The Cheap Side of the City Centre

The Cheap Side of the City Centre

Prenzlauer Berg is the mythical location of the GDR underground movement of the eighties. Not far from here, in the old centre of the city, the fall of the Wall was to bring about new life. The area between Alexanderplatz and Friedrichstrasse was a “very old piece of Berlin and had for a very long time been the poor side of the city, the side with the cemeteries and nursing homes, the markets, pubs and brothels. Here was the city centre, its cheap side,” wrote Irina Liebmann in her volume of photographs, „Stille Mitte von Berlin“ (Silent Centre of Berlin). The East German author wandered the streets in the eighties asking old people what had once been here. “Here everything was like before, at least as I imagine ‘before’ to be. It smelt like adventure and disorganisation,” noted the author. Liebmann followed the same impulse as Siedler and the West Berlin squatters. The traces of the past were dear to her, since they had the power to evoke another, more alive world.

“The occupants of the eighties hardly knew anything about the people who lived here before them, nothing about the empty bombed areas in the centre of Berlin, the factory buildings in the courtyards. The enormous houses seemingly belonged to nobody, but the mosaic in the corridors contained letters and names, on firewalls there were telephone numbers of businesses that had disappeared and in the ornamentation of entrance gates and stairwells one could even see the Star of David now and then. What did all this mean?”

On these streets, life was rampant at one time. Prostitutes of all ages populated Mulack Street; Rosenthaler Street was lined with shops. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine the goings-on on these streets in 1980 before the war.

“The whole thing was like a break, an intermission brought on by history – an idyll of being switched off,” writes Liebmann. What was perceived as an opportunity in the West, was in the East seen as a compulsion to miss out on one’s own life: to be “switched off”. Then, the people who were switched off caused the fall of the Wall.

On August Street, in the middle of the run-down quarter that Liebmann had wandered through ten years ago, the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art opened in a former margarine factory. At once it became one of the most important destinations for presenting contemporary art in the city. The Berlin Biennale also began here and has become the city’s most important art event. On Oranienburger Street, not far from the splendid synagogue restored during the GDR time, the ruins of a department store were converted into Kunsthaus Tacheles (Art House Tacheles).by the occupants of the building in 1990. Within a few weeks, the Ständige Vertretung (Permanent Representation) was established in the basement of Tacheles as one of the first clubs in Mitte. A narrow staircase went down to the widely ramified, low rooms. Only a few coloured lights, video art produced specially for the room and lastly a fine laser beam that crossed the entire club warmed the austere ambience created by its bare walls.

On Thursdays, a French artist who lived in Tacheles, played house music. Every Saturday two young men from Berlin worked as DJs playing ragamuffin and hip hop. Twenty years later hardly anyone can remember the Ständige Vertretung. Tacheles, on the other hand, has almost become a cliché of reunified Berlin. Located in the centre of the city, it is also a seismograph of urban development. Should it have to give way to a shopping mall one day, this will possibly be the end of Berlin’s interim period.