Of Gray and Green
by Gernot Schaulinski / translation by Rachel Marks
"Friendly fruit-tree plantations greet us along the entire stretch, on both the right and the left sides; as we ride on we cross 'Schwedter Straße' and arrive at 'Gesundbrunnen' station." The westbound route from Schönhauser Allee has long not been so picturesque as in Emil Dominik's Ringbahn travel guide of 1883. Apartment buildings turn their blank backsides to the tracks, the ride takes you over a triangular junction with steppe-like vegetation, and shortly thereafter travelers come face to face with concrete public housing. In contrast, the intercity and regional train station at Gesundbrunnen seems it could almost be the park entrance to Wedding. With the arrival of spring, the neighboring Humboldthain gives the term "urban jungle" a brand new, budding meaning.
Gesundbrunnen station offers the Ringbahn flaneur architectural contrasts. Columns in faux green marble, brick facades in the style of German Expressionism: the platform conveys a certain sense of luxury. A trip up the escalators, however, ends in the nothingness of a massive concrete foundation for which the Deutsche Bahn had planned an imposing train station in the 1990s. Costs led the company to be content instead with modest pavilions. A small market of snack shops and fruit and vegetable stands tries to lend the gray surface a splash of color. Two enormous shopping temples flank the scene. So why is this place called Gesundbrunnen, Fountain of Health?
The vibrant Badstraße leads north to the neighborhood's actual origins on the River Panke. In the early eighteenth century there existed there a wellspring with special properties. Usually when German attractions wanted to prove tradition they bragged about visits by the Nibelungen or Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; in the Mark of Brandenburg, however, the nom du jour was Friedrich the Great. It is said that upon his visit even he noticed the water's iron content after a big sip; closer inspection revealed the water's healing power. A health spa, "Friedrich's Gesundbrunnen," was founded with money from the king.
After being renamed Luisenbad after a change in owner, the mineral springs became a coveted meeting place for the city's middle classes in the early nineteenth century. Colonie Luisenbad around Gesundbrunnen might have become Berlin's Baden Baden. But with the forward march of industrialization factories and tanneries moved to the river's flat shores, which soon thereafter was to be nicknamed the "Stinky Panke." The days of sophisticated spa life were long gone. In its place came beer gardens, nightclubs, and theater, bringing with them a wide swath of Berlin's social mix to the countryside. The talk was no longer of health, but it became all that much more lively – a reputation the neighborhood still maintains today.
The rural, green Gesundbrunnen developed into a dense, gray industrial area in the second half of the nineteenth century. Today people from over eighty countries live more next to than with one another: Kreuzberg's positively multi-cultural image is lacking here. You also won't find the freshly renovated streets dotted with trendy shops and hip bars like you would in nearby Prenzlauer Berg. Around Gesundbrunnen station, it's the niches that make a visit worthwhile. Look a little more closely and the gray quickly fades to green. Whether at Volkspark Humboldthain, Atlantic Garden City, or Grünbergerstraße with its long strips of park and wooded courtyards – Gesundbrunnen may not seem the most idyllic patch, but upon second glance you are sure to find the romance of the big city.