Ersatz stars orbit a fading sun
by Max Bach
The Ringbahn binds the city together, but conversely can also divide metropolitan areas. At Sonnenallee the train's tracks represent a functional split between the residential-urban inner city and a business-housing project mix on the other side. The station's name sounds promising; a 1999 hit nostalgic comedy about life in the GDR was named after the same street. Also worthy of a film title, Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles goes from downtown through Hollywood and Beverly Hills to Santa Monica's beaches; Berlin's Sonnenallee proceeds from Hermannplatz through Neukölln and Treptow and ends at Britz's junction canal. Visitors should not expect comparable glamour here – or are appearances deceiving?
Taking the northern, newer exit of the Sonnenallee station, one steps out onto Sonnenallee itself, right in front of the Sonnengarten Imbiss. Across the street sits the sun-themed Café Miami and Las Palmas casino (a gambling joint with huge images of outer space blocking passersby from seeing what's going on inside).
Exiting on the southern end of the tracks takes one through the original (renovated) building from 1911 onto Saalestraße. The square is called Siegfried-Aufhäuser-Platz and offers a small variety of bars (Am S-Bahnhof Sonnenallee and S-Bahn-Klause), corner stores, an ice cream shop, and bakeries, including Konditorei Manske that's been around for forty years, only creates cakes for special occasions, and never seems to be open. The streets branching off from this square lead to Neukölln's calm neighborhoods like Esperantoplatz, Richardplatz, and Böhmisches Dorf, where slow-eyed beer drinkers hang out on benches next to playgrounds with scatterings of kids and parents.
In a subtle but meaningful architectural trick, the Sonnenallee station has no exits leading away from the Ringbahn towards the less livable and less pedestrian business areas. On this side, not quite meant for the city's citizens, the giant Estrel Hotel-Convention Center-Entertainment complex, opened in 1995, sits like a huge angular cruise ship next to a tiny canal. In the warmer months a biergarten and small beachy area open up on the banks of the canal. Here a half liter of beer costs 4.80 Euros (compared to Café Miami's 1.50 Euro special), and tour boats also make frequent stops. A neon and somewhat graphic sculpture of Leda and the swan decorates the space.
Estrel's main attraction, however, is the "Stars in Concert" show, whose posters are all over Berlin. The show is pure B-list entertainment: impersonators sing and dance like Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, and other beloved singers. It first premiered in 1997 and fits in well with Estrel's simulacra of a mini fun world, where guests can dine under palm trees in the bright, high-ceiled Mediterranean ambience of the lobby, perhaps between business meetings. Estrel's popularity and constant publicity is a fact of life – it usually ends up in the top percentage of highest-grossing hotels in Germany. Since 2001, it has been planning to expand across Sonnenallee and build another giant convention center plus retail stores. The space sits empty with no signs of construction – local politicians have blocked it so far, claiming it will take away business from stores on Karl-Marx-Straße one S-Bahn station away.
It is hard to escape the irony that, just a bit further down from the prosperous Estrel, across from the fast-food stand Curry Sonne, lies Neukölln's employment center, which is continually reported as one of the least successful job centers in Berlin.
The area's need for urban renewal is an economic matter of interest for the city's developers. It has yet to rehabilitate since the Berlin Wall sliced through Sonnenallee, albeit much further down from the Ringbahn Station. Estrel's glamour has not managed to light up the entire boulevard.