Golden Rules for the Descendants of the Proletariat
by Ralitsa Domuschieva and Julia Cornelius / translation by Rachel Marks
"The dreariest things have done it to me, and eat away at my stomach, Moabit and Wedding hit me the hardest – the interesting sobriety and desolation," wrote painter Gustav Wunderwald in 1927 about his search for a motif. Today he would also find what he was looking for at the Beusselstraße station. A concrete bridge, which judging by its scale was born of an Autobahn intersection, spans the wide train tracks. To the north lie the correctional facilities of Charlottenburg and Plötzensee, the latter of which has an adjacent memorial for those murdered here by the Nazis. To the south, the wall of a colorless turn-of-the-century building turns its back to the Ringbahn. Moabit's treasures are tucked far away, on the banks of the Spree.
For the Huguenots, emigrated from France to Berlin, their terre de Moab had been a place of refuge since the eighteenth century – a place where they could live and practice their religion freely. Later, large sections of Moabit were used for military purposes; barracks, parade grounds, and gunpowder factories overtook an area once defined by cottages and small silkworm industry. The beginning of industrialization and the annexation to Berlin in 1861 saw a rapid increase in population. Industry bigwigs decided then that building tenement housing (Mietskaserne) would bring them steadier and higher revenue than they could make with production – and thus the district became the home of the proletariat. In the cramped, dark, crowded quarters, anger grew over the social injustices. But there was also a bright light among the darkness of real estate speculation: Alfred Messel, the famous Kaufhaus department store architect and planer of the Pergamon Museum, designed a residential cooperative (Wohngenossenschaft) at Sickingenstraße 7-8, which still stands today. The reform architecture with generous interior courtyards, bathrooms, and a library promoted communal and healthy living for the working class; the one- and two-room apartments enjoyed inside toilets, heating, and balconies.
The Beusselkiez (or "Beussel neighborhood") was not only a bedroom community but also a place of work for thousands of workers, who found jobs in Moabit West's industrial facilities. A monumental testament to this era is the AEG Turbine Hall, erected by Peter Behrens at the corner of Huttenstraße and Berlichingenstraße in 1909. Strictly foregoing the traditional decorative elements in favor of steel, glass, and concrete, Behrens designed a truly modern building that continues to impress the passerby with the juxtaposition of staggering groundedness and weightless transparency. Professors, students, architecture nuts, and curious tourists alike make pilgrimages to this icon of twentieth-century architecture.
Not far away, a strike in 1910 at the coal refinery at Sickingenstraße 20-23 led to heavy conflict between workers and the police. The fighting in the streets spread through the entire neighborhood and was in fact the height of social conflict of the empire period. The police turned with incredible violence against the riotous public and even brutally attacked a group of British and American journalists, through which the riots garnered international infamy. Never before had he seen armed guards in "such an absolutely blind rage," a correspondent from the Daily News reported. Police president von Jagow refuted any and all accusations: "The badge of our security force has not been blemished. They showed impeccable discipline."
Indeed, there are alternatives. "In Moabit, we oblige ourselves not to use our fists!" (In Moabit da gilt die Pflicht, gebrauche deine Fäuste nicht!) goes one slogan that the program "Soziale Stadt" (societal city) emphasizes, referring to the local project's "gold rules of the street" and emphasizing neighborly solidarity in this problematic area. Unemployment soars at 25 percent; an unemployment office has moved into an erstwhile factory building. At the close of a tour of Moabit, do you agree with the final "golden rule": "Now everyone, everybody knows that Moabit is simply great" (Allen, allen ist jetzt klar, Moabit ist einfach wunderbar)?