As part of our investigation of Eastern Europe 30 years after the fall of communism, Warrior News explored what has become of the heart of East Berlin.
by Abaigeal Lorge
Friedrichshain is today a town of “punk and alternative people,” according to the owner of a vinyl store located on one of its small streets. Friedrichshain is a district of the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg borough in Berlin, Germany. A neighborhood formerly part of East Berlin, now a small centre littered with unique businesses ranging from thrift shops and record stores to mini art galleries, coffee shops, bars, and restaurants. Being that this area is immersed with creativity, it can be hard to imagine how dark and quiet it once was, lying on the Eastern side of Berlin.
In 1961, the Berlin wall, a boundary between the US and Soviet occupation sectors, split up the Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg district, with Friedrichshain in the east and Kreuzberg in the west.
Friedrichshain was quite the opposite of what it now looks to be. According to Jörg-Hendricks Sohst, a German historian, there were “whole ghost towns in the Eastern suburbs where quite nobody lived or worked.” When you would look from above the wall, from the West to the East, everything was dark: no lights, small streets, really just nothing. As put by Claudia, owner of a small Friedrichshain boutique This City Rocks, “you can not imagine.”
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1991, there were numerous squats in Friedrichshain, with many around Rigaer Straße, Mainzer Straße and Scharnweber Straße. The availability of space, cheap rent, and accommodation attracted people from all over Germany– ‘so many empty houses so everyone came down’, affirmed the owner of one of the many record stores. Foreigners moved in to set up private businesses, open restaurants and bars, and express their creativity at the expensive of little or nothing.
The owner of one of the vinyl stores recalls the violent clashes and “fightings with the police” caused by this surplus of apartments as squatters were forcefully expelled from homes on Mainzer Straße. Sohst, the German historian, commented that this surplus was so huge, “We had in Berlin more empty apartments than inhabitants.”
In the following 30 years, East Berlin would become “the largest construction place in the world after Shanghai” according to Sohst. Special taxes were set, reducing the value of real estate, and laws were enforced to incentivise the reconstruction and modernisation of the East. Westerners and foreigners began to invest in the area at this very opportunity.
A few decades later, every wall is a creative masterpiece, every shop has a story to tell, and every corner holds to it a punk, vintage-like vibe. And though, as observed by a record-store owner, “rents went up and spirits went down”, art and self-expression can be encountered and spotted all over the place. In Friedrichshain, as the owner of Soul and Style remarks, “There’s something for everyone.”
With reporting by Ola Pietruszkiewicz, Lia Lipinski, Zuzanna Kaczmarek, Natalia Sosna, Gyeong Eun You, Fiona Haze, and Zofia Ciołek