Thursday, 5 May 2016

Gleisdreieck: the new Berlin wall

The old border between East and West may be imperceptible these days, but Berlin still feels like two different cities.

This week, after I had finished moving into my new apartment in the Neukolln neighbourhood of Berlin, I went to the annual re:publica conference nearby. It's an event focused on the politics of the internet - a subject close to German hearts

It is held at The Station, an extraordinary event facility housed in a former postbahnhof - a train station for mail. Today it sits under a dizzying intersection of several different train lines at Gleisdreieck Station - where U2, U1 and DB long-distance tracks converge. It has a beautiful outdoor area that faces Gleisdreieck Park. 

But this spot wasn't always so lovely. For decades this area was a barren weed-filled wasteland under and along the railroad tracks, separating the West Berlin neighbourhoods of Schoneberg and Kreuzberg.

Leaving one city, entering another

I came to Berlin to visit very often I moved to Europe in 2006. I would usually stay in Schoneberg, because it was convenient to the airport. But when I would take the metro to the East, I always felt puzzled as the elevated train went over the area that is now Gleidreieck Park. It was just barren fields as far as the eye could see. It felt as if our train had left one city, and was heading toward another one.

In these early years I mistakenly thought that this field was the division between the old East and West Berlin. I had never seen anything like it before - empty fields in the middle of a major city.

By the time I moved to Berlin in 2015, the weeds had been replaced by a rather uninspired but nicely manicured park (finished in 2014). By then I understood that the old borders between East and West are usually imperceptible, cutting across busy central areas like Potsdamerplatz or along the river Spree.

And yet, despite the nice new park, crossing Gleisdreieck or the S2 tracks still felt like the real 'crossing to the East'. I chose to move to Schoneberg (just behind KaDeWe) for my first Berlin apartment because it was the area I knew the best. The neighbourhood was nice, pretty (read: wealthy) - but kind of quiet. So I would usually go to the East for bars and clubs. 

But man did that Gleisdreieck Park feel like a psychological border. Crossing it on my bike seemed to take forever, and it was so difficult to figure out how to get past the elevated railroad tracks. Along the park runs the S-Bahn tracks, which are elevated and create a literal wall separating Schoneberg from Kreuzberg. These elevated tracks stretch all the way south, also separating Schoneberg from Tempelhof and Neukolln.

Moving to the East?

So this week, as I moved from Schoneberg to a new apartment in Neukolln, I characterised it as "moving to the East". Germans have been quick to correct me. Because in fact, Kreuzberg and Neukolln were in West Berlin.

Today it's easy to forget this fact, because these neighbourhoods feel so completely different from the areas to the west. They historically have large immigrant populations (mostly Turkish), and today are buzzing with hipsters at trendy cafes. Neukolln could be compared to Williamsburg in New York, or Dalston in London. 

As I sit here on the balcony of my new apartment on the very hip Weserstrasse street, it's hard to even imagine I'm in the same city as my old apartment.

The reasons these neighbourhoods are so different is precisely because of the 'wall that wasn't a wall' - the S-bahn tracks that separated the rest of West Berlin from these neighbourhoods wedged up against the actual Berlin Wall. These poorer neighbourhoods became home to the waves of Turkish immigrants who have moved to Berlin since 1962. 

A similar phenomenon took place in Wedding to the North, the other poor neighbourhood of West Berlin that was wedged into a corner of the wall encircling the city.

West is East

Today, these neighbourhoods have become more 'East Berlin' than East Berlin itself. 

After the wall fell, most of the residents of East Berlin left the city to move elsewhere in the former East Germany, or to the West. They were replaced by a first generation of artists and free spirits, who rebuilt funky living environments in areas like Prenzlauerberg and Friedrichshain. 

But those people have grown up. They've settled down and had children. Prenzlauerberg now has the highest concentration of babies in all of Germany. The funky bars have closed down to make way for new high-rise condos and expensive gourmet supermarkets. The neighbourhood now looks very similar to the Charlottenburgs and Schonebergs these people were originally escaping.

But although East Berlin saw a big exodus of native residents over the past two decades, the poor areas of the former West Berlin did not. The immigrant communities that had settled there stayed put. Rents stayed relatively low compared to the East (large parts of which are now unaffordable).

I've found that people outside this city assume that East Berlin must be the poorer, funkier part of the city. But in fact the old borders of East Germany seem to have no relevance any more. Parts of the former East Berlin are still funky and poor, but other parts have become yuppified and boring. Parts of the former West Berlin are poorer and funkier than East Berlin.

There are two very different sides to the city, and they still follow an East-West pattern. But the divide is not related to the old divide that used to literally separate this city in two.

To me, the point at which I feel like I'm leaving one city and entering another is when I cross Gleisdreick, or as I pass under the arches of the S2 tracks. As a fun exercise, I thought I'd draw on a map what 'feels' to me like Berlin's new East-West border (above, in blue).

In the end I don't really prefer one side of the city to the other. In fact I really like the very different feeling you get in different neighbourhoods here - it's like two cities for the price of one. 

But I think that I can confidently say I've moved from West to East, even if this doesn't comport to historic boundaries. Those old delineations are quickly losing their meaning in a city that is rapidly changing.

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