Prenzlauerberg-In Search of a Kiez

Cities are dynamic entities, always evolving, but German Reunification was truly a  shock to the system for long-divided Berlin . What happened in Prenzlauerberg was normal urban evolution, but it was played out at dizzying speed.

Built as housing for factory workers in the 1860s, the cramped tenements of East Berlin’s Prenzlauerberg became a magnet for artists, thinkers, students, and orangehaired  punks  in the days of  the  Sovietcontrolled German Democratic Republic. It was the sort of radical  quarter  where you’d expect political activity, like the government  resistance  that  emanated  from the  Protestant  Gethsemane  church  on Gethsemanestrasse.  For  a  cheap  meal, you could always have a grilled sausage at Konnopkes   Imbiss,   under   the   U-Bahn tracks  between  Schönhauser  Allee  and Danziger  Strasse.  This  northern  suburb had  a  definite  character,  a  real  kiez  (German  for  a  neighborhood  you  feel  connected to).

But  with  reunification,  those  historic tenements with their trees and courtyards seemed pretty attractive to young professionals eager to renovate prime real estate. Unlike other districts of East Berlin, they hadn’t been bombed in World War II and had somehow escaped being replaced with  the  GDR  era’s  typical  boxy  concrete apartment  blocks.  It  still  had  a  few  atmospheric   landmarks,   like   the   handsome 19th-century  brick  water  tower  that  rises over Kollwitzplatz, the Prater Beer Garden (Berlin’s  oldest)  on  Kastanienalee,  and  a handful of disused breweries ripe for redevelopment. (One of them, the Kulturbrauerei   on   Sredzkistrasse,   now   houses   a warren of bars, restaurants, a cinema, and the  district’s  tourist  information  center beneath  its  brick  towers  and  chimneystacks.)  Remnants  of  the  days  when  this was  a  Jewish  neighborhood  are  found  in an  old  synagogue  on  Rykestraße  and  a Jewish cemetery on Schönhauser Allee.

And  so  in  the  early  1990s  free-market forces took hold and the yuppies moved in, repainting the dull facades in bright colors and  designs.  Nightlife  exploded,  particularly  around  Kollwitzplatz  and  Kastanienallee,  with  a  fairly  active  gay  scene;  a constant  rotation  of  hip  boutiques,  galleries, and sidewalk cafes attract the leisured classes  by  day.  Weekly  street  markets  at Kollwitzplatz and Helmholtzplatz add to the lively  atmosphere.  Students  and  punks—those  perennial  urban  colonizers—were quickly priced out of the area.

In the hyperactive post-reunification climate, nothing in Berlin stays the same for long.  Already  the  really  hot  nightlife  has moved  elsewhere  (to  the  east),  and  the first  wave  of  yuppies  are  starting  families—there’s a surprising number of baby strollers around. It’s anybody’s guess what the character of Prenzl’berg will be in the end—but  at  least  those  classic  old  buildings have been restored.