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.