Berlin and its “Kieze”
The children have names like Noël Alexander, Anna Lou or Nathan. They eat organically grown bananas and wear jackets by Finkid. They go to a Montessori or Waldorf kindergarten. They go to Kids-Karate Club, early music classes and take part in “Forest Days”. Their parents, often around the age of 40, more often than not work in a creative profession and place importance on fostering their children’s soft skills. “Come on Darling, say ‘doggie-doggie’ for Charlotte!”
If you live in Berlin, you know immediately that in this case there is only one district we can be talking about - Prenzlauer Berg. The lifestyle in this centrally located eastern district of Berlin is referred to ironically as “Bionade-Biedermeier” – a mixture of organic living and middle-class sensibilities. The residents combine the adventure of living in the big city with such bourgeois values as education, family and ecological awareness. Prenzlauer Berg has one of the highest birth-rates in Germany, heavily pregnant women and children’s playgrounds all over the place. All the clubs that opened up when the Wall came down have now closed. Should the families with small children prefer a somewhat quieter life, they move to the more verdant Pankow, a little further to the North.
Tell me what “Kiez” you live in, and I’ll tell you who you are
Statements like this, of course, often involve prejudice and derision, for example, the comment that the most important fashion accessory in Prenzlauer Berg is a child. Nevertheless the characteristics of the “Kieze”, as these small, manageable neighbourhoods are called in Berlin, are well founded. The older the residents of these districts become however, the more the districts change. Take Friedrichshain, for example, five years ago it was the place to go partying, full of students, left-wing radicals and losers all having a ball together. In the meantime the residents of Friedrichshain have also taken to having children –Boxhagener Platz in the centre, nicknamed “Boxi” for short, is now full of small kids frolicking rather than the Punks who used to hang out there.
Friedrichshain has now also started to slowly spread into Lichtenberg. In the times of the GDR Lichtenberg was the headquarters of the East German secret police, the Stasi, after the Wall came down it became a stronghold for the neo-Nazis. It was considered to be a no-go area by most Berliners and nothing in the world would have induced people to move there. In the meantime the artists and the more creative souls of this world have arrived and there are more and more artists’ studios. As accommodation in Friedrichshain is becoming quite scarce these days, the Friedrichshain lifestyle has started to spill over into neighbouring Lichtenberg. To be exact, to where all the old buildings are on the border between the districts. The eastern part of Lichtenberg on the other hand is where the old communist-era blocks of prefabricated flats are, called Marzahn and Hellersdorf.
Vital and eclectic: Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain
Berlin has twelve municipal districts with about 3.4 million people living in them. Up until January 2001 it had 23 districts, but then the city administration was forced to undergo some austerity measures. Nevertheless the old districts managed to retain their individual characters. Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg is now one district, but both neighbourhoods are very different. When you cross the river Spree from East to West from Friedrichshain to Kreuzberg, you encounter a completely different part of town.
In the days of the old West and East Berlin Kreuzberg was overshadowed by the Berlin Wall; it was a working-class district on the fringe of the city with inexpensive housing. Over the last 40 years many immigrants found a home there, especially people from Turkey. It was there that the Doner Kebab was invented, Turkish pop music can be heard blaring out of car windows. The low rents also attracted artists, connoisseurs of the art of living, freaks and students. There are also concert halls, clubs, galleries, restaurants, bars, theatres and museums. Kreuzberg is one of the most vital areas of the city, because it has a robust mixture and not a mono-culture. And also because young people will always move there - young people who keep urban life rolling.
Life in Kreuzberg however is becoming more and more cramped. This is the reason why the neighbouring “overspill” district of Neukölln-Nord is now known as Kreuzkölln. It is a problem “Kiez” with high unemployment and a high school drop-out rate, nevertheless every day delightful, little shops and bars are being opened, slowly replacing the brothels and amusement arcades. The streets of the Reuter Kiez at the moment are considered to be the city’s most exciting place to go at night, whereas the scene on Karl Marx Strasse is still dominated by tanning salons, department stores and one-euro shops. No way however is Nord Neukölln like Neukölln. The further south you move, the more middle-class it becomes. Neukölln-Britz for example is a quiet residential area with detached houses. To the south-east of Neukölln is Treptow-Köpenick with its seven lakes – a district with lots of greenery and water.
The green idyll of Zehlendorf – the laid-back feel of Charlottenburg
Zehlendorf, located to the south-west and Berlin’s most affluent district, is similarly leafy and green. It has beautiful areas full of villas and mansions, lots of forest and several lakes. The inner-urban district of Wilmersdorf also has its own forest – the Grunewald. The district also had a song dedicated to it from a musical called Linie 1. The song bore the title Wir Wilmersdorfer Witwen (We Widows of Wilmersdorf) which was all about being old-fashioned, rich and boring. That was back in the 1980s, in the meantime Wilmersdorf has become a sedate residential district with a good infrastructure, similar to Schöneberg and Charlottenburg.
The people living there say life is quite laid back. Academics, people involved in culture and teachers. Charlottenburg with its splendid boulevard – the Kurfürstendamm – used to be the centre of West Berlin. Many actors live there. It is the district with the most beautiful old housing stock: incredibly high ceilings, stucco, herringbone parquet floors, palatial marble stairways with tall mirrors.
The hip district of Mitte
All those people moving to Berlin however who are under 30 and looking for the action do not opt for Charlottenburg as the place they want to live. The West is considered to be passé, the East is the place to be. Except for Kreuzberg and Nord-Neukölln, along with Tiergarten and Wedding. The old working-class districts of the East have a lot of problems, but they are attracting more and more young people because of the low rents. Districts located on the outskirts of the city centre, shabby but inner urban, are never really out and at some time or other bounce back in the popularity stakes, that is the law of the Big City.
All these districts are respected for their own special characters. There is one however – one that everybody loves to bitch about – Mitte. The talk is of Mitte-style, Mitte-boys, Mitte-clubs. The idea is that if you live there, you have to be as “hip” as possible, no matter what the cost or effort. In part this may in fact be true, but there is also a lot of envy involved. The Mitte district has indeed quite a lot to offer. It has the most important museums, the best fashion shops, the most stylish cafés. There were lots of imposing empty buildings like banks, post offices and hotels that were discovered by the party scene. Nevertheless even Mitte seems to be quietening down a little these days and the artists seem to be moving on to pastures new. Maybe this is not such a bad thing after all, as the city does not need a fixed centre. On the contrary, the fact that nothing ever stays the same, that again and again new places are being discovered – that is what makes Berlin so tremendously dynamic.
The author is deputy editor-in-chief at “tip” – Berlin’s city magazine.
Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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