One of the first things that struck me about Berlin is the way the city bears its wounds. Unlike, say, Dresden, which reacted to the mass destruction it suffered in WWII by rebuilding much of its Altstadt as an exact replica of its pre-war self, Berlin shows its scabs and scars, and does so with resilience, stoicism, and attitude. Yes, Berlin has many lovely green spaces and waterways and some frilly historic architecture, but compared to many European counterparts (Paris, Prague and the like), Berlin is not always beautiful. But what I liked when I was first getting to know the city was the feeling that Berlin didn’t really care to be beautiful. Peeling paint, pocked façades, crumbling industrial ruins, rusting fences, overgrown empty lots, graffitied walls, winter air perfumed with the oily scent of coal, thanks to the 80,000-100,000 apartments in the city that still use Ofenheizung… A lot of this came to be how I defined what made Berlin feel like Berlin.
But, of course, as some dead white guy once said: The only constant in life is change. And Berlin is changing. Call it gentrification, call it improvement, or call it inevitable, many of Berlin’s architectural scabs and scars have been, are being, or will soon be spiffed up, smoothed over, and painted. I can’t even count how many of the old, scruffy, characterful Altbau buildings I once loved have been renovated in recent years–emerging from the scaffolding as white, sanitized, unrecognizable versions of their former selves.
And so it is with a mix of curiosity, anticipation, and dread that I’ve been waiting and watching the last unrenovated building on Hermannplatz. I’ve lived in Neukölln for about three years now, and have watched one building after another get the Sanierung-treatment, but this one has held steady. The façade is crumbling, and the two businesses that once occupied the storefronts, a menswear shop and a pharmacy, have moved out. (The latter only closed within the last year or so.) Almost all of the apartments are evidently empty. I often peer up at the windows to see if I can spy any signs of life inside. Yellowing curtains hang in one of the first-floor windows but from what I can tell, only one apartment on the top floor is still occupied. There are plants on its balcony, sometimes a window or two are open, and at night, there are sometimes lights on. I imagine how it must feel to be the only tenant in a decaying, dusty building.
Before moving to Neukölln, I lived in Friedrichshain for about two years in an apartment with which I had a passionate love-hate relationship. Love for its big windows, incredible light, wooden floors, and many endearing quirks; hate for its lack of heating (hello, Ofenheizung). This was the kind of apartment that was once the stuff of Berlin legends. The guy I was subletting from was locked into an old, cheap lease. The property owner had managed to buy out every tenant in the building, paying them to move out so he could renovate and hike the rent, except for the guy I was subletting from, and the neighbour next to me. That meant that every apartment in the building had been renovated with central heating, insulated windows, luxury bathrooms, and the like, except for mine and my neighbour’s.
The quirkiest quirk of my apartment was not the toilet in the kitchen pantry. No, that would be the bathtub in a drawer, an inventive solution to these old-school apartments’ lack of a place to shower. The tub drained via an electric pump activated by flipping a switch on the wall. A hand-held showerhead was attached to the faucet of the kitchen sink. After two years of carrying coal up five flights of stairs and bathing next to my breakfast dishes, I eventually moved out when the attic above me was bought by an expat couple who intended to convert the whole space into a fancy loft. The apartment across the hall, and those below me, were already up for sale on Immobilien Scout for unbelievable prices.
It used to be not that uncommon to come across such old-school, unrenovated apartments. A good friend of mine lived for years in a Schöneberg Wohnung without a shower, staying clean with nothing more than a sink and a washcloth. Someone else I knew had hung a bathtub–like a swing!–from the ceiling of one of the rooms in his Wedding apartment, using gravity to solve the problem of drainage. But in the brave new sanitized world of contemporary Berlin, quirks like this will slowly be renovated out of existence.
And so I watch and wait to see when the last unrenovated building on Hermannplatz will have its turn. Maybe when that one, final, tenacious tenant dies, or gives up their stubborn last stand. Perhaps the apartments will get the Luxus treatment and go on the market for some exorbitant price, or maybe the whole building will get knocked down and turned into some kind of budget hotel à la Rosenthaler Platz. The newspaper journalist in me is tempted to look up the land use records, track down the owner, sniff out the development plans. But I think I prefer not to know. Because that’s how change works–you can’t prepare for it; it just happens. And you learn to move on.