Love it or hate it
by Rachel Marks
Arrival in the tunnel-like station of Schönhauser Allee: plenty of graffiti to go around, abandoned cups and bottles huddled between the tracks and the steep outer walls that keep the city at bay. The station is never particularly quiet: dawn greets commuters coming in from northern suburbs clutching cheap cups of brew; midday welcomes the fleets of shopping carts, baby strollers, seniors' walkers, and teenagers' skateboards whizzing by; twilight sees groups of every predilection descending on the city for a drink, a bite, a smoke.
The Kiez turns its back to the cookie-cutter, multi-level shopping center where the U-Bahn and Ringbahn intersect. But this hulk and its neon cousin ("Now playing...") across the way seem a mere blip in the landscape, a relatively non-threatening anomaly.
Little reveals that above lies one of Berlin's most hotly contested and protested neighborhoods: Prenzlauer Berg. To be fair, a number of the stations to the east also lie within Prenzlauer Berg's borders, but it is specifically corners like these that are symbolically targeted when a luxury car is set aflame, when graffiti orders the Swabians out of Berlin, when buying organic is scoffed at rather than commended.
Yet exit the station – particularly to the southeast, but really in any direction – and the signs are apparent enough. Narrow tree-lined streets. Renovated turn-of-the-century apartment buildings. A boutique underwear store, handmade Japanese ceramics, a wine bistro, straight bars, gay bars, Turkish eats, Vietnamese eats, American eats, pizza joints, toy stores. Brunch cafés, lunch cafés, late afternoon cafés. Enough to keep a tourist entertained for hours yet residential and cozy enough to count as off the beaten path.
In a country suffering a major demographic recession, occasionally breathtaking unemployment, in the city often thought held captive by the sirens of malaise, a visitor might not recognize the young bustling mothers – juggling caffeine in the one hand, pushing an expensive baby buggy with the other, a business blackberry delicately balanced between cheek and shoulder – as the evil harbingers of infection.
But Berliners know better. In Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg has become literally synonymous with gentrification and its every negative connotation. No one besides the private investors, they cry, could possibly still advocate the neighborhood's swift facelift that seems to have all but eliminated the signs of the area's not uninteresting history. (These days, most living here don't associate the Gethsemanestrasse church with GDR opposition movements or the surrounding streets with an East Berlin underground scene. Everyone "knows" that the former residents have fled, the flames of skyrocketing rent and newly imposed cultural norms licking at their heels.) What perhaps no one can now imagine – or wants to admit – is that the then run-down neighborhood was gladly left behind after reunification by its East Berlin tenants for the private toilets, central heating, and mold-free walls of new or renovated apartments. Any sense of Ruinenromantik was taken up only by the outsiders moving in.
Prenzlauer Berg – its imported residents, their imported tastes, their imported prices – is redefining Berlin. The past decade's social upheaval cannot be underestimated, with an approximately 80 percent of Wall-era residents having left the scene. This is an ideal world for some, an object of hate to others. Enclaves like this one, tucked behind Schönhauser Allee station's high walls, remain as typical of and as essential to understanding a city that for over a century has had immigrants to thank for its dynamism. Only this "immigration," largely of academics and well-heeled creative-types from West Germany and other Western capitals, may be heralding a new era.