A Berlin Train Journey
Many of these bridges take the trains through narrow channels between the angular and naked buildings of Berlin: gigantic grey and brown colossi with occasional stripes of colours on their skins, with neatly arranged rows of windows.
The trains move quite close to the buildings that you can see into the windows of apartment and office buildings. Sometimes, there are decorations on the rows of windows. Sometimes, the messages are for the benefit of train passengers. A simple ‘Hello’ or the more expressive ‘New Shit has come to light”.
Then, spat out of these narrow open-air tunnels in high speed, the trains allow their passengers a view of the wide, flat, expanses of Berlin. You don’t have to go up too high to see a lot in Berlin -this city is as flat as a roadkill.
Here, up on the bridges for the trains, you can see the old as well as the new parts of Berlin. Some of the old ones, however, are ghosts of what they were. Newer ones remain a ghost of what they could have been. And some others are left as ruins, footnotes, or bronze plaques. Three major wars as well as many ‘redevelopment’ projects by new regimes have created this landscape that seems to always shimmer in that wavering lights between the past and the future.And of course, there was The Wall, which broke the core that had hitherto held Berlin for hundreds of years. Mitte (‘Middle’) became not ‘the middle’ anymore. East Berlin developed its own centre, and West Berlin developed its own. But it is always the new fringes that are more exciting when there are new centres. Kreuzberg, my last stop every night (or morning) when I travel home from another day of Berlin adventures, was one of these new fringes when Berlin was divided into two.
Kreuzberg was an industrial complex near the Mitte area. It was a bustling complex before the second World War -there were buildings and facilities for small businesses.
Then, the whole place was utterly destroyed in air raids. In February 3rd, 1945, more than a thousand American B-17 bombers roared in the skies over Kreuzberg and bombed and burned the place to pieces. The fire engulfed Kreuzberg and the area around it for more than four days, killing more than 3 thousand people.
After the WWII, cheap apartments were built over the ruins. This created an availability of housings as well as jobs in the area, and provided the incentives for immigrants, mainly from Turkey, to populate the area. Then, the wall was erected. Kreuzberg was transformed into a new fringe for West Berlin, and a new magnet for artists.But it was not only the political edge, or the proximity to the wall, that attracted the artists. There were also cheap rents, multicultural mojo, and fantastic kebabs. These ingredients combined for struggling artists all around the world to answer to the call of Berlin and did interesting things. There was the Peace Bird by the Mutoid Waste Company, there was punk, there was David Bowie, there was hip-hop, and there was more kebab, and there was even more kebab and punk and graffiti and a famous trapeze artist who is the daughter of an eccentric 17th Earl of Pembroke.
Then, the wall fell in 1989, and Kreuzberg rediscovered itself as the centre of Berlin and the neighbour of re-glitzy-fied Mitte. Kreuzberg lost its new-fringe status and became an old-new-old-centre. And now, in 2011, every second person in Kreuzberg is contributing to the gentrification processes by passionately complaining about gentrification.
In the trains, there are advertisements for language and business schools, promising to open the gate to the new worlds. Satellite dishes, like big plastic sunflowers following the suns of progress, jut out from the apartment windows. The trains run under big shopping malls with international brands. Do you like what’s happening to your city, I asked a Berliner. “Of course not,” he said matter-of-factly. But the best cities, we decided after a discussion early morning in a pub in Neukolln, are those cities that you can love and hate at the same time.Görlitzer Station, located in Kreuzberg, is my last stop on the U-1 line. It is about five minutes walk from there to my apartment, which overlooks over the canal. Along the canal on one side, there is a Michelin restaurant. On the other side, the Turkish Market (where I bought a T-Shirt from a guy from New York City), and the Chinese embassy.
Below the station, there are Currywurst, Kebab, and roast chicken joints (a journey through train stations in Berlin provides the untrained with interesting olfactory challenges).
And a few blocks walk along the internet cafes, phone shops, and more kebabs, across the old church, there is one of those ghosts of Berlin: a shed from the original Görlitzer Station, which was used by more than 1 million people in 1880. It was bombed in 1945, left to decay after the development of a new electric train system, became an annoying spot due to the geopolitical tensions of the Cold War, then the destruction was finally completed during the 1970s when the local government wanted to improve the image of the city.
But the shed of the old station remains, a whiff away from the noises of machines and smokes that used to fill its, now empty and decaying, space in its good old days.