Berlin is a constantly changing city. One of the exciting parts of living in Berlin is that you can always observe change by noticing how Berlin and its people shift according to the city’s different parts.
I noticed it when I had to write an essay about Brunnenstraße for a course I took when I was an Erasmus student living in Berlin. Brunnenstraße is fascinating if you look into small details. Our professor specifically asked us to look at graffitis or signs of the shops, even the names on doorbells. So I did that! I took a little notebook with me and found myself in BrunnenStraße.
I started to walk first from U Bernauer Straße in the direction of Rosenthaler Platz U-Bahn Station. Later I turned back and completed the other half of the street. While observing the road and people, I also found myself thinking about what attracts my interest. People and their way of creating a space for themselves by walking, running, cycling, speaking, or just by their facial expressions sometimes impressed me immediately. I think it is understandable since I was foreign to the city and its people.Of course, I was also interested in graffitis, left-over things, poems on walls, stickers, or banners. It was fascinating seeing how buildings and their structures changed as I walked.
“What do they tell me about Berlin?” This question was circling in my mind. Before walking on the street, I went to Berliner Unterwelten with a friend from the class, not only because it closes at 5 pm, but also I thought seeing the underground may tell me something about the above. (And our professor also suggested it!) I took “Tour M,” where a tour guide tells stories about people tunneling to their freedom from East Berlin to West.
It is impressive how people used their brains to find tunnel solutions, even after Stasi caught those tunnels and made it impossible to escape using U-Bahn or other underworld options. As I listened to the stories about Berlin’s ghost stations, I felt the shivering from the cold images of empty stations where you can only hear the mechanical sound of the rails.
At Bernauer Straße station, there is a poster, hanged by the tour company, which you can see the old version of this station and compare it with the new one from where you’re standing. It is hard to believe today that while all those stations full of piss and smell, they also tell many stories about East and West Germany. Sometimes you can even see their old names engraved on the walls in some stations, such as Platz der Luftbrücke, which was Kreuzberg once.
At some point, the tour guide told us how they built tunnel 21 with the old tunnel’s image again, two times. After they gained access to Stasi’s documents, they have started searching for secret tunnels all around Berlin. But, when they found people who made those tunnels, they had to rebuild this tunnel once again because workers found so many mistakes while they were touring the reconstructed tunnel.
The company rebuilt it in the image of those workers’ memories. Those tunnels reveal a political story between East and West Berlin at that time. Although Stasi perceived those tunnels as static and mathematical, builders spent their days avoiding even one inched fail because it is a part of their memories. Here lies a part of the city’s history.
A GHOST TOWN IN BERLIN
Before telling you what I saw on the street, I want to mention AEG (a former factory building). I think walking around AEG was the most affecting part of this journey.
While I was walking the second half of the street, I turned right from the Stralsunder Straße. The first thing I noticed was the silence. There weren’t many people but lots of parked cars, and the only voice in the street came from the leaves swinging from the wind. After seeing Ghost Stations, now this side of the city was like a ghost town.
I remember how I was shocked when I first saw the AEG and its massive red-bricked walls. It made me feel so tiny compared to them, like I was nothing. I can’t even tell you what I felt when I saw the bullet marks. There, on the red wall, were several of them in different shapes. Then I saw the plaque, a Berliner Gedenktafel. It was written: “During WWII, Polish forced workers were deported into this Factory belonging AEG.” in German. All those sorrows, feelings, and history stands there as a bigger-than-life factory.
Comparing to Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe, I can’t imagine tourist crowds taking selfies in front of this wall. It is somewhat secret and buried in the city. To reach it out, you have to know what exactly you are looking for. And, there’s not much to see rather than the wall and this plaque. But, it says so much more than the famous “manufactured” memorial. Those walls witnessed Berlin’s history.
BERLIN AS ELECTROPOLIS
After turning the corner and leaving the factory behind, I saw Beamtentor. Going underneath was impossible because metal fences were surrounding it. At the time, no one was using it. I doubt people who use that street often notice it. “Why?” I asked myself this question because it was looking out of place and time from where it stands. I found my answer only after I read the info website. That info text refers to Berlin as Electropolis.
After puzzling the pieces, I can say this: preserving this door has a fundamental meaning for Berlin (or planners thought it had). After unification, planners and architects tried to restore and rebuilt Berlin carefully. They wanted to turn the city to its roots, its version before modernity destroyed the town. They also wanted to show that Berlin could be a worldwide metropolis such as New York or London. This gate’s history goes back to the 19th century, creating a visible attachment to the past and its ideals.
Differences between the West and the East were distinct while I continue to walk. I thought the West side of Brunnenstraße would be full of luxurious buildings, restaurants, and cafes. Stylishly looking people would be walking on the road or cycling, maybe. As someone coming from Turkey, a classic picture of a European street was in my mind. For the East, I imagined old buildings and perhaps dirty streets. It sounds politically awful, I know, but that was the imagery imposed on me regarding the division between East and West Berlin. (in films, books, tv series, etc.)
The truth was inevitably different from that image in my mind. As I walk down to Rosenthaler Platz, shops started to differ. There were many hipster cafes where you can see billboards written homemade cake or Vietnamese vegetarian kitchen. Furniture shops with designed objects or artworks, written Vienna-New York on their shop windows. Minimalistic bookstore Ocelot, whose slogan is “not just another bookstore.” It was apparent that this part of the street was an object of gentrification. A sticker on a pole was saying: “You need my art. I need your money.”
Later, there was a poster of a half-naked man who is “the wild child of yoga.” As I continued to walk under the trees, the only language that I heard was German. Young people with their stylish, colorful raincoats were walking fast. When I arrived at Weinbergspark, people were enjoying the sun and relaxing, although it was Monday. It was apparent that people who live here were mostly German with lots of money to spend by buying interior design furniture, going to yoga sessions, and buying contemporary artworks. Even the names on doorbells mostly belonged to German people.
AN UNUSUAL WEST SIDE
The West side of the street was completely different. Buildings started to appear more prominent, and I’m talking about apartments now. There was an apparent similarity between AEG’s architecture and these apartments. Even their color shifted into red, gray, and other faded colors. Hip cafes turned into “çay bahçeleri” (This is a Turkish term for the places where people meet and drink çay). Vegetarian kitchens also turned into Dönerhaus labeled shops. German left its place to Turkish, Arabic, or even Russian. Names on the doorbells turned into “Kalem,” “Satıcı,” “Bayır” (some of the most common surnames in Turkish), and other Russian or Asian surnames. There were Ayyildiz, Ortel, and Lycamobile branches everywhere like it’s Neukölln.
Before me, Turkish “teyzeler” (aunts, older Turkish women) were walking, discussing something. When I turned to Vinetaplatz, I noticed a smell of baked dried beans familiar from home. Vinetaplatz was a vast hole where children played, and their moms sat on benches gossiping. I sat near them and observed them for a while. The image of the school on Stralsunder Straße came to me as I was watching children play. The letters of the school name were broken, and there were lots of graffitis on its wall. In Vinetaplatz, there were no lots or playgrounds. Children were playing on this empty hole of nothingness.
ANOTHER WALL STANDING BETWEEN BERLINERS
Westside of the street was planned as a working-class district, and now it belongs to the people who are not German. After the fall of the wall, the East side of the road became a tourist attraction. Planners of the city considered this class distinction when they were rebuilding Berlin. It is still relevant today. Maybe the wall has fallen, but there is another wall among Berliners. This wall appears between Wedding, Neukölln, or even Kreuzberg and Charlottenburg.
This article was originally a paper submitted for the course “Reading the City” instructed by Dr. Susanne Scharnowski at the Free University of Berlin in the 2019 Summer Term.