Kiez Exploration

# 5: Wedding

Wedding PlatzTo be perfectly honest, I’ve had a pretty low opinion of Wedding for a really long time. I was there for the first time about four years ago when I went to visit a friend, in the dark of winter, who lived just off Müllerstrasse. I didn’t see any of Wedding at all that night, but I immediately thought that it was nothing compared to Neukölln, and I experienced the first of many waves of kiez snobbery that would occur periodically throughout my time living in this city.

Wedding always get a bad rap from those who say that the kiez (which isn’t really a kiez at all but an enormous burrough that encompasses both Wedding and Gesundbrunnen) is riddled with crime and is dirty. Many of the buildings are newish (not the typical German altbau we’ve grown to love); there’s lots of industry, and there’s just one too many neon-lit casinos for many peoples’ tastes.

The second time I went to Wedding was for the birthday party of local Slow Travel creator, Paul Sullivan. Immediately after getting off the train at S Bahn Wedding, Jen and I walked down the stairs to see, well… a man also “getting off” at S Bahn Wedding. This, for obvious reasons, also left me with a bad feeling.

But, third time’s a charm, and on Sunday, Paul Scraton (also a contributor to Slow Travel Berlin as well as founder of the Under a Grey Sky blog AND also works at the Circus Hostel/Hotel) invited me to check out a sample of his upcoming Wedding Walk that will be a part of the new Slow Travel Tours.

Just a quick note here. Because Paul is preparing these tours for STB, I won’t be including a map, and I won’t go into too much detail about where we went (except for a few things). If you really want to know, you can go on the tour! Spoiler alert: I hardcore recommend it.

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My initial negative conclusions about Wedding were immediately dashed when Paul pulled us (me and Paul Sullivan, who was also there) through an arched passageway into a beautiful courtyard with a tiled mosaic facade on the apartment buildings, towards the hidden little Luisenbad library and neighbouring coffee and cake store. The hidden buildings are not only beautiful in their detail, history, and unexpectedness, but it is also the site where the surrounding area of Gesundbrunnen got its name. The mineral spring there was “tapped” in 1748 and was given the royal charter by the King of Prussia. It’s first official title was the “Friedrichsgesundbrunnen”, and the spa which was built around it was later called the Luisenbad. But the spring’s initial name was the “Gesundbrunnen” or “Health Spring” and the name just stuck.

We wandered along the Panke canal (no doubt beautiful in the spring/summer), past the re-furbished BVG and industrial buildings that now house contemporary dance studios, cafes, and a piano studio, and I was thrilled to discover that Wedding was also a haven for exiled Bohemians, in the same way that Rixdorf was! Apparently there’s also still a farm house in Wedding from this time period (around 1737), which warrants further exploration on a less snowy/wet day. Maybe one day Wedding will have its own Strohballenrollen down Gerichtstrasse!

Paul led us in and around parks, down hidden pathways and courtyards, and and towards squares imbued with history. Turns out, in the 1920s, the citizens of Wedding were staunchly left leaning (they were the city’s only burrough never to vote for the Nazis) and the area’s communist faction fought the Nazis in open street battles. When Hitler and his army finally took over, Wedding was subjected to a quick and merciless takeover for all its opposition.

Panke Canal

The tour highlighted not only the cultural aspects of Wedding (such as the Stattbad – an old swimming pool turned gallery and club, and the Panke club/apartment/entertainment “complex”), but also the numerous green-spaces it has to offer. From a distance, I’d always seen Wedding as an area packed with concrete apartment buildings, wide streets, and stale architecture, but I was surprised to discover that Wedding has a lot to offer for the outdoor enthusiast. We walked past the Magic Mountain climbing hall with its enormous outdoor multi-coloured climbing walls, and across the train bridge towards the Volkspark Humbolthain where a few lone joggers were braving the cold, and families were tobogganing around the base of the enormous and imposing Flak Tower.

The Flak tower itself is an amazing piece of the city’s history, and was built between 1941-42 “as part of the anti-aircraft defences of the city during the Allied bombing raids of the Second World War. The tower, that was designed to be bomb-proof, also provided an air-raid shelter for up to 15,000 civilians.” But, the Flak Tower isn’t just a great place to get a view of the entire city and somewhere from which to appreciate history, it’s also a popular urban climbing location, as displayed by the multiple carabiners hanging from the structure’s edges.

Many thanks to Paul Scraton for showing me around, and for proving to me that opinions about an area can easily be changed. For anyone interested in taking a walking tour of Wedding with Paul, he’ll be running some discounted tours on March 3rd and 5th as part of Berlin’s Travel Massive event. They are bookable via Gidsy. Slow Travel is also offering a number of other kiez tours then as well, so they’re also worth checking out.

AND – we wouldn’t be the Mädels with a Microphone if we didn’t throw some audio in somewhere, so here’s the sound of a bunch of birds in a bush by the Panke canal. TE

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#4: Frohnau

I decided to head to Frohnau because I’ve been commissioned to write a top secret piece about it for a top secret Slow Travel project. It wasn’t Frohnau specifically that I was interested in, it was, instead, Frohnau’s most unexpected building, the Buddhistische Haus. I’ve seen bits and pieces of the Buddhistische Haus online, but none of the photos were any good and neither were any of the explanations, so all it did was perk my interest to the extent that I wanted to go but never got around to it.

But, on Friday, I decided to change all that and once again enlisted the help of Giulia Pines, fellow slow traveller and explorer extraordinaire to come with me to Frohnau.

Frohnau is way up north of Berlin. It’s one stop on the S1 before you hit the C zone. Giulia and I met at Friedrichstrasse, hopped on the S1, and watched eagerly as we climbed north away from the city, away from the shopping centers, away from the hustle and bustle and in to… cornfields and tiny tiny towns. We sat on the S Bahn for what seemed like a very long time. We stopped at train stations surrounded by agricultural land, with no one waiting to get on. We were surrounded by eager bikers, excited to hit the trails outside of the city. We realized, slowly, that we were going the wrong way.

Turns out the S bahn is being fixed up north, so our train took a detour along the S8 line which brought us up into the C zone to Mühlenbeck – Mönchmühle, Schönfliess, and Bergfelde. But, we  managed to get off at Hohen Neuendorf, and hopped on the S1 going back south in the other direction (cautiously looking for ticket checkers because we only had AB tickets), and finally ended up in Frohnau.

I expected very little fron Frohnau, which, in my experience, is always a good way to start such a trip. As we got off the train, we were immediately welcomed with a small (very expensive) organic cafe/super market in the train station! We bought coffees, checked out the water tower immediately outside the station, and then walked along to Zeltinger Platz, over the train bridge, past numerous cute cafes and antique stores, up towards the main event, the Buddhistische haus.

Frohnau was covered in autumn awesomeness. It was like someone up in the cosmos held an enormous bag of orange, red, brown, and yellow leaves and opened it over the village. I’d never seen so many in my life. They covered every surface, every car, every garbage bin. As we walked along Edelhofdamm through the Josef Brix Felix Genzmer Park, I relished in the sounds of the leaves beneath my feet. Giulia discovered white-spotted red mushrooms, the kinds faeries sit on in Disney movies. All around us were enormous villas. Some looked ancient and half timbered, some were modern with long vertical wooden boards, organic in style, with enormous exposed windows. “Who needs a house this big!?” Giulia and I muttered in awe to each other, no longer used to seeing large houses, having become familiarized with down-scale Berlin living.

At the end of the park, perched atop a small hill, with a stone archway adorned by carved elephant heads, was the Buddhistische haus. The wooden door was slightly ajar, so we slowly, and silently, started climbing the stairs. The house was in typical German style, nothing unexpected. Around the side, attached to the house, was a temple with a terra-cotta and wood roof with small windows circling the top. Among the bushes was a standing buddha, with candle offerings at its feet. At the back of the house was a large backyard with freshly mowed grass, more buddhas, an empty pond, a few garden sheds, and wild tree growth. We wandered, separately, quietly, snapping pictures and enjoying the quiet. We saw a man working in the shed, who smiled at us and later offered us an apple from the tree.

We headed inside the temple and removed our shoes. It was perfectly quiet and chilly. A large golden buddha, encircled by flower offerings, sat behind glass. The floors were carpeted, with further oriental carpets on top, and cushions and blankets heaped in the corner. A window was open. We could hear the occasional car go by, but aside from that, it was serene, peaceful, dream-like. It made me want to meditate, and of course, they offer classes for that.

courtesy of Giulia Pines

We left and entered the library, once again removing our shoes and slipping on provided house slippers. The slowly setting sun streamed in through the windows, illuminating old books about the Buddha and the Dalai Lama. There were tables, a tv, a blackboard. Another large golden buddha sat at the head of the classroom, covered in necklaces, bound by flowers and unlit scented candles.

Eventually we left the oasis of calm atop the hill and walked back towards the train station. I suddenly remembered there was a war memorial in the area, so we headed back the direction we came (not before grabbing a Lebkuchen herz – the first of the season), to find it. It, like everything else, was covered in leaves and commemorated both WW1 and WW2. There were two plaques. The bottom one for WW2 read:

Den Toten des Zweiten Weltkrieges zum Gedenken/Den Lebenden zum Mahnung

Loosely translated as: To remember the dead of the second world war/ to warn the living.

Heading out to Frohnau was a surprisingly beautiful trip. I highly recommend checking it out and talking a little walk around. Yes, the autumn colours made the whole experience exceptional, but I’m willing to bet the town is beautiful all year round. Thanks again to Giulia for coming with. TE

This is the route we took. Note: camera icons are for pictures, wave icons are for audio.

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#3: Gropiusstadt

Gropiusstadt is one of those part of town I didn’t know I’d already visited until I looked it up on the map and I realized, oh ya, I’ve been there. In fact, I briefly helped out at a summer school there for two weeks. Jen and I also (unbeknownst to me) marched through Gropiusstadt during the Anti-Nazi protest we covered in our protest podcast. But, despite the area’s imposing and majestic looking appearance from the outside, once you’re in it, it’s incredibly spread out with lots of parks and not all too much going on.

To give some reference, oftentimes when riding the S Bahn on the eastern part of the ring, you can see some white, jagged, high-rise buildings clustered together off in the distance. They look out of place, and they’re easily dismissible as plattenbau buildings (those cookie cutter apartment blocks the East Germans were so famous for). But that’s Gropiusstadt, named after the famous architect Walter Gropius, one of the founders of the Bauhaus movement, and it was a part of the West.

The area was built from 1962 – 1975 using Gropius’ plans. Apparently, he wanted to create a modern neighbourhood with open parks, to compensate for the relatively small apartments. His plan was to have the buildings be only about five stories high – some of which are – but when the Berlin wall went up around the same time, plans had to be changed, space was lost, and the apartments were made higher and higher. Some, it seems, go on forever. Gropius also has a couple of buildings over in the Hansa Viertel by Tiergarten. The buildings there are brightly coloured, logical, with big windows facing the morning sun. In the same vein they were built with the idea of community, transparency, democracy.

Unfortunately, Gropius’ utopian architectural vision fell short in the Gropiusstadt, as the area has become one of Berlin’s problem neighbourhoods, famously  portrayed as a haven for drugs and danger in the book and film “Wir Kinder von Bahnhof Zoo.” Currently, it’s also seeing an increase in immigrants, which has gained the attention of far right groups like the NPD, and they have consequently been stepping up their action against those they see as unwelcome. With large socio-economic problems, migrants from a variety of different backgrounds and cultures, and high levels of unemployment, Gropiusstadt has garnered a less than desirable reputation.

However, when I was there, I found it to be calm, beautiful, and at times surprising. Thanks to a twitter recommendation from Digital Cosmonaut, I checked out the Jungfernmühle, a very strange and unexpected Dutch windmill turned restaurant/beer garden among all the block apartments. I found a cork man, which I always freak out about. I slowly biked down the picturesque pathways, doused in vibrant fall colours, and popped down hidden sidewalks to be met with larger, more clean-lined, sometimes more colourful buildings. I often paused to try to orientate myself among the buildings, wondering time and time again, am I really in the Gropiusstadt, this white, staircase cluster of buildings I see from the train?

All in all, biking around Gropiusstadt was a wonderful way to spend a mind-boggingly beautiful autumn day in Berlin. However, I’m willing to admit it may have just been the weather and the leaves and the little old ladies hobbling along with their grocery shopping silhouetted in the sparkling sun. But, on November 7th it’s the 50th anniversary of Gropiusstadt, and apparently activities and celebrations have been planned. However, I have to admit, when it comes down to it, it doesn’t seem like there’s much to do in Gropiusstadt, except maybe go shopping at the Gropius Passage… which I did. TE

This is the route I took. Yes, it’s a little weird and back and forth. It’s because I was riding my bike and kept doubling back to see things. Note: camera icons are for pictures, wave icons are for audio.

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#2: Schillerkiez

It seems like I’ve been hearing about Schillerkiez nonstop for the last two months. If it wasn’t the enormous splash of red paint on Schiller Bar that drove the twitter sphere absolutely nuts one morning, it was locals raving about Schiller Burger, or, in more serious instances, it was concerned citizens talking about Berlin’s fight against gentrification. So, on Saturday morning, prior to taking part in Slow Travel Berlin’s Slowlympics, Jen and I spent an hour wandering around the neighbourhood, trying to find out what all the fuss was about.

Schillerkiez is located between Hermanstrasse and Tempelhof airport. It’s quiet, leafy, and on the verge of booming. Small, hip cafes are popping up on side streets, and on Saturday morning, there’s a bio market. The area looks idyllic. However, on virtually every second building, there’s anti-gentrification graffiti, more-so than I’ve ever seen anywhere else in Berlin. Pasted beside a cute little Weserstrasse-style cafe is a piece of A4 paper with an anti-gentrification message to students, travellers, and artists stating “Neukölln is one of the poorest working-class districts in Berlin. Cheap rents and ample space make it attractive for local and international artists and students. [...] This disturbs the social and economic life of our neighbourhood. Some landlords and real estate investors are taking advantage of this situation and raising the rental prices as much as they can. [...] Slowly but surely, the poorest and most vulnerable people are forced to leave behind the life that they have built in our district: their friendships, their places, their communities, their memories.” The message ends with the friendly warning, “Whatever you do, don’t pay too much rent!” On another corner, a large, self-made list hangs on the wall of a building, telling renters to 1) sign nothing, 2) talk to neighbours, 3) seek advice from a professional.

Elsewhere, the warnings are not so friendly, with graffiti calling for revolution and class warfare. Someone has scribbled teuer (expensive) over an outdoor restaurant menu. Another has sprayed Job Center Halts Maul (Job Center shut up). The hammer and sickle sign can be spotted on many street corners. Graffiti urges for people to join the revolution on various days of protest. When we were there on Saturday, an anti-gentrification street festival was setting up in front of the bar Syndikat, with banners declaring Wohnen is keine Ware (living is not a commodity). It felt exciting to see a neighbourhood fight for its right to be, to exist, and to resist the lure of mainstream gentrified comforts.

But there’s another side to Schillerkiez, one that seems to want visitors, however perhaps this was a few years ago and times have passed. Around Schillerpromenade and the surrounding areas, little info boxes stand on the streets, partially graffiti-ed, 70% unreadable. These info boxes attempt to tell the story of the area by describing the houses, schools, and churches. Infront of Schillerpromenade 28, a box describes the first building stage of the apartments in the area in 1907. In a style typical of the time, they had a living room, kitchen, chamber, and closet in the wide wings, and two bedrooms with a bath in the front house. Craftsmen, skilled workers, civil servants lived in these apartments, and the ground floor was usually reserved for stores or restaurants. Info boxes in front of the schools display the original facades, halls, and assert the diversity of their student body and involvement of the community. According to the info box infront of the Genezareth Church on Schillerpromenade, the church was planned by Franz Schwechten, the architect of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche (you know, the incredibly famous church on Ku’damm). And, in Schwechten style, the Genezareth Church was also bombed in 1944 which partially destroyed the structure. The re-construction of the church took place in 1956. Interestingly enough, the church steeple had to be shortened due to the construction of Tempelhof airport in 1939, and once again due to the blockade in 1948/49. Now, it’s standing tall once again.

I left Schillerkiez felling strange. I was a student a few years ago, hunting for cheap rent and becoming overjoyed when I found something even slightly less expensive than what I’d experienced back home. Now, after a few years of Berlin experience under my belt, I’d like to think I know better (although I’m willing to admit I probably don’t). But places like Schillerkiez and its active citizens are an important reminder about the reality of the rent situation in Berlin, and that we all have a responsibility to our neighbours, both near and far. TE

This is the route we took. Note: camera icons are for pictures, wave icons are for audio.

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#1: Moabit

Prior to last week, I’d never been to Moabit – unless you count that one time I got on the wrong bus to Tegel and headed in the opposite direction for a few minutes. So last week, my Slow Travel friend Giulia Pines took me on a tour of her kiez. I was blown away. Moabit is quiet – almost sleepy, green, full of lush parks and with a splattering of cute cafes. Around every corner there seemed to be an architecturally stunning warehouse, covered in ivy. Down every street there was a hidden treasure, and to top it all off, the people were incredibly kind in, according to Giulia, an almost broadway show type of way.

Before going any further, a million thanks to Giulia for a wonderful wonderful day!

Here’s a brief recap of the tour. Scroll down to the bottom of this post for an interactive map with pictures, and in typical Mädel style, some audio.

We started at the Zellengefängnis on Lehrter Strasse. The prison dates back to 1840, when it was touted as a model Prussian prison, because the cells housed inmates individually, instead of in groups. It was slightly damaged in a number of wars, and stil bears the marks of gunshots on the brick walls. In the 1950s the prison was mostly torn down, and the parts that remain are protected historical sites. Today, the prison is surprisingly beautiful. The old guard towers are now converted apartments, and the courtyards are urban gardens.

We left the old prison walked down Lehrer strasse, alongside another new prison, and stumbled upon die antike Baulemente, an antique junkyard featured in the book 111 Orte in Berlin die Man gesehen haben muss (111 places you have to see in Berlin). It’s a small junkyard behind a brick wall near the train tracks with the most amazing assortment of antiques: decorated tiles, old keys, irons, statues, lamps, doors, and random crap. It’s only open on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and it’s well worth the trip.

We slowly made our way to Birkenstrasse, one of the cool news parts of Moabit that everyone’s talking about; dotted with a few cafes with chairs spilling out onto the street. The area is obviously on the verge of booming, but it doesn’t feel like it has quite yet. Street after street was interspersed with green-space, and it It seemed like everywhere we went there were gardens and trees and little flower beds beside the road that community groups tirelessly attended to. Every corner provided proof that the people who lived in Moabit, loved Moabit.

The next stop was the Markthalle, which looks suspiciously identical to the Markthalle in Kreuzberg. The main difference is that the Moabit markthalle is completely devoid of visitors. It was eerily quiet save for a few German women drinking beer and smoking in a bizarre looking indoor recreation of an outdoor patio. According to Giulia, the hall used to be filled with disorganized tables, overflowing with clothes, and completely un-gentrified market stands. Now, there’s a book bench, a stand selling organic eggs, a small brewery, fancy fish stands, and a number of expensive looking restaurants.

We left the Markthalle and grabbed a beer to drink by the canal. Along the way we stumbled upon a small market beside the Heilandskirche Church, and I bought a crepe and Giulia gushed over the fruit stand’s selection of berries. Then, we crossed busy Stromstrasse and made our way towards the Spree, weaving between more old warehouses, fancy hotels and Ministry of the Interior government buildings.

The area alongside the Spree, the Spree Bogen, felt a lot like London. The apartments were new or renovated, the windows were huge, and the trees were plentiful. Tourist boats cruised along the water, and joggers ran past in the 30 degree heat. We crossed the Moabiter Brücke and popped our heads inside the Buchwald cafe, a beautiful old bakery famous for their Baumkuchen (a cake rolled up around a stick and then coated in chocolate… or something like that). Little old ladies sat around tables indulging in coffee and cakes, fulfilling that wonderful German tradition. From there, it was onto a grassy patch by the canal, across from the presidential palace to drink our beer and eat some berries before walking back to Hauptbahnhof so that I could catch the M41 back to Neukölln.

Despite all the hype that’s been growing around Moabit these last couple of years, I found the area to be completely contrary to what I initially expected. It was much more beautiful and peaceful than what I had heard, and around every corner there was yet another hidden gem. That’s what I love about Berlin, you can live here for years and still be surprised with every new street and every new kiez. I seem to only have scratched the surface of this wonderful city, and I can’t wait to explore it even more. TE

This is the route we took. Note: camera icons are for pictures, wave icons are for audio.