Walkabout: From the island of Moabit to Westhafen
by Ralista Domuschieva / translation by Rachel Marks
"Next Station: Beusselstraße." Exit the train, please! The stairs leaving the station lead you to the Beussel bridge as your gaze, taking in the open expanse of train tracks, is caught by a looming semicircular object. This is the "belly of Berlin," as the wholesale market that helps feed not only Berlin but also Brandenburg and other nearby states is colloquially called.
South of the bridge, on Sickingenstraße, take a peek inside the restored Reform Residence , which famous department-store architect Alfred Messel built between 1893 and 1895 as a counter-concept to the widespread tenements and abominable living standards there. An anomaly in the notorious Beussel neighborhood, this architectural ensemble included large inner courtyards; the interiors were generously proportioned; and the large windows allowed for light and good ventilation. Industrial production, with all of its noise and dirt, was consciously kept at bay; after all, the industrial grounds were close enough.
In 1905, for instance, the AEG light bulb factory was erected on the corner of Sickingenstraße and Berlichingenstraße and later used by Telefunken to produce tubes. Once the home of modern technology, the building now houses Mitte's JobCenter, a timely symbol for this neighborhood better known for its high unemployment and poverty rates. Just beyond the former light bulb factory stretches the AEG Turbine Hall . Visitors often trek to this site to take in the over 200-yard-long façade of Peter Behrens' perhaps most famous architectural work. The arched roof, held aloft by a series of graceful steel beams, allows for a row of glass panels and creates a sense of transparency that was revolutionary at the time and is still fascinating today. The gabled front on Huttenstraße still bears the insignia AEG Turbinenfabrik, though the building is now used by Siemens to assemble gas turbines.
Taking Rostocker Straße to Wittstocker Straße, it's hard not to notice that this, like so many other streets in the Beussel area, is relatively narrow and allows for little sunlight. A few small shops, a Palestinian cultural club, a gambling bar with comic-like witch decorations, the educational association Plattform für urbane Kulturarbeit , and the local Sexkino  next door give a stark if brief sense of day-to-day life in the area. A little further the Protestant Reformationskirche  towers over the intersection at Beusselstraße. The radical renovation in the 1970s removed the altar and pews, and the religious services were replaced with musical performances. Despite the church's plain interiors, however, the naïve depictions of biblical scenes painted in bright colors by the Ethiopian artist Alemayehu Bizuneh are eye catching. The Wiclefstraße picks up in front of the house of god-cum-music and, significantly wider and sunnier than most, is a favorite street for Sunday strolls around the neighborhood. Small shops line both sides of the street: a Greek tavern , an anti-IKEA restoration workshop  for furniture and appliances, a cheerful children's store, and a small, casual gallery  for glass and artificial light objects.
Following Oldenburger Straße to the right, you will encounter on Unionplatz one of the few remaining historic "Cafe Achteck" urinals (recommended for men only). Before continuing on to Westhafen station, it is worth looking back onto Siemensstraße down the long row of poplars. The trees are supposed to be uprooted to make way for a wholesale gastronomic market on the former site of the Moabit freight depot. Their fate has not yet been decided, as many residents are fighting to preserve this picturesque boulevard. The route to Westhafen takes you down Quitzowstraße, where workshops, glazieries, and moving companies follow one after the next and the road has been surrendered to the traffic zooming down its many lanes. A steep flight of stairs ascends to the Putlitzbrücke. The growing sense that this part of Berlin largely serves the supplies and wholesale market is only underscored by the giant Market Hall for Asian Foods .
Before the entrance to Westhafen on the other side of the bridge, the blue and white Schifferkirche  in a former commercial building should not be missed. Passing the gatekeeper visitors should head left to the Hafenwirtschaft, or port management, where the abstract works in the artist ateliers for the disabled  deserve attention. Many of the harbor's storehouses are today used as workshops and wholesales salesrooms. It's loud, stinky, and tumultuous as befitting a harbor, even if there are only a few ships left to be seen. The adventure is no longer had at sea but rather trying to traverse the street overwhelmed by trucks. If you manage the crossing, you stand before the erstwhile grain silo that today stores the newspaper archives of the National Library of Berlin. A small, dark brick building in front warmly warns us that "The use of the bathhouse by external entities is prohibited. BEHALA." Is there a Finish sauna or perhaps a Turkish bath hidden behind these doors? Wellness in Westhafen? Normal Ringbahn riders will never know. So on into the world of printer's ink. The library is public, but given that it may very well be the quietest place in Berlin, it is also clearly its best-kept secret. Whether or not you're interested in browsing through the collection (1873: Stock market crash!), it's worth a walkabout inside. Just wandering through the piles of postcards with their historical mastheads or glimpsing the front pages of Berlin's legendary papers is an adventure. It might also be worth picking up postcards of Westhafen and the grain silo since photography at the harbor is strictly verboten. Not a bad souvenir of Europe's second-largest interior harbor!
1. Reformwohnanlage | The communal alternative to Moabit's tenements, built by the prominent department-store architect Alfred Messel | Sickingenstraße 7/8
2. AEG Turbinenfabrik | Germany's most famous industrial building was erected for turbine production in 1909. Then the boss was AEG, now it's Siemens | Huttenstraße 12-16
3. Plattform für urbane Kulturarbeit | Promoting "more cultural and social diversity in the German film industry," this club aims to show that big visions don't necessarily require big money | Wittstocker Straße 26 | www.platuraev.de
4. Sonjas Filmbar | Sex films and more... | Wittstocker Straße 2 | www.sonjas-filmbar.de
5. Reformationskirche | Built in 1901 as the second congregational church for Moabit's rapidly growing population, it is today a haven of quietude | Beusselstraße 35
6. Taverna Merkouri | Authentic Greek dishes, and plenty of Ouzo | Wiclefstraße 30 | www.merkouri.de
7. Restaurationswerkstatt | The storefront windows display revived timeless appliances. Stepping in the store is like entering another world | Wiclefstraße 24
8. Galerie | Also an atelier for two artists who fill the former beauty salon with light art and painting | Wiclefstraße 21
9. Nord-West-Oase | Multi-functional: a sports bar, café, and old-Berlin family restaurant | Wiclefstraße 17
10. Buchhandlung für Esoterik, Märchen und Anthroposophie | The small bookstore offers specialized literature and good advice. Soon to boast another 20,000 books | Oldenburger Straße 33
11. Markthalle für asiatische Lebensmittel | Exotic wholesale store directly at the harbor | Quitzowstraße 59
12. Schifferkirche | The transformation of the harbor is also reflected in the local religious congregation. Once afloat on the water, the church is now on terra firma directly before the harbor's front gates | Westhafenstraße 1
13. imPerfekt | Artists atelier in the former building of the harbor management. Here disabled people can hone their creative skills | Westhafenstraße 4 | www.bwb-gmbh.de
14. Zeitungsabteilung der Staatsbibliothek | The German library system's most comprehensive collection of newspapers, housed in the erstwhile grain silo since 1997 | Westhafenstraße 1