Karl-Marx-Allee, Friedrichshain

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Catchfire Catchfire's picture
Karl-Marx-Allee, Friedrichshain

So, I'm officially on vacation, but I just got back from the neighbourhood of Friedrichshain in Berlin where I was staying with a friend. He lives very close to Frankfurter Tor, U-Bahn station and gate to what was to be the world's first socialist boulevard, proletariat residence and urban testament to the DDRs future society. East German intellectuals rushed to design the architectural and social blueprints for this neighbourhood, and the result is quite striking. The buildings are beautiful, high-density, mixed-use and generous, with allowances for public space and exercise, including the now-removed German Athletic Centre and swimming pool in the middle of the boulevard.

They were built so quickly, I was told, that they weren't structurally sound, so a few of the buildings (including the Athletic Centre) were condemned. The new buildings, built in the 1980s when the political temperament had changed, are striking in their lack of utopian belief--almost mournful for the excitement and hope for the future that seemed lost.

On an interesting and fitting note, the street physically connects with the Straße der Pariser Kommune. (babble thread about the Paris Commune) Is Karl-Marx-Allee another one of these moments (Paris Commune of 1871, May 1968, however fleeting, which signal the viability and potential of socialist politics? Or are its pre-fab buildings, poor maitenance and its other hallmarks of capitalism simply another broken promise?



Actually one of the first things they started doing after reunificaiton was erasing everything to do with DDR-times that they could get away with. like murals and mosaics. 

The other thing I noticed was the incredibly wide streets (American-style, dare I say) compared to everything in the BRD, and especially former west Berlin. 

If you get a chance I'd recommend going out to Potsdam, Aside from that, Just walking through everything between Kreuzberg, Treptower Park and Prenzlauerberg, is interesting enough - especially looking for things like buildings cut in half that mark the mostly erased path of the wall. 

Have fun. It's a great city.



And when I was in Dresden friends of mine were so apologetic about those prefab neubauten you mention (being in a Baroque city, of course). I had to explain that they weren't all that different from a lot of architecture here. And they SAY they condemned them because they were unsound. In a lot of cases that was just an excuse to erase history. THey also changed a lot of street names (Ernst Thaelman, for one)

Also, one giveaway of Nazi-era buildings (aside from the bullet holes) is that they liked to use a particular kind of marble with brown pitted holes in it - nicknamed Hitlermarble, 


Fascinating, catchfire. Have a lovely holiday. Indeed those buildings are far finer than what one thinks of as DDR architechture. Will you be travelling elsewhere in Germany?


And when I was in Dresden friends of mine were so apologetic about those prefab neubauten you mention (being in a Baroque city, of course). I had to explain that they weren't all that different from a lot of architecture here.


Visiting Caen is a somewhat strange experience; it resembles Canadian cities more than any other place in France I've seen.  The main reason is that the buildings are all new, a consequence of the 12th SS and 21st Panzer Division's determination to keep the place out of Canadian hands following D-day.

Timebandit Timebandit's picture

Enjoy your stay in Berlin!  It is one of the most compelling cities I've ever been in.  Such a sense of life and vibrancy, but with the scars acknowledged, past and present in a sort of communion.  I love it there, can't wait for an excuse to return.


@ al-Q

I had a similar experience visiting Kitimat. Going to the town centre I thought I had stepped into East Germany with all its 50s-futuristic architecture.

And I probably wouldn't recognize some parts of Berlin now. I have been there a number of times, but it has been 10 years (Potsdamer Platz was an open field where they held flea markets). And in 1992 there were squatters in every inch of the strip where the former wall ran - some of them in organized communities (a very interesting one hear Oranienburgerstr.) , but other people sleeping rough in old firetrucks, tanks, and even military jet sections that littered no-mans land.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

I'm actually back in Canada now--I was in Berlin for a week, and stayed in Friedrichshain the whole time. This was my second time in the city, but the last time I stayed in the West, like a bourgeois rube. I got back last night after 24 hours of travel Berlin-Fulda-Frankfurt-Calgary-Vancouver. Hallo!

Smith, we did make it out to Potsdam, which was lovely, of course. And I took a personal independent bike tour in an around Treptower (as well as the abandoned amusement park and the Soviet War Memorial--now that is Soviet) and through Kreuzberg, Mitte, Alexanderplatz etc. Best way to see that city--so flat!

No, lagatta, I didn't see anymore of Germany aside from my last day train ride. Of course, from my time in Berlin, I figure that city can provide a decade's worth of experience.


I've never been to Berlin, alas. I've only been to westerly cities along the Rhine and its tributaries. Something else to travel for!

Though nowadays I have great misgivings about any air travel unless it is for work or political reasons (yes, ironically conferences on fighting ... climate change!)

But if I am crossing the ocean for reasons other than personal pleasure, I will be pleased to take the train to Berlin someday. Though I also want to see a very different German-speaking capital, Vienna.


Well if you get homesick you can listen to fritz.de (former radio Brandenburg). 

I had an embarassing moment once in Potsdam when a street radio crew wanted to interview me about their federal election. I mentioned that I was visiting in Berlin, and the interviewer reminded me "this is Potsdam", and I realised that in the old days Berlin - even the east -  might as well have been on the moon, because it wasn't a place they could easily travel to. 

And the old amusement park ... a song cue:


But thanks for the pic and the story. I'm jealous now.


I'll get to Berlin and the East eventually.

Meanwhile, spend a few days later this month with friends in Freiburg, Black Forest, and Mannheim- in the Peoples Republic of Baden-Wuttenberg.


@ KenS

If you get a chance to get to Trier while you are in that neck of the woods it is worth it - beautiful Roman ruins. 

Ken Burch

Of all the street names that they changed, does anybody know if they renamed RosaLuxemburgstrasse?  That would be a particular tragedy since Rosa's ideas had nothing whatosever to do with what the DDR ended up being like.

I always figured that if Rosa actually came back to life and set up a soapbox on her street during the Cold War, the Stasi would've killed her again as soon as she opened her mouth.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

No Ken, they haven't changed it. In fact, there is still a U Bahn station named after her.

Ken Burch

Good.  Rosa needs to be remembered.  She's alive and well in Madrid and Athens these days.


I 'm not so worried about Die Rote Rosa falling out of favour. 

The odd thing is that a lot of the names that were erased after reunification weren't even communist, but rather historical figures which the East German Government promoted because they stood up to oppression. 

One example, Thomas-Muentzer-Stadt went back to being Muhlhausen after the Wessies took over.



Vansterdam Kid

This is going to sound very whiny, so just a disclaimer, I'm going back to Berlin and Germany when I get a chance because overall I loved the parts of Germany I went to. But I didn't really love Berlin. I was in Germany, including Berlin, a few weeks later than Catchfire and recently got back. Maybe I'm weird, maybe I had too much fun thus far and maybe my expectations of Berlin were far too highly peaked before going. But I liked western Germany way better. Of course I'd go again, so I'm not saying I disliked it, I just feel that Berlin is a little overrated and pretentious.

Of course the architecture is much more interesting than most things here, the history is far more compelling and the culture far more vibrant too, but I felt that at least in the Mitte area it was a little pretentious and corny. There was this weird vibe that I got that they were quite aware of how "cool" they are and played it up to a point where it wasn't really that cool anymore. I was also a little dissapointed with how new much of the city is because it really papers over the history. It made it seem far too (western) North American. I dunno, does that make any sense? There was this bizzare "artist squat" called Tachles that was clearly fake and didn't really fit into that hugely gentrified former part of east Berlin. It took going much further afield in the city to find the more organically cool stuff. Oddly in the infamous Lichtenberg district.

Also, while that was a pretty awesome picture, I felt that at least when it came to the socialist inspired architecture it was more so interesting as in a curiosity to me, than actually attractive. It's actually interesting how similar and drab it was, sort of like the terrible glass towers plaguing Vancouver. There was a lot of beautiful architecture, but most of the apartment blocks didn't fit into that category. Most of the other pre-fab buildings that were off the 'celebratory boulevards' were very ugly to say the least and all that they seem to have done aesthetically is paint them different colours. The thing that kind of bothered me about many of them, say around Alexanderplatz, is that despite the area being very pedestrian dependent it was very pedestrian unfriendly the impact of which is expanded at night.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Vansterdam Kid wrote:
There was this weird vibe that I got that they were quite aware of how "cool" they are and played it up to a point where it wasn't really that cool anymore.

VK, the original hipster. Tongue out

Btw, most of the city is new because it was bombed to hell! You're right about the gentrification of East Berlin proceeding at quite the pace, though--particularly Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg. But Mitte isn't really East Berlin, it's the tourist area, so that might explain why you thought it looked North American--certainly the parts of West Berlin I saw the couple of times I've been there could have been lifted directly from Times Square or Younge Street.

I think you're also right about the areas in East Berlin struggling with their history of punk rock, social activism and squatter culture and the new wave of gentrification. I saw a thirtysomething tattooed dude pierced in every dangling piece of skin or cartilage wearing a "Fuck Yuppies" black t-shirt. He was pushing a fancy stroller with his new baby.

But what made me fall in love with the city is how this struggle is on the very forefront of urban life, no matter who you are. I hadn't seen that in any Western city in such a way before. I'm glad you enjoyed the rest of Germany, though!


Vansterdam Kid

Hey, I left my skinny jeans and velcro high tops at home!

But yeah, I think the key to any city though is getting to know the locals. So that was the thing that was missing from my trip: a local friend. I will have to convince someone to move to Berlin so I can have them show me around.

It's very difficult to escape the cliche stuff when you have no local contacts because then you're, by default, forced into the touristy stuff. Luckly though, I discovered a pretty cool and low-key tour company, albeit on the last night of my trip, which was much better than one of its main competitors that I shall not name. The latter company and was good in other cities (i.e. Amsterdam) but not so much in Berlin. BTW, when I say tour I don't mean sitting in a bus as someone points out the obvious and ridiculous tourists wearing the ubiquitous, socks with sandals, oversized cameras hanging from their necks and stupid clothing signalling their countries of origin plastered all over it (I cringe when people do that with the Canadian flag) gawking at things.

As for the newness of the city, I totally understand why they'd want to move on from the Nazi and Communist era's, so I don't fault them for that. But as someone who has an appreciation for history it's a little disappointing when you hear that some of the most iconic stuff has been removed, or turned into parkades (i.e. the Hitler Bunker, or the Palast der Republik).


Like you I spent some time in Berlin this year, Last week of April.

It was the first time I had been back in Berlin since over twenty years. My partner was born and raised there.

I only spent a week there this time and as such can only give my impressions.

Germany as a whole seemed to be somewhat rudderless, like Canada, most seem to know that very drastic changes are needed to avoid going over 'the edge', but most seem to wait for some one else to start. Meanwhile they are reconstructing the centre of Berlin back to a romantic version of the Bismark era mixed in with modernistic stuff that probably will be outdated in twenty to thirty years. Huge infrastructure projects that are going to be next to imposible to maintain in the kind of future we are heading towards. Like the Titanic, Berlin is going at full speed, ignoring the dangers ahead.

That last week in April the weather was so terrifyingly beautifull and we visited all kinds of places where people were celebrating. Just do not ask me what.


I'm in the Peoples Republic of Baden-Wuttenberg- high up in the Schwarzwald. Its very cool here by the way. Nah nah.

I prefer the pace in the cities of the South... especially being based up here with the goats.

The cities along the line Rhine were generally as leveled as Berlin- excepting Heidelberg which the Americans wanted to live in.

Notable in rebuilding are Frieburg where everything except the cathedral was destroyed. But as in most other cities down here, they conciously decided to rebuild the same. Its a lovely city, and its difficult to tell the few surviving central city buildings from everything else.

Mannheim on the other hand made the decision to start over. The center is weird with its strict gridwork with all the blocks elegantly named- F3, F4...P1, P2... A partial ring of large lovely Renaissance buildings did survive. But Mannheims big feature is that despite being a large city it has a HUGE amount of highly accesible public green space along the Rhine... within easy walk or bike distance for everyone on a daily basis.

It was funny when I found out that a guy who spent a fair bit of time on our couch in Ontario is the very well known Green MP who speerheaded the fight against the new Stuttgart train station- the street battles around which were one decisive factor in killing the CDU government. Sounds like he was too independent in his politics to make it into Cabinet.

Vansterdam Kid

I still need someone to move to Berlin before my next trip since locals are the key. But they're not allowed to gentrify the place to hell.

The most disappointing, though not entirely surprising aspect of this story, is that this level of gentrification has existed under an SPD-Left administration. It sort of reminds me of the complete lack of will to tax speculative real estate closer to home by governments of all stripes.


The last time I stayed there I was in a building in Prenzlauerberg which, near as I can tell, wasn't owned by anyone. I assume it was ultimately under control of the city, but there was no landlord or management company that I could find. I assume it was low priority because it had a hall toilet, and none of the apartments seemed large enough to build one in conveniently.

Of course, I assume it is now condos.

and @ Ken S

I have only spent time there in SIndelfingen. But I did like the new wine and snails tour down just over the border from Basel.