit the gentrified aesthetic any more.”

The Fabians looked at one another but remained silent.  

“Alexanderplatz continued to steadily improve throughout the subsequent belle epoque… ” I had been practising the phrase on YouTube and was admittedly a little overconfident in pronouncing it. “Prosperous factories popped up, buildings grew from three storeys to five, and by the 1870s, the former moat was filled in to construct the railway line and station that we know so well today. The station itself was opened in 1882 and was followed by all kinds of new and exciting infrastructure, such as the eye-catching neo-Renaissance Grand Hotel, the covered market hall over near Dircksenstrasse, and the glamorous Tietz department store—which as you can see in this photo from 1900, was attractively fronted by the famous seven-and-a-half metre Berolina statue.”

I swiped to the relevant image and paused a second before concluding the overview. “It goes without saying that if we compare this image, which shows not only how elegant but also how busy the square had become by the turn of the twentieth century, with what we see today,”—I waved my hand vaguely at the prosaic panorama of postwar communist buildings, tacky department stores, screeching trams and pissed-off sausage sellers around us—“that the postwar era has been a genuine aesthetic tragedy.”

Before I could say anything more, the Fabians moved in on me and everything went black. 

*****

I woke up in a dark, cold room. My head felt woolly and my mouth was desperately dry. It was quiet. I seemed to be alone but was afraid to make a noise in case I wasn’t. I was sitting on a chair but when I tried to move I realised my feet and hands were firmly tethered to it and that my wrists and ankles hurt. An odour of dust and concrete reminded me of a building site or bunker. I didn’t feel in any way seriously harmed or bruised, which seemed like a positive. My stomach rumbled. I looked around to see if I could spot the outline of my shoulder bag, with its potential promises of warm tea and salty bretzel. 

As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, parts of the room became visible. The walls looked like they were made of rough concrete, and the low ceiling confirmed that I was indeed in some kind of bunker or cellar. There seemed to be random furnishings set against the walls and chains dangled from the ceiling. 

“Oh, you’re awake,” said Fabian One’s voice as an intense bright light was switched on. I writhed around in the chair, turning my head and screwing up my eyes instinctively. “Oops, that’s a little bright, apologies…”

The headlamp of what turned out to be a standing spotlight was directed to the side by Fabian One, who was slightly silhouetted by it. He was sitting on a chair just a few metres opposite me, looking quite expressionistic. He was still dressed the same, beanie and all.  

“I’m sorry this had to happen to you,” he said. “But unfortunately your tour runs against the guidelines of our society. We had no—”

“Your what?” I spluttered.

“Our society,” he replied patiently. “The full name, which you should probably be made aware of, is The Society for the Preservation of Alexanderplatz as a People’s Square.”

“SPAPS?” 

“Excuse me?”

“The acronym. Of your society. Is SPAPS. And you expect me to take you seriously with a name like that? Plus can we talk about the fact you have assaulted and kidnapped me? How did you even do that by the way? Actually, first things first, could you possibly untie me and get me my flask? I really need a drink” 

Fabian One regarded me with what felt like cool arrogance.

“Our job, you see, is to wet all the tours on the square—

“To what? Oh I see, to vet them…” Now that there was more light I could see that the ‘furniture’ against the walls looked suspiciously like BDSM equipment. There was a cage, an assortment of whips and crops on the wall, and the chains formed part of what appeared to be a sex swing. “Um, are we in a kink dungeon? If so, this has to be the most Berlin kidnapping ever. You could have just invited me, you know?”

Fabian One seemed to flinch. “Um, yes, it kind of is,” he said. “But we, meaning our society, don’t use it as such. We share the space with one of our colleagues, who works part-time as a dominatrix. It’s a kind of co-working bunker, if you like.” 

“Let me guess: is her name Fabiana?”

Fabian One flinched again. “How are you knowing this?”

“Let’s just say it was a wild guess. But isn’t it a bit kinky to tie someone to a chair? Can you please untie me? My hands hurt!”

“I will. But first you have to know why you are here. Right now we are located below Alexanderplatz, a square we care about passionately. Your so-called tour has been found to be deeply unsatisfactory. In fact, the official report says it’s ‘bowdlerised, bourgeois and utter bollocks’…”

“Okay, mister alliteration…” I said, but I immediately regretted being cocky.

“All the important history is filtered out,” continued Fabian One. Some emotion seemed to be creeping into his voice, giving it a slightly camp quality. “I mean, you don’t even start until the eighteenth century! Do you really think it’s okay to just skip over five hundred years? And then you focus almost exclusively on all of that royal, upper class crap, the fancy houses and VIPs…ugh!”

“To be honest,” I interjected, “I skipped past some of the earlier history because I found you lot pretty—”

“Interesting too, how you mention the spire of the Georgenkirche in your photograph but nothing about the church itself?” This from the vertically-challenged Fabian who flounced into the room and stood next to Fabian One with his hands on his hips. “That church took in poor folk and orphans and was a source of great comfort for the local community. In the same way, you mention the aristocratic houses, the posh theatres and the illustrious names but failed to mention any of the normal people who lived on the square—as in, the vast majority of people who lived and worked there! Where are the fishermen, the rag-and-bone men, the knife sharpeners, the factory workers, the innkeepers, the wool weavers? And how many of those poor wretches could afford to go to the theatre like the king? “

“I—”

“You also missed the workhouse!” thundered Fabian One. 

“Workhouse?” 

“In 1758,” he replied, “right where that architectural atrocity known as the Alexa mall sits, these wonderful royals and rulers of yours built a giant workhouse,” said Fabian One. “They forced beggars, unemployed and homeless people, as well as children, to manually power a treadmill for up to fourteen hours a day.”

“You mean they provided them with jobs?” 

“This was not work! It was slave labour! Children were put to work for fourteen hours a day! Thankfully the locals had more of a conscience than you; in 1839 they protested against these insulting conditions and got the working time for kids down to ten hours. A mere ten hours! You see, Paul, it’s precisely this history, forgotten and ignored by tours like yours, that our society aims to protect and promote. Because above all else, Alexanderplatz has always been a place for the people and a locus of protest and revolution.”

The workhouse near Hallesches Tor before it was moved to a new building on Alexanderplatz in 1758. Image via Stadtmuseum Berlin.

“Well a workhouse protest is only one event and doesn’t exactly sound like a revolution to be honest…”

“Oh, there’s plenty more,” said Hipster Fabian, who swaggered through the door as if he had been waiting outside for the right moment to enter. He was wearing shades—in a bunker—and carrying a bean bag, which he threw down on the other side of Fabian One and launched himself onto with a satisfying ‘whoomph’. “There have been any number of uprisings and incidents on the square over the centuries,” he continued. “Shall we talk about the revolution in 1848 when they erected a large street barricade right next to the inn with the sheeps heads that you mentioned? And how the inn’s owner even provided weapons to the fighters, whom he allowed up on his roof? That it was the only barricade that withstood the royal army during the fighting? Over two hundred people died during that revolution. Ordinary people, many of them very young, fighting for better life conditions. Their graves are commemorated at Volkspark Friedrichshain. There’s even a famous lithograph of the battle you could have shown, not to mention a plaque right there on the square where it all happened, but all you wanted to talk about is Lessing and Schinkel? Privileged aristocrats!”

“There were also more demonstrations in 1872,” rejoined Fabian One. “By the women and children who had been evicted following the demolition of their nearby homes. But all you were concerned with was the belle-epoque”—he said this phrase in a horribly whiny French accent to try and mimic mine, even using his fingers as scare-quotes. “And how can you mention Berolina, Tietz and the train station but not say anything about the police station? A building designed by the mighty Hermann Blankenstein and the third largest building in the city after the Berlin palace and the Reichstag! It was even listed as a tourist sight in the Baedeker guide—but it wasn’t important enough to be part of Paul’s tour, oh no!”

The diminutive Fabian piped up again. “Other examples you could have, should have mentioned, include the events of 1918, when revolutionaries stormed that very same police station and freed the political prisoners, and the subsequent March Battles the following year…”

Alexanderplatz (v. l. n. r.: Lehrervereinshaus, Polizeipräsidium, Aschinger), um 1900. Waldemar Titzenthaler – ISBN 3875841956

“Woah, woah, woah,” I said defensively. “What makes you think I wasn’t going to mention some of this stuff? You only took a small part of the tour after all, which was just a preliminary overview, and then you set about me. And actually, again, how did you even do that and get me down here anyway?”

“Oh, please,” sighed Fabian One. “Our people have already taken your tour and reported back to us about it. We have comrades everywhere. Even some of the grillwalkers are with us. Our participation was simply to confirm how shallow and skewed the whole thing was, which didn’t take long. We already know that the subsequent overviews you give of Weimar Berlin, the Second World War and the GDR are equally compromised. In fact, I have a copy of the official report here…” He pulled out a piece of paper from the inside pocket of his black coat and carefully unfolded it. “Apparently you mention Alfred Döblin’s modernist masterpiece without really discussing the content at all, leaving out the gangs, prostitutes and workers yet again…presumably for fear of offending your precious middle-class clientele? Worse, one of our comrades reports that you blame the GDR almost exclusively for the current, and I quote, shabby look of the square, describing the buildings as—again I quote—blocky nonsense that looks like it was designed by a blindfolded five-year-old given some second-hand Lego.” Fabian One threw the report disdainfully to the floor.

“I knew it!” I shouted, finally losing my temper and trying to leap up from the chair with impressive uselessness. “You’re communists! All this comrade guff, dressing the same way, pledging blind allegiance to the GDR. Are you all Ossies or what? Trotskyists? Leninist-Moaist? This really is absurd!”

My excitable rant, motivated by desperately needing a drink as well as an overwhelming urge to pee, was ended by a heavy rumbling sound overhead.  

“What was that?” I asked.

“The U5,” said Fabian One. “Our headquarters, as mentioned, are right below the square. And in fact the sections we have commandeered in recent years are by-products of the tunnels built during the war and the GDR. So yes, we have them to thank for this as well as making it a real square for the people. However, the square is under constant threat by gentrification and never as much as in recent years. Paul, we want you to be on our side. You are not far from your home, your bed, your normal life. And with some re-education and a little signature we can even let you run tours again. Alternatively, you can stay here and wait until Fabiana comes back. She’s very handy with those whips, I can assure you.”

“Oh boy,” I said. “Look guys, Fabians, whatever. My head is starting to hurt. I really need the toilet. And can I please get my flask?”

Fabian One leaned into the shadows and pulled a crate of beer into the middle of the room between us. “How about you promise to not be a nuisance and we untie your hands so that you can enjoy a beer. You can use the toilet, we will order some pizza and then we can talk about how we might work together.” 

“Okay,” I sighed. “It’s a deal.”

*****

As the Fabians busied themselves rearranging the lights and chairs and setting up a projector, I sipped a bottle of beer and watched, rubbing occasionally at my reddened wrists. It was amusing to observe them bumbling around, diligently moving Fabiana’s sex cages and whipping posts out of the way. As the beer seeped into my brain I felt a kind of warmth towards their strange project—although that might have also been the portable heater someone had thoughtfully brought in, along with the promised boxes of pizza. 

A few Fabians I hadn’t seen before, dressed dutifully in yellow beanies and the rest of the uniform, entered the fray. “Nothing to lose but our chains, eh?” I joked as the Fabians dismantled the sex swing from the ceiling. Their commitment and collective knowledge, I had to admit, was impressive and certainly made my own research seem superficial. The extent of it was to become properly apparent as they proceeded to present and discuss a curated selection of films, books, artworks and social movements all pertaining to the square’s history. As the beers began to flow, it began to feel less like a bizarre kidnapping and more like a companionable seminar with some obsessive leftie friends

The teachings were broad as well as deep. Together we analysed plays like Gerhart Hauptmann’s The Rats from 1911, which takes place in a Berlin tenement set near the square; novels like Ernst Haffner’s Blood Brothers, set during the Weimar era and depicting the plight of impoverished young adults and the gangs they’re forced to form and join due to poverty; clips from popular movies such as Goodbye Lenin and Wings of Desire as well as more avant-garde fare such as Walter Ruttman’s Symphony of the Big City and Max Skladanowsky’s 1896 short film Leben und Treiben am Alexanderplatz gave a more dynamic visual sense of how the square developed. We also got into Döblin’s famous novel, comparing and contrasting it with snippets from Piel Jutzi’s 1931 movie adaptation, Fassbinder’s version in the 1980s and even Qurbani’s more recent take. It was all very enjoyable, though when I asked if we could watch the Bourne film with the Berlin scene in it, I was roundly booed.

The Fabians also ensured that we took a closer look at some of the GDR buildings I had critiqued, zooming in particularly on the Mexican-inspired mosaic wrapped around the Haus des Lehrers and its 800,000 tiles showcasing peace and friendship among other themes. But it was when Fabian One began outlining the various urban plans for the square over its history that the mood began to grow more serious. After explaining the 1928 vision put forward by Martin Wagner, and the Cold War renovations and the changes to the very underground structures within which we were nestled, he began to frown as he presented the 1993 plan by Hans Kollhoff

“This idiot,” he said, his voice beginning to slur from the alcohol, “thought that building a bunch of commercial tower blocks around the square was a good idea. Everyone forgot about it for a while because the city had no money and no investors, but his vision never quite went away. It has recently come back to haunt us in the shape of several major building projects that, if successful, will completely change the shape of Alex. At the risk of sounding dramatic, we might even be looking at a new Potsdamer Platz.” Fabian One paused to let the drama of his statement sink in; on cue, the room broke into low murmurs of disapproval. “And we all know that Potsi is a place where only tourists go and with no local character at all. Can we allow the city and its neoliberal investor friends to turn Alex into the same kind of soulless wasteland just to line their own pockets? A place devoid of culture and character?”


A model of the Kollhoff Plan from 1993. 

“We must resist!” shouted someone, and everyone joined in the chant. Some raised their closed fists in the air, almost hitting the bunker’s ceiling. “We must resist! We must resist! We must resist!” we all shouted in unison. As the hubbub died down, someone at the back of the room belched noisily but quickly apologised.

“Okay comrades, then we are agreed,” said Fabian One. “Now let’s take a closer look at these plans, since they will inform our next moves. He clicked on the remote control connected to the projector and an image appeared on the wall: an artistic rendering of a skyscraper—the kind of bland amalgam of steel and glass that passes for modern architecture in pretty much every city these days. 

“This is the Covivio High Rise,” explained Fabian One. “It’s already under construction close to the Park Inn hotel and will be 130 metres tall and full of all the predictable bullshit: offices, shops, residential units. They’re also advertising “community space” but look at the small print and you’ll find that’s a measly 1,000 square metres compared to the 30,000 given over for offices and the 14,500 for retail. Community here probably means a for-profit daycare centre where parents can dump their children and go and shop themselves to death. Also green-lighted is the so-called Alexander Tower next to Alexa. If we really want to talk dismissively about Lego towers,”—he glanced accusingly at me—“this is a great example. Hundreds of apartments over 35 floors, including penthouses. Penthouses! On Alex! Plus a gym, a spa with swimming pool, a restaurant, club and a cinema, all intended purely for residential use. They even have the nerve to reference Martin Wagner in the context of ‘metropolitan modernity’ on their website!”

“Just to play devil’s advocate here, don’t you think that some people might want—” I tried.

“No!” Fabian One was getting red in the face. “What the city needs, and what the majority of the people want, especially on a public square like this, is affordable housing. Non-profit community spaces! Entertainment areas for families! Reasonably-priced food options. Enough with all this hipster luxury nonsense that the workers of the city cannot afford! Look at this next project, called the Signa High Rise. A 135-metre tower above Galeria Kaufhof, just…plonked on top! Because it’s not big enough already as a department store? Because there’s not enough shopping already on Alex?”

He was getting worked up now. “And the worst one? Bigger than all the others at 150-metres tall? Has been designed by Frank Gehry, a so-called starchitect.” The phrase caused Fabian One to actually spit on the floor—or try to. Since he was quite drunk, some of the saliva got caught on his chin and someone had to pass him a pizza napkin to wipe it off. He recovered himself and carried on. “This one will be right next to Saturn, which is practically right above us. It’s on hold at the moment because it also jeopardises the U5 line but if they get permission it will end up destroying the infrastructure here, our office, Fabiana’s dungeon, the places where we work, live and sleep.”

Artist rendition of the planned Covivio High Rise on Alexanderplatz, currently under construction.

“You guys live and sleep here?”

But they were too busy bemoaning the situation to pay any attention to me. Fabian One, looking now a little pale, sank down into the bean bag and drained his beer bottle while motioning for another one. “Although we have some friends in high places and have enjoyed some successes—protecting the East German buildings around the square, preventing the demolition of the Haus des Reisens, getting the panels removed from the former Presse Cafe to reveal the wonderful mural underneath—these current building projects are backed by some very powerful companies. And we must sadly fact the face that we are quite weak in comparison.”

“I say we just blow them up,” said Hipster Fabian cheerfully. Everyone turned to stare at him. “We can just plant explosives at each site on a given date and create the biggest fireworks display the square has ever seen! If they want to play dirty and ruin our square, we will show them that they’re messing with the wrong people! Yes, it’s dangerous. But we can do it in a way whereby no one is hurt. It will be a purely sabotage operation aimed at destroying their machinery and groundworks. We can even have our grillwalkers hide some explosives in their sausages and throw them around as a distraction. Some proper fucking bangers mate!”

An idea occurred to me. “Guys,” I said loudly but carefully, aware that I was not yet out of potential danger. “I appreciate we are all very charged with emotion at this moment, and rightly so. I can very much understand your anger. But whatever damage you cause will be easily absorbed into the financial capacity of the developers, who will then almost certainly use the attacks as propaganda against left-wing causes and simply start up again with extra security and sympathy from the public. And you’ll most likely all be in prison.”

“So what do you suggest?” hissed one of the Fabians.

“Well given what I know of your society so far, wouldn’t it make more sense to continue the square’s long and established history of protest? I mean, from what I know it worked for Tempelhofer Feld, had some success at Mauerpark, and seems to be happening right now for the planned development of Gleisdreieck.”

“Did someone say…protests?” asked Fabian One, whose eyes had brightened considerably. “What kind do you have in mind?” 

Demo at Mauerpark, 2009 by Alexander Puell  

“Well,” I said, trying to think quickly. “There’s political art interventions. Protests with music. Guerilla gardens that could highlight the ecological damage. Or even bigger but safer strategies such as hacking…”

“Oh, I do like this!” said Fabian One, rising unsteadily to his feet. “Comrades! Let us gather around the table and make some plans! Paul, you can take the lead. Fabian Three, bring us paper, pens and perhaps a whiteboard if we have one? Fabian Four, it’s time for the Jagermeister! And more pizza! Someone call Fabiana in case we get carried away?”

“I’m actually a semi-professional DJ in case we want some music?” shouted Hipster Fabian. “One of my friends once played at Berghain?” But his words were lost in the ensuing commotion.

As the Fabians scrambled around following their orders, I sat in my chair, half-drunk and happily full of melted cheese. Was this really happening? Was I really the right person to be heading up an anti-capitalist revolution on Alexanderplatz considering I was about as left-wing as the British Labour Party? Since I had prevented a bombing raid on the square and saved the well-meaning but deluded Fabians from jail-time, maybe my work here was done. I felt tired and in need of some fresh air. Picking up my shoulder bag, I quietly edged out of the room and along the dimly lit corridor outside, towards the bathroom and a network of passageways. I looked behind; no one was following me. I took out the iPad. There was still just enough battery left to use it as a torch. I pushed into the darkness, following the rumbling sounds overhead.

*****

Not long afterwards, I was back on Alexanderplatz. It was still grey and cold but I had a spring in my step as I walked to meet the tour group. The GDR buildings rose proudly into the pewter sky and the passengers passing to and fro around the train station seemed a little more upbeat. There were no buskers, no terrible smells, no depressed pigeons. I found my six participants at the World Clock and greeted them cheerfully. “Hello everyone,” I began as I opened my iPad. “Today we are going to explore one of the world’s most famous squares. A landmark with a fascinating and turbulent history of protest and revolution that has inspired books, films, art and music…truly a place for the people.” As I turned to gesture broadly at the square’s bustling scenery, a nearby grillwalker caught my eye. He seemed to nod towards me approvingly. He was wearing a bright yellow beanie.

 

   

 

 

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