West Berlin Wrong Side of the Tracks

In the quarter century since the Berlin Wall fell, the eastern half of Germany’s capital has changed radically but not the west, as one street, Ackerstrasse, shows.
Ackerstrasse in central Berlin, where the Berlin Wall once stood.

Ackerstrasse, a residential street in central Berlin connecting Linienstrasse to Scheringstrasse, was once divided by the Berlin Wall.

It still has two very different ends. The eastern side of Ackerstrasse, long neglected under communist rule, has blossomed since the fall of the Wall, while the western side is stuck in a kind of Cold War time warp, a sleepy lane in the gritty working-class Wedding district.

This is where the free world came to an end, where the French sector abutted the Soviet-controlled zone of Berlin. Apparently, no one here in former West Berlin ever thought the wall might collapse – and they haven’t been particularly moved by its absence over the past 25 years, either.

Here, in Wedding, everpresent alcoholics loiter next to discount supermarkets, while on the other side in Mitte, latte-drinking mommies chat in front of stylish cafes.

The eastern half of Ackerstrasse, with its gloriously renovated pre-war buildings, has become unrecognizable since that fateful day in November 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. Many denizens of eastern Ackerstrasse, living in the now fashionable district of Mitte, are blissfully unaware of the poorer, scruffier half on the other end of the street.

The corner of Bernauer Strasse and Ackerstrasse was once ground zero in the Cold War. It was the point where East German communists began building the Berlin Wall in August 1961. Today, the intersection is a tourist hotspot.

Take a few steps into the old western part of Ackerstrasse, and you’ll suddenly feel as if you’re in a provincial German suburb.

Groups of school children jockey for space with a bike tour in front of a former guard tower and one of the last standing segments of the Wall. It’s one of the few places in the German capital offering an inkling of what the death strip was actually like.

An enterprising tour guide might offer a trip by exploring the unknown depths of Ackerstrasse. Not towards the east towards Linienstrasse, past Italian delicatessens, whisky shops and hip cafes, but rather into the heart of old West Berlin towards Scheringstrasse.

Despite the crush of the impending 25th anniversary, Professor Axel Klausmeier, director of the Berlin Wall Memorial documentation center, eagerly agreed to meet someone interested in the western part of Ackerstrasse.

“That is pure West Berlin,” said the trained art and architecture historian, pointing to the little grass median still blocking car traffic from crossing Bernauer Strasse to the eastern part of Ackerstrasse. “They assumed this part of the street would never be used again.” It was after all right here that the Wall stood and West Berlin ended.

He also pointed out the Wall’s legacy in the jarring shift in architecture along the street: Grand pre-war houses in what was once East Berlin to post-war concrete blocks in West Berlin. “It’s extremely interesting how the two sides of the city don’t mesh historically building-wise,” Mr. Klausmeier said.

Take a few steps into the western Ackerstrasse, and you’ll suddenly feel as if you’re in a provincial German suburb. This could be a Gelsenkirchen, Essen,  Braunschweig or any other city in western Germany. There’s slow traffic and lots of greenery. The architecture here is textbook social housing from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. This is where the working class, elderly and welfare recipients live in concrete apartments with small windows where the pain is peeling off the walls.

But when these multi-level apartment blocks were built they were intended as a symbol for a modern West Germany. They were meant to demonstrate that West Berlin, encircled by the communists, was not being given up. Yet today, coming from the east’s beautifully renovated pre-war apartments, it’s shocking to see how badly they’ve aged.

The Brunnen Quarter – the streets around the western end of Ackerstrasse – was once the biggest reconstruction area in West Berlin after the war. Crumbling buildings from the 1890s were torn down for what now looks a bit like Brazil’s planned urban utopia Brasilia combined with the dreariest parts of post-war West Germany. There’s a reason why the north-western end of Ackerstrasse long had a reputation as the poorest and roughest street in the gritty district of Wedding.

Built upon order of Frederick the Great in the middle of the 18th century, Ackerstrasse was always a poor street. At first it was home to provincial masons and carpenters helping the ambitious Prussian king expand Berlin, later it was characterized by overpopulation and social hardship. Little ambition has been seen here since the fall of the Wall.

 

You know, there are just too many fancy hipsters on the other side of Bernauer Strasse for my taste. Lutz, A janitor from the western side of Ackerstreet

Not far from a group of housewives enjoying a decidedly unhip cup of coffee, a couple of men are drinking beer and schnapps. Not homeless men or vagrants, the two are more like the sort of professional alcoholics you see in neighborhoods like this. Drinking is their day job.

“We’re responsible for security around here,” one said, grinning like a gremlin.

Frau Runtzel, the four-decade proprietor of an electronics shop offering affordable used TVs, said not much had changed in the street since the Wall fell 25 years ago – which was a decidedly good thing. She still had fond memories of when her husband used to shoot fireworks over the Wall into the communist east on New Year’s Eve. “Ah, it was still nice back then,” she said, reminiscing about the sense of security the Iron Curtain on her doorstep provided. “So nice and quiet, even quieter than now.”

Not that hordes of latte-drinking denizens from Mitte, the district containing the other half of Ackerstrasse, threaten to disturb Frau Runtzel’s peace and quiet. “Most of them don’t even known the street continues on the other side of Bernauer Strasse,” she said. Her employee, a man born and raised in the street, piped up: “We’re West Berliners. We’re not Mitte. We’re something completely different.”

And disinterest in the “other” Ackerstrasse clearly cuts both ways even so long after Germany was ostensibly reunified.

In front of the scruffy Drop Inn pub, Lutz, a janitor who has lived in this West Berlin neighborhood since he was eight years old, is quick to dismiss the renovated part of Ackerstrasse in the east. “You know, there are just too many fancy hipsters on the other side of Bernauer Strasse for my taste,” he said with a wave of his hand.

Around midnight, across from the Berlin Wall memorial on Bernauer Strasse, a BMW with a Munich license plate backed into the red-and-white post still diving Ackerstrasse. The car then turned and headed towards the renovated east. The post is still standing.

 

This is an adaptation of a story first appearing in Die Zeit by Handelsblatt Global Edition editor Marc Young. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]