As if by some fate, as I started to write this piece, about the Yin Yang city that is Berlin I was listening to a broadcast playing ‘Nightclubbing’ by Iggy Pop. A song written and recorded in West Berlin at the Meisel ‘Hansaton Studios’ behind the Berliner Mauer of the 1970s between Potsdamer Platz and Mendelssohn-Bartholdy-Park.
It is true that to an extent, ‘Wild West Berlin’ was a magnet for artists, outsiders and people looking for work in an underpopulated exclave section of the former Prussian and German capital. It has another side though, its people. Tough, short,sharp and at first contact, unfriendly. The tale of two cities began a long time ago. When the area was a swamp flatland glacial plain and the settlements of Berlin to the north and Colln to the south traded across the river Spree somewhere around what is now Spittelmarkt or Fischerinsel.
The two cities came later but two settlements came together and became the unlikely hub of the Prussian Empire. Other German cities such as Trier in the West had Roman Heritage. Konstanz in the south has reed roundhouses of early origin but Berlin was a latecomer and is still evolving today. Surrounded by the sparsely populated rural state of Brandenburg, the Capital of Germany still resembles how it was in 1920, an aglommeration of smaller towns,villages and districts amongst rivers, woodland, canals and sand.
This Village/City characteristic is what makes it. Things are slower. If you respond to a harsh comment eloquently, and have time, it is often followed by a long conversation. In the 100 years since the Weimar Republic made Berlin the worlds third Metropolis, a lot of things have happened and that leaves little time for frippery. My landladys’ father built the block I live in in 1904. Two wars and then a wall. She moved West and then had the property returned from DDR state ownership in the 1990s. She is still visiting as some of her grandchildren live here. That is the village feel that is repeated all over the city in each individual ‘kiez’ or neighbourhood.
The two cities are not really east and west or old and new, they are ‘How its is perceived’ and ‘How it is’. Weekend party crowds lining up in X-Hain, MTB riders in Grunewald, swimmers in Muggelsee or Ping Pong players in Helmholzplatz. Freedom is valued, space is easy to find and the transit system is extensive (until the West ditched the tram in the 1960’s to make way for Das Auto!) Take a tram from Alexanderplatz to the end of the line and through the ‘Plattenbau’ socialist housing blocks you will see a lot of green space and a lot of evidence of the old ‘dorfs’ village centres. Stone chruches, paddocks, cobbled field roads and windmills. Go west and you can ride the S-Bahn uninturruped through pine forest for 20 minutes and arrive at one of Europes largest inland freshwater beaches.
The otherside, the nightside, made notorious in the 1920s hedonistic years of the Weimar, the end of hundreds of years of Sovereign rule, UFA film studios, Potsdamer Platz, Marlene Dietrich, swing and tolerance, has remained. Despite extreme political dictatorships, division and isolation, Berlin has taken it all on the chin.
It’s tough, it’s not rich, it’s in the countryside full of districts like Schmargendorf, Hellersdorf, Wilmersdorf and Henigsdorf. It’s North Eastern Germany,Prussia. A softer ‘g’ as in ‘alles jut’. It’s the City of Berlin, but also the city of villages.