Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Real Berlin

We did another four and a half hour walking tour today - The "Real Berlin" tour with guide Trish, a glass artist, vegetarian, proud resident of Kreuzberg, and formerly from San Francisco.
We met at 12.00 at Alexanderplatz and pretty well straight away caught a tram north up Prenzlauer Allee, right near where we live. This walking tour focuses on three Berlin districts: Prenzlauer Berg, Mitte and Kreuzberg, three hot spots of art, culture and political activism in contemporary Berlin. These three districts are also in the process of rapid social change as they are all undergoing gentrification - changing the cultural landscape irrevocably in the process. 
One of the first stops was the Prenzlauer Berg Museum and some explanation about the Berg and its contribution to the breaking down of the wall back in 1989 (it all started in this district).
We talked about the district's rich history as a centre for breweries since the 1900s.  Prenzlauer Berg was one of the few areas in Berlin not as damaged by bombing 1943-45, so a lot of these old breweries are still standing today - now put to other uses, both commercial and social.
Most of them will be due for redevelopment as high end apartments over the next 2-5 years.  This is making a lot of the locals really angry because it drives up property values and rents for all the long term residents.
And then it's time to talk about Art and the differences between graffiti and Street Art.  Graffiti is illegal in Berlin although it sure doesn't look that way.  Street art is largely done on  paper and then "pasted up" (and maybe worked back into) in public spaces.

Trish described the work of a few well known Street Artists - and we could then recognise their work ourselves when we found other examples around the streets.
Little Lucy was one of my favourites. Her character is quite malevolent - tearing cats in half , drawing guns etc. She's everywhere - around the Berg.

Berlin has its own Banksy too, just like in the UK.

...and I don't know where this comes from....

We took a tram south down Kastenienallee to Mitte (Hackescher Markt) on Oranienburger Strasse, a strong Jewish area in Berlin before WW11 and a very lively place with many nightclubs and restaurants prior to 1938. 
Here we spent some time at the rather wonderful Haus Schwarzenberg on Rosenthaler Strasse. Haus Schwarzenberg is owned by an artistic group called the "Dead Chickens"who took up the opportunity to acquire the run down and empty (it was in the old East Berlin) building in 1995 and run it as an artists' collective. There's galleries and a shop and studio spaces for artists to work in.  Its a scruffy looking building and courtyard - in complete original, ravaged, war torn condition - but breaking out all over in art works.

The building is also home to a number of museums which explore Jewish life in the area before WW11.  One of them is dedicated to Otto Weidt, (Berlin's Oskar Schindler) and another is the Anne-Frank-Zentrum.  An Australian street artist painted this mural outside the museum.


At least if you visit the WCs in these places you know it will be highly likely there'll be graffiti (or street art?) on the walls.
We caught the S Bahn (overground train) from Hackescher Markt to Ostbahnhof in Kreuzberg. Rob was struck with the very distinctive windows in Hackescher Markt station.
Very near to here is the famous East Side Gallery on Muhlenstrasse. It's a 1.3 km long section of the Berlin Wall and an international memorial for freedom.
The wall panels are from the original wall but the paintings were completed in 1990 by artists from all over the world on the East side of the a spirit of euphoria and hope for the future. Like everything in Berlin it has become very political as some parts of the gallery are now in the way of commercial development and it's all become a bunfight between the artists, the developers and the government.

Just around the corner from here is the wonderful YAAM, the Young African Art Market. Its described as a Caribbean cave of wonders, the only Jamaican beach bar (on the banks of the River Spree) in Berlin with a friendly family vibe when we visit this afternoon. There's kids playing Soccer and skateboarding and frisbee throwing on the sand while in the evening there's lots of reggae and Caribbean cocktails......and then there is all that awesome art work.

YAAM is threatened by the forces of gentrification overtaking working class, multicultural Kreuzberg too. The locals are very angry about Mercedes Benz moving its headquarters here and all the rents skyrocketing as a result, and other developments in the pipeline.

Someone has let their feelings be known on this Soviet era abandoned building (below).  At this point on the tour Trish gave us a very detailed account of how the Baader-Meinhof Gang (the Red Army Faction) evolved from the student protest movement in Berlin in the sixties - Kreuzberg was the centre of this left wing radicalism in those days.
Walking over towards Mariannenplatz we came to this little triangular plot of land (which used to abut the old Berlin wall) and we were all struck by this strange little house built of found objects and junk materials.  Apparently one of the local Turkish families built the house and adjoining garden from materials found on the site just after the wall went up and neither East nor West Berlin authorities were game to make the family remove it. The family was allowed to keep the "house" and the land after reunification - it's become part of Kreuzberg's folklore now.

We walked up past the beautiful old former hospital fronting the Mariannenplatz parkland. The building, once abandoned, is now used for youth outreach and community based programs. The centre section is run by a music school. The whole area was filled with families this afternoon, with beautiful play areas for small children in the park.

The famous Kreuzberg astronaut was the last piece of art work we'd see on this tour this afternoon.
There were 7 people on this tour - us, a couple from Zagreb, a couple from Switzerland and a professional photographer from Grasse in Austria. We'd had involved conversations about history, politics and the nature of capitalism and ART throughout the afternoon. Life in Berlin is full of tensions. It has one of the most tragic, violent and multilayered histories of any city in Europe. It is trying to own and reconcile with its past - but has SO many challenges for the future.
With all these thoughts and impressions turning over in our heads we enjoy a late afternoon beer at the very soulful Bateau Ivre on Oranienstrasse in Kreuzberg before heading back to our very yuppie Prenzlauer Berg again.

Some random thoughts about Berlin:
  • There are some very tiny women here who drink very big serves of beer
  • Many young people smoke "roll your own"
  • Berlin is the fourth poorest German city (but sexy!)
  • Berlin is only 22 years old - perhaps explaining its energy and flashes of brilliance and rebellious nature
  • Public transport is very efficient although there is no obvious system for monitoring whether you've paid for your ticket or not. We suspect a lot of people travel without a ticket
  • There's plenty of WCs in Berlin AND they're well labelled too
  • There are lots of bicycles and few cars in the city centre
  • Berlin attracted lots of alternatives in the 60s-80s. Settling in Berlin was a way of avoiding military service. That's all had a legacy
  • Berlin does not cover up its past history. There's lots of evidence of honouring victims and reconciliation. Berlin is obviously trying to "own its past"
  • Berlin's ethnic populations aren't much in evidence outside their own neighbourhoods
  • Berlin is a start late - end late city
  • There's very little evidence of corporate dress culture in Berlin Young people dress shabby-cool. More mature people just dress shabby. Lots of Berlin's population dress like they're uni students
  • Taxis are very cheap. Airport to city only costs 20 euros
  • The city is a construction site - cranes everywhere, dust, rubble, safety barriers, more dust
  • There are far fewer police in evidence than in Italy
  • Shop assistants only interact with you when asked to - no greeting, no pressure, no salesmanship - everything seems matter of fact


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