Germany, Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg, March 2019
Not a minute is lost, life is taken seriously here. During the last 45 years, I have been in Berlin frequently and have seen it change. The broody atmosphere of West-Berlin with its young population (partly due to the Wehrplicht exemption, those who lived in Berlin did not have to go into the conscript army) felt like a warm blanket. The empty streets of East Berlin, just a few hundred meters away, behind Checkpoint Charlie, where visitors were looked at like Zoo animals just a gave me the impression of a city on the moon and thinking back I still experience a chill on my spine.
Former DDR, soaring rents
It is all gone now, east and west. After the fall of the Wall the center Mitte became a big bear pit, inhabited by growling building machinery. Now it is a newly created modern office block area with just some remnants of times past an and overload of tourists. Berlin is not one city, actually, it is seven or eight, clustered together, each with a distinctly different feel and atmosphere. Kreuzberg and Neu Köln are rough. Prenzlauer Berg, formerly an empty, run-down DDR family residential area turned into a well to do, flourishing district. it reminds me of a phoenix, risen from its ashes and crying victory like a black German eagle. A reservation area for the new young wealthy mixed with the minority of lucky original residents that had their real estate in ownership. Rents have skyrocket here to 1500 Euro for a 3 room apartment and have driven the others away.
Ist das Bio?
It is a cold morning, just a weekday with the normal routine. Kids go to school accompanied by parents (al lot of them with fathers), nicely dressed in the latest fashion. Consumers here are very critical. All has to be to the new standards: biological, ecological, regional. Political and social correctness must be spotted from the garments, equipment (rucksacks, bicycles). The fashionable coffee shops adjusted with the corresponding fare. Kids receive last instructions from their mother for their environmental protest march. It is not just material goods but also correct behavior counts. What to do or not to do.
The barista takes great care in preparing my coffee and I sit down to have my croissant. Inside it is busy. Outside everyone checks their cellphones or is deeply immersed in a no doubt intellectual conversation as is the friendly couple (Olle and Natascha, Tasche in short), that allows me to take a picture. Yes, that is ok, he understands. Olle is also a photographer (and loves Dutch chocolate as I do).
When taking photographs it is essential for me to ask explicit permission, if I forget I am reminded immediately even by bystanders. Impossible to get permission at the epicenter of Prenzlauer Berg, the Käthe Kollwitzplaz child play area, where parents show each other how it is done correctly to Prenzlauer Berg standards. The population is young, 30 – 40 dominates and the percentage of children is remarkably high.
Nearly all old buildings are renovated and show their old pre-war glory, apart from some squatters strongholds that in some spots even have become free havens where alternative entrepreneurs have set up private breweries, halls for skateboarding (photographs explicitly not allowed) and unusual eateries (in this case, below, in the neighboring district Friederichshain).
The alternativo’s make a strong contrast to the proverbial German way: “Bratwurst” on Hackischer Markt.
In front of her quiet office near Kollwitzplatz a lady is rehearsing a speech she has to translate. I lost her card. “At one point the whole district was designated to be torn down completely but gentrification was faster. I would not be able to do this work in a busy environment. Prenzlauer Berg suits me fine though I miss the old atmosphere a bit.” she says.
On Sunday the Mauermarkt (named so because it is held on a stretch that formerly was taken by the Wall and its minefields) has become an institute. Even on this chilly morning. entrepreneurs, mostly from non-German background, try their luck and offer a variety of goods, some quite remarkable.
Saliha Onay serves coffee “on wheels” from her mobile espresso machine. Formerly she was in the cosmetics business but she wanted something for herself. Something with people, contact and a product she believed in. To be a nurse would be too psychologically demanding she says. She then discovered great coffee from a local small coffee processing shop and is proud of her art: to serve it just right. Her dedication shows in all details, the small table with ornaments where one can sit down for a while relishing a freshly brewed cup. On this market, she knows many and many come especially for just her coffee. We think together what a good pay off slogan for her business could be. Maybe “coffee to come back for”.
Germany is a country where things are looked after to a high perfection level, a bit too perfect for my taste. Prenzlauer Berg has in a way stepped out a bit of the Berlin culture as it shows the same perfection, so clearly and pleasantly absent in many other districts. Or is it just me noticing this and will the whole of Berlin become polished and brushed up like Amsterdam? Either way, I will always have a suitcase left in Berlin: Ich hab’ noch einen Koffer in Berlin. Or just coffee.