Walkabout: Urban by nature
by Rachel Marks
Ask just about anyone in Prenzlauer Berg where to find a green respite from the city and they'll usually answer the obvious, Volkspark Friedrichshain. But just outside the Ringbahn at Landsberger Allee lie a number of unusual natural oases whose intention and design reveal very different facets of Berlin's history.
If you exit the Landsberger Allee station to the east, the distinctive natatorium and velodrom at your back, you are suddenly confronted by the bleak urban space left between the slaughterhouse complex and Plattenbau (GDR pre-fab concrete construction) neighborhoods. But as soon as you've crossed to the other side of the daunting street, the screeching noise of trains ebbing slowly into the distance, the neighborhood of high rises takes on a new light. This area was a country-like idyll in GDR times and even today exudes a unique charm. The special nature of the neighborhood might not be readily apparent had the cut of the Ringbahn not decisively underscored the contrast to the gray tenements on the other side of the divide. In this opposition, the Plattenbau's clear-cut profiles are able to prove their unostentatious beauty.
After a few minutes the street forks, proffering the entrance to a small neighborhood park  - a leafy portal into another world. In summer the trees' branches bend to form a tunnel of leaves around the ascending path; even in winter in the vegetation is so dense that visitors can enter and pause in utter peace. A clearing at the park's other end is presided over by two bronze figures, whose concentrated gaze into the sky practically guides you to the next discovery, Volkspark Prenzlauer Berg . The entrance at Sigridstraße gives you the impression of standing before a mountain distant from the city, and from this side of the slope (in contrast to the northeastern side with its expansive meadows) it is easy to feel as though completely in the wilderness. Dark, steep paths crisscross this mountain of ruins, which was colloquially called the "Oderbruchkippe," or Oderbruch dump, during its creation in the 1950s. The plant life was purposefully left to its own devices, with the result of offering untamed nature directly at the gates of the city. The park's summit offers a stupendous view of Berlin's more modern history: to the southeast the colorful Plattenbau landscape of Hohenschönhausen, to the northwest the campus of Berlin's garbage collection service (a surprisingly frequent phenomenon along the Ringbahn). Explore the dark niches and narrow footpaths for more surprises and surprising perspectives on the city below.
The garden plots  on the other side were established in 1908, long before the park was instated, and today maintain an idyllic existence between the mountain of ruins, garbage complex, and Weißensee cemetery. Three different clubs proudly tend to this ideal little world, but the respectful pedestrian may use their rigidly organized paths to traverse the property. Any owners present are sure to observe you, but don't be shy: a smile and compliment on their impressive crop of tomatoes or aromatic roses is a golden ticket. Continue through the open "courtyards" of a Plattenbau colony, which were presumably built to house the employees of the State Holding Company for Plastic and Elastic Manufacture, which was reinstated on Puccinistraße in 1979. Originally built for the Carl Müller Rubberware Factory  in 1899, this production site has been thoroughly gentrified since reunification, today experiencing its rebirth as the "Puccini Hof" with luxury lofts and townhomes.
It is in this "Composers Quarter" that the 1848 Jewish Cemetery of Weißensee lies, today Europe's largest. A panel before the entrance hall of yellow brick informs visitors about the history of Jewish Berlin. This final resting place was created as an extension for the overfilled cemetery at Schönerhauser Tor. Until 1940 it served not only the dead but also the living: Jewish gardeners were trained here for the cultivation of Palestine for as long as emigration still seemed possible. Despite destruction during WWII bombardments, the plants now seem to have resumed complete domination of the large complex. The impression of nature, culture, and transience that you can gain among the ivy-entwined headstones cannot be described in words. Like so many other things, you have to discover it for yourself.
1. Generator Hostel | The blue and white Plattenbau looming over the tracks draws numerous young travelers to the neighborhood | Storkower Straße 160 | www.generatorhostels.com/de/berlin
2. Park Syringenplatz | The raised park, laid out like a tunnel between the streets, offers quiet, shaded benches for ruminating | Ecke Syringenweg / Syringenplatz
3. Volkspark Prenzlauer Berg | This mountain of ruins, somewhat dismissively called the "Oderbruch Dump" by locals in the 1950s as the ruins of Berlin's bombed buildings were deposited here, today serves as a park and getaway: one side is covered in wild vegetation, the other opens up in flatter meadows for sunning and ball play | Entrances at Sigridstraße as well as at Schneeglöckchenstraße or Süderbrokweg | www.berlin.de/ba-pankow/verwaltung/vpprenzlauerberg
4. Kleingartenanlage "Neues Heim" | It's rare to be able to able to walk through a community of garden plots unobserved, but in this little idealistic world of green you're likely even to cross paths with other non-gardeners who are also simply on their way from A to B - perhaps since these little leafy plots almost seem a natural extension of the park | www.kleingarten-prenzlberg.de/vereine/neuesheim
5. Daniels | The food selection between the Volkspark and the cemetery is, well, small. This kiosk-cum-restaurant's cold drinks, ice cream, and cheap meat dishes are thus a welcomed sight | Sarggasse / Kniprodestraße
6. Carl Müller Gummiwarenfabrik | Now disguised as the "Puccini Hofgarten," these apartments, lofts, and townhomes were in fact used as production facilities for almost a century | Puccinistraße at Herbert-Baum-Straße | www.puccini-hofgaerten.de
7. Jüdischer Friedhof Berlin-Weißensee | Since it opened in 1880, over 100,000 people have been laid to rest in Europe's largest Jewish cemetery. The beauty of the silent paths is breathtaking | Markus-Reich-Platz 1 | www.stadtentwicklung.berlin.de/umwelt/stadtgruen/.../friedhoefe/weissensee