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Berlin – Neighborhoods

If you knew Berlin during the Cold War you will amazed at the way traffic now zips between sectors that once were rigidly segregated by border guards. Today, your taxi will blithely drive beneath the Brandenburg Gate or along the Friedrichstrasse, without regard to barriers that once used to be virtually impenetrable.

Western Zone

Despite being renamed by Berlin wits as Klamottenburg (Ragsville) after the bombings of World War II, this is still the wealthiest and most densely commercialized district of western Berlin. Its centerpiece is Charlottenburg Palace. One of the most interesting subdivisions of Charlottenburg is the neighborhood around Savignyplatz, a tree-lined square a short walk north of the western zone’s most visible boulevard, Kurfürstendamm. Lining its edges and the streets nearby are a profusion of bars, shops, and restaurants, an engaging aura of permissiveness, and an awareness that this is the bastion of the city’s prosperous bourgeoisie.

Now the university district, Dahlem was originally established as an independent village to the southwest of Berlin’s center.

In the 1950s and 1960s, during the early stages of the Cold War, the Ku’damm emerged as a rough-and-tumble boomtown, bristling with boxy-looking new construction and permeated with a maverick sense of parvenu novelty. Since reunification, when vast neighborhoods within Mitte opened for real estate speculation and instant gentrification, the Ku’damm has reinvented itself as a bastion of capitalistic and corporate conservatism, with a distinct sense of old and established money that’s waiting for public perceptions to grow bored with the novelties that have been associated with the opening of the former East Berlin. The poignancies of the Weimar Republic and the Cold War are not lost, however, even upon the corporate sponsors of the big-money real estate ventures that line the Ku’damm. If you look at the Hochhaus entrance of the Europa Center, on the Tauentzienstrasse side, whose glossy chrome-trimmed interior decor may remind you of an airport waiting lounge, you’ll find a plaque honoring the long-ago site of the private home of Weimar statesman Gustav Stresemann, which used to stand at 12A Tauentzienstrasse. Immediately adjacent to that plaque is an artfully graffitied chunk of the former Berlin Wall, encased in Plexiglas like an irreplaceable work of ancient archaeology. It is dedicated to the people who lost their lives trying to escape over the Wall during the peak of the Cold War.

Many newcomers are surprised by the sheer sprawl of Grunewald’s 49 sq. km (19 sq. miles) of verdant forest. The area serves as a green lung for the urbanites of Berlin. It lies southwest of the city center.

This neighborhood, northwest of Tiergarten park, contains a series of residential buildings designed by different architects (including Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Alvar Aalto).

Originally built during the 19th century to house the workers of a rapidly industrializing Prussia, this has traditionally been the poorest and most overcrowded of Berlin’s districts. Today, at least 35% of its population is composed of guest workers from Turkey, Greece, and the former Yugoslavia. Prior to the city’s reunification, the district evolved into the headquarters for the city’s artistic counterculture. Since reunification, however, the fast-changing neighborhoods within Mitte, especially Hackesche Höfe have offered stiff competition.

Like Kreuzberg, it was originally an independent suburb of workers’ housing, but after the war it was rebuilt as a solidly middle-class neighborhood that also happens to include the densest concentration of gay bars and clubs (between Nollendorfplatz and Victoria-Luise-Platz).

Set near the junction of the Spree and Havel rivers, about 10km (6 miles) northwest of the city center, Spandau boasts a history of medieval grandeur. Though it merged with Berlin in 1920, its Altstadt (old city) is still intact. The legendary Spandau prison was demolished in the early 1990s.

Tiergarten, which means “Animal Garden”, refers to both a massive urban park and, to the park’s north, a residential district. The park was originally intended as a backdrop to the grand avenues laid out by the German kaisers. The neighborhood contains the Brandenburg Gate, the German Reichstag (Parliament), the Berlin Zoo, and some of the city’s grandest museums.

Eastern Zone

Mitte, the Center, was closed to capitalist investment for nearly 50 years; this monumental district in the heart of Berlin is the one that’s on every speculator’s mind these days. It was originally conceived as the architectural centerpiece by the Prussian kaisers. Its fortunes declined dramatically as the Communist regime infused it with starkly angular monuments and architecturally banal buildings. Although some of Mitte’s grand structures were destroyed by wartime bombings, unification has exposed its remaining artistic and architectural treasures. The district’s most famous boulevard is Unter den Linden. Famous squares within the district include Pariser Platz (the monumental square adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate), Potsdamer Platz , and Alexanderplatz .

The former East German regime threw up lots of rather ugly modern buildings and defined Alexanderplatz as the centerpiece of its government. Today, the large and sterile-looking square is dominated by the tallest structure in Berlin, the Sputnik-inspired TV tower.

Hackesche Höfe
A warren of brick-sided factories during the 19th century, it’s evolving into one of the city’s most visible counterculture strongholds. Part of this derives from the fact that it wasn’t too badly mangled by the former East German regime. Another factor in its renaissance involves a thirst by cutting-edge, often youthful Berliners to recolonize what used to be the heart of the GDR. You’ll get a sense of rising real-estate values and an aura that combines aspects of Paris’s Latin Quarter and New York’s Greenwich Village.

Near the Alexanderplatz, the Nikolaiviertel is the most perfectly restored medieval neighborhood in Berlin, a triumph of the restoration skills of the former East German regime.

Potsdamer Platz
Before World War II, this was the thriving heart of Berlin. Blasted into rubble by wartime bombings, it was bulldozed into a “no man’s land” when the Wall went up on its western edge. After reunification, it was transformed into the biggest building site in Europe, out of which emerged a glittering, hypermodern square dominated by such corporate giants as Daimler-Chrysler. It’s often cited as a symbol of the corporate culture of a reunited Germany.

This former working-class neighborhood northeast of Berlin Mitte morphed into the center of creativity in the 1990’s; while it has mellowed out a bit, it is still one of Berlin’s hottest quarters and boasts a thriving nightlife, particularly along and around Kollwitzplatz and Kastanienallee. Trendy clothing boutiques and art galleries share sidewalks with hip restaurants and bars, and the area has a fairly prominent gay and lesbian scene. In clement weather, people-watching with a pilsner at one of Prenzlauerberg’s many sidewalk cafes and restaurants is an entertaining way to spend an afternoon, and it won’t take long to comprehend why this is one of the most popular (and expensive) places for 20- and 30-somethings to live in Berlin.


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