Having checked out the northern bit of the borough of Neukölln in the last post, I thought it would be interesting to have a nose around the southern end.
While there are a handful of different neighbourhoods in the south, I was particularly keen to explore one that used to sit right on the border with former East Berlin. My interest was piqued by Tim M, a blog follower, who said of south Neukölln: “These massive high-rise social housing estates look weird now because before they were jammed right up against the Berlin Wall; now it’s long gone and they are right next to meadows.”
I loved the image and went in search.
Couldn’t find them. Found a meadow. Found where the Wall once was. Found a distant horizon with large buildings on it. But could not find what Tim had described.
On our marathon walks, however, we did come across an interesting area in south Neukölln called Gropiusstadt, and in particular, a building called Gropiushaus.
Part 1: Gropiushaus – The building
Towering apartment blocks have always fascinated me. I may not want to live in one but their massive bulk is somehow compelling as is the thought of all that humanity living in such close quarters.
When said massive bulk is designed in a semi-circular shape with some cool retro-modernist features, well, who can resist?
Gropiushaus is just one of many buildings designed by Bauhaus star, Walter Gropius, in the area called Gropiusstadt. Apparently Gropius wanted the buildings to be just five stories high but when the Berlin Wall shot up, they couldn’t be as spread out as he wanted – instead they had to be made much higher.
So a whole load of towering blocks ended up being built between 1962-1975 right on the border with East Germany.
Apparently Gropius aimed to make a living area that was “orderly and calming through unity”. Sadly, his dream didn’t come true – pretty much ever since Gropiusstadt was born, it’s been known as a problem area.
Today, 40,000 people live in Gropiusstadt.
Some of whom live here..
Having snapped it from the outside, I wanted to get inside this towering edifice to explore. Normally at this point on similar excursions I face two obstacles – a locked security door and Coco, who stands rooted to the spot, refusing to “break in”. But this time she led the charge, waiting for someone to open the door and then slipping inside just as it was about to close.
We hopped in the tiny elevator – really, it was two people max. – and shot up to the top. The lift opened and there it was – blandness. Clean, slightly curved blandness. But then star Coco spied two doors – out she flew – it was the small, semi-circular balconies we’d seen from below. Hooray for Coco!
It was the first time I’d seen Berlin from any sort of height and it felt so good to see out far and wide.
As I was busy snapping, Coco was continuing her stellar performance as chief explorer of the day – she discovered the other door on the balcony led to the stairwell. I had been wondering where all the graffiti and ‘self-expression’ was in south Neukölln…
Although Gropiushaus doesn’t sit right on the former border, you don’t have to walk far before you hit the green stuff that Tim had talked about.
Once we’d found the green fields, I was keen to see if I could find some of those buildings – the ones that used to be jammed up against the Wall and were now sitting next to nothingness.
Now, it’s a little confusing but as far as I understand it, there was never just one Berlin Wall. There were two – with the bit in the middle called the ‘death strip’. So I assume that the green fields you can see in the image below were this so-called ‘death strip’. See the tiny buildings on the horizon? I thought maybe they were the elusive buildings.
We were all set to make the trek over to them when the heavens opened – it was one too many rain storms for a week so we high-tailed it back to the nearest U-bahn station.
The buildings remain a mystery.
Part 2: Gropiushaus – The People
Actually, not so many people, just a handful really. Of kids. (I don’t know why given that Berlin has a population of over 3.5 million but I can never seem to find many people – except at the markets. Are they all on summer holidays maybe? It’s just weird.)
It was our second visit to Gropiushaus and I wanted to meet some of its residents. Coco and I had been loitering outside one of the front doors for some time when suddenly this gaggle of six kids piled outside, slurping giant cups of noodles.
There were three brothers from a Lebanese background and one sister and her two brothers from Serbia. The very sweet Gina isn’t in any of the photos except for the first one because she was too busy helping me corral the boys – they were full of beans as well as protestations of love for Coco. After weeks of hanging out in hip-cool Berlin it was so refreshing to be amongst mischief and high spirits again. (Not that they show it in the images below – they all went quite serious when I pointed the camera at them.)
It would have been good to have talked to the kids about their lives in south Neukölln but aside from Gina, they didn’t speak much English – and I speak zero German.
We did, however, run into a man living in an apartment block next door to Gropiushaus who spoke pretty good English. He was a happy, chatty sort of fella, taking the opportunity to walk his dog in between downpours. When I asked him what life was like in the area he explained that his building was fine because it was filled with ethnic Germans, but that Gropiushaus, peppered as it was with “Turks and Arabs who make a lot of noise” wasn’t so great.
How will it all end I wonder.
Part 3: A tale of two Neuköllns
North and south Neukölln face similar challenges of cultural integration, poverty and unemployment.
But at first glance, they appear to be worlds apart. The north, filled with grungy graffitied low-rise buildings and slowly being hip-ified, the south, a more suburban environment with massive towers that are severe and ‘brutalist’ but graffiti-less (aside from the stairwells) – and not a hipster nor traveller with roller-suitcase in sight.
North Neukölln on the left, south Neukölln on the right…
And just to keep you on your toes – south Neukölln on the left, north Neukölln on the right…
Part 3: Some interesting types
A big fan of the different fonts and lettering on the U-bahn stations, one day I stopped at 11 of the stations between north and south Neukölln to snap their delightfulness. Aside from the different combinations of tile colour and fonts, I particularly like the signs that contain an umlaut – two dots essentially that sit above the vowels a, o and u. The o always looks to me like a face, a very surprised face.
These are my favourite three…
Gropiushaus is just one small part of Gropiusstadt of course – and Gropiusstadt, just one small part of the southern tip of the borough of Neukölln. So for all I know it might not be representative at all. But if it is, south Neukölln would appear to be an uncomfortable mix of peoples with vastly different cultures living in a strange environment of towering apartment blocks.
Yet that’s not necessarily the thing I’ll remember about the place. What will stay with me are those vivacious kids, slurping their noodles, making eyes at Coco, racing around – living in the moment in other words, and for them, the moment is äökäy.
On the ‘home front’
Many thanks to all those who left some lovely, encouraging comments after the last post. I soaked them up like blotting paper and felt instantly brighter. Helped along by Rachel, a blog follower living in Berlin who had her husband take Coco off my hands for a few hours to play with their kids so Coco could have some kid-time and I, some kid-free adult time hanging out with her. It worked a treat. Danke Rachel!
This suburb has been brought to you by Jane Howard
Summer is back so barring a sudden return of the rains I’ll see you next Monday.