My journey from Schöneberg to Neukölln to Prenzlauerberg.
Ever since going freelance in March of 2015, I’ve lived an itinerant life. In addition to keeping apartments in Brussels and Berlin and traveling between them, I’ve also gone traveling in the Southern hemisphere over the winters.
It’s been a fantastic and enriching experience, but today I’m reining it in. I’m on the train from Berlin to Brussels now, having given up my Berlin apartment. The back-and-forth was just getting too exhausting - I had to pick one city or the other. Professionally, that city has to be Brussels - at least for the moment. But that’s a subject for another blog entry.
I'll still be back to Berlin a lot. But I will no longer have a second residence there.
In this, the first of a series of reflections about my time in Berlin, I want to contrast the three different neighborhoods I lived in during my time there.
Today was an exhausting move out of my Prenzlauerberg pad, but it's actually the third time I've done it. Giving up my Berlin apartment and returning to Brussels has become a familiar ritual by this point - I’m just doing it a little earlier this year than usual. Making this train journey loaded with suitcases is getting old hat.
Brussels has remained my permanent residence, with furnished sublets in Berlin serving as secondary residence. You can't sublet a sublet, so in order to do the three-month traveling in the winter, I’ve left the sublets each year in December, gone traveling, and then gotten a new apartment when I came back to Berlin each spring. I’ve actually never seen a Berlin winter.
And so with each coming of the spring flowers, it’s been time to find a new Berlin apartment. Each time, I figured - why not mix it up and try out a new neighborhood? So I ended up living in three very different parts of town over these past three years. It drove home to me how much Berlin can feel like a collection of villages rather than a centralized city. Each part of town looks and feels so remarkably different.
In a way, I feel like I've lived in three different Berlins.
Year One: Schöneberg
Before I moved to Berlin, Schöneberg was the area I knew best. It’s where I would usually stay when in the city for work or holidays. And when I took the decision to move to Berlin (well, half-move), I thought about looking there first. My Berliner friends were aghast at the idea.
“Schöneberg? But that’s so…west” one exclaimed, grimacing. In Berlin, west is almost always shorthand for boring.
For many, Schöneberg is quintessential West Berlin. It was its beating heart - in fact the neighborhood’s town hall served as the West Berlin town hall during the division (the pre-war Berlin town hall having ended up in the Eastern side).
Schöneberg is the home of Kurfurstendamm, the 'Champs Elysee of Berlin' and address if the glitzy KaDeWe department store. It's also home to the iconic Zoologischer Garten station nearby. That station turned into West Berlin’s main train station after the division, and became a notorious den of drugs and sin. The neighborhood around it was a dizzying mix of capitalist showcase and grungy rebellion.
It was also the home of West Berlin’s gay scene, centered around Nollendorfplatz ubahn station along the streets of Motzstrasse and Fuggerstrasse.
Its time as a gay mecca predates the city’s division. The area around Nollendorfplatz is considered the world’s first ‘gay neighborhood’, having developed in the 1920s. It was the location of the infamous clubs like Kit Kat in Christopher Isherwood’s novels. In the 60s and 70s it was the center of Berlin’s gay liberation protests and Christopher Street Day parades.
All of this sounds very exciting, but it’s also very historical. The fact is, after the wall came down the area lost its luster. The gays moved East to Prenzlauerberg and Friedrichshain. Many of the glitzy shops moved East to Mitte. Schöneberg was no longer a city center.
So when I came to Berlin to scope out apartments, I didn’t plan to look in Schöneberg. I was looking in Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain. But after a few days of looking, I hadn’t found anything I liked. Time was running out.
Then, just an hour before I had to catch a flight to Vienna for Eurovision 2015 (as you do), I got a call from someone with an apartment in Schöneberg to rent. He had seen the profile I had created for myself saying I was looking for whole apartment sublets.
I went to look at it quickly before going to the airport, and said yes on the spot. It was perfect, exactly what I was looking for. A brand new building, a modern furnished one-bedroom with a big balcony. Although I hadn’t planned on living in Schöneberg, the location was just too convenient to pass up. It was right on Fuggerstrasse, just behind KaDeWe.
That first year apartment worked out great. But in terms of the neighborhood, it was just a little too…German.
The immediate neighborhood was mostly older gay guys who had been there since the '80s. The thing I found curious about them was that while a lot of them were into some pretty unconventional activity, they weren’t very much fun.
For example, one of my neighbors would take his boyfriend for a walk every day at 2pm, with the boyfriend dressed in a leather dog outfit. I was rather perplexed by the ritual and wanted to get a better understanding, so I tried to start a conversation with them a few times. But they were really rude to me in response.
Really, a lot of people in Schöneberg were rude to me. I think I got deutsched (the term I invented for when a German scolds you) nearly once a day there. Everyone was just so cranky. Maybe it was all the chafing from their leather harnesses.
While I was living there I was using the ridiculously expensive Aspria gym nearby in Charlottenburg. It was a beautiful gym, but again, people there were really uptight - despite the fact that the top two floors of the gym were nudity-obligatory. Again, it was all very German.
Though some of the bars in Schöneberg were fun on certain weekdays, on weekends the area was totally dead. I always found myself going over to the East to go out, and getting home took such a long time. I could rarely convince people who lived in the East to come all the way over to Schöneberg. It would make more sense, I thought, to live where I also like to go out.
So when winter started approaching, I decided I would move and try out a different neighborhood - after I got back from three months in Latin America.
Year two: Neukölln
When I came back in Spring of 2016, I started my hunt in the East.
As I've written before, my conception of 'East Berlin' is different than what was actually East Berlin politically. To me, it is the central rail artery that truly divides the city today - exemplified most starkly at Gleisdreieck park.
The poorer neighborhoods of Kreuzberg, Neukölln and Wedding - where people didn't want to live during the division because they were right up against the wall, today feel more similar to the East than the West. Indeed, some have been merged to prove the point, such as the new district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg (the former was in the East, the latter in the West). So when I say 'East', I'm including them too.
I found a great place in the 'Kreuzkölln' area, a little pocket at the very north of Neukölln that sort of bleeds into Kreuzberg. It's a hipster area, sometimes obnoxiously so, but it has a really cozy feel. And being just next to Hermannplatz ubahn station was incredibly convenient.
The vibe of this largely Turkish neighborhood couldn't be more different from the very German-feeling Schöneberg. I often felt like it was rare to hear German on the street at all in Neukölln (much to the irritation of some German politicians like Jens Spahn). You were more likely to hear Turkish, Arabic, English, Italian or French.
These days the neighborhood is a mixture of Middle Eastern immigrants with hipsters from the US and other European countries, and everyone just seems to get along. It was such a refreshing change from Brussels, where the tensions between the city's various ethnic groups have become world-famous over the past few years.
The apartment itself I didn't like as much as the first one, although several of my friends said they preferred my second apartment to my first, saying it had more character. The second one was in an 'altbau' (built before the war). It had no elevator so it was a long climb to the fourth floor, but that's pretty typical for Berlin altbau buildings. It did have a wonderful enormous living room which was great for entertaining. I hosted a big Thanksgiving dinner there while my mom was visiting in the Autumn.
Perhaps the best thing about the neighborhood was the canal. Berlin is full them, in fact there are more kilometers of canals in Berlin than in Amsterdam. But there is something extra special about the Landwehr canal, which cuts through the heart of the city. It comes out of the Spree river, forming the border between Kreuzberg and Neukölln, before making its way over to Tiergarten and north.
On summer afternoons, people sit by the canal and drink beer, watching small boats go by. It's idyllic. It's one of those spots in Berlin that you go to and suddenly feel like you're living in a cliché. But in a good way.
And of course I have to mention, one of my favorite things about Neukölln was that it was a deutsching-free zone. Germans would just not bother scolding people there, because the Neuköllners would just look back at them with an expression of 'are you serious right now?'.
One of my favorite things I witnessed in Neukölln was as I was riding my bike down Sonnenallee. Somebody was double parked, as is often the case there (in Berlin they call it "Turkish parking", in Brussels they call it "Moroccan parking"). A German cyclist came by and started scolding the guy for double-parking, finishing with a "das ist Deutschland hier!".
The Turkish guy responded, with a laugh, "Mein Freund, das ist nicht Deutschland hier, das ist Neukölln!"
He was absolutely right. And I loved it for that.
Year three: Prenzlauerberg
Once again I had to give up my sublet in order to do my winter travels. I spent winter 2017 in Australia and Thailand, using the latter as a base to travel around Southeast Asia.
Springtime came and it was time to get a new Berlin apartment. This time I wanted to give the former East Berlin neighborhood of Prenzlauerberg a try - largely because it is close to the Deutsche Welle building, where I sometimes work.
Like with Schöneberg, I went into it with eyes open after hearing plenty of warnings. The neighborhood long ago transitioned from hedonistic party capital to a chic yuppie village with Germany's highest birth rate.
Though it was a wealthy neighborhood before the war, after the division it became an unloved corner of East Berlin (like in the West, nobody wanted to live next to the wall). Almost immediately after the wall fell, young people from West Berlin and West Germany came flooding in, joining the East Berlin counterculture scene and living in squats.
Throughout the 1990s it was wild, becoming a mecca for artists, gays and the politically marginalized. Then gentrification set in.
The freewheeling revolutionaries that had moved in in the 1990s grew up. They started having babies. They bought their squats and refurbished them. Today, the whole neighborhood is pristine clean and stroller-clogged. The wild clubs all moved to other neighborhoods, and today the nightlife is very tame. Think Park Slope
I liked living in Prenzlauerberg. It was pretty, charming and calm. But it was undeniable that the neighborhood has lost its edge.
It felt like a world away from Neukölln, largely because it is a sea of white faces. Unlike West Berlin which had many Turkish immigrants, East Berlin didn't have many minorities. When the wall came down, it was largely young white people that moved in. The result is today a mix of old East Berliners and young hipsters. There is little minority presence to speak of.
The difference was most starkly observable at my gym. I transferred from the Fitness First at Rathaus Neukölln to the one at Prenzlauerberg. While the former was very racially diverse in terms of the clientele, at the latter there was nary a person of color in sight.
The lack of diversity bothered me a bit. It's not like Prenzlauerberg is full of racists or anything - it's all progressive, cosmopolitan urbanites. But I missed the heady mix of cultures I experienced in Neukölln.
And the verdict is...
All three of the neighborhoods had their own particular attractions and charms. I did like the glitziness of living next to Kurfurstendamm, and sometimes the grittiness of Neukölln wasn't so pleasant. And neither could approach the charms of Prenzlauerberg on a beautiful summer day.
They were all great in their own way. But I'd have to say Neukölln was my favorite. While living in the other two neighborhoods, I always found myself going to that area to meet friends. It kept drawing me back.
So, if I do end up getting another apartment in Berlin in the future, I will target Kreuzberg-Neukölln. That is my Berlin.