Letters from Berlin


photo: Linka A. Odom

A former Soviet-workers’ quarter, Friedrichshain is today a centre of the city’s nightlife and a symbol of Berlin’s multi-ethnic, Bohemian counterculture. East German natives, families and seniors live alongside students, artists and punks. At the RAW Tempel complex, a taekwondo studio, rock-climbing facility and skateboard hall operate alongside the Urban Spree art gallery and clubs like Suicide Circus, Astra and Cassiopeia. Traffic-light posters advertise concerts and festivals as well as solidarity events for refugees who have come seeking political asylum and better economic opportunity. Perhaps more than any other district of Berlin, Friedrichshain is one defined by its inhabitants – politically active, creative, diverse and, above all, dynamic.

In 2013, I relocated to Germany from the United States to complete a novel about a novelist with writer’s block. I settled in Friedrichshain despite my distaste for people and partying because I am a masochist. If you want to know about Friedrichshain, consult neither guidebooks nor maps but the activity day to day: the main streets are a labyrinth of scaffolding and redirected traffic. Each step you take comes with the threat of dog shit; a Späti (the equivalent of a New York bodega or London off-license) sits omnipresent on every corner. Pedestrians, cyclists and motorists navigate sidewalks littered with broken bottles and spirits. Tourists take photos of graffiti instead of monuments, because the only monument here is a wall (also covered in graffiti), and its existence is mostly overlooked until someone threatens to knock it down.

I go to the farmer’s market on Saturdays to pick up local honey, fresh-baked quiche and a Laugencroissant. When I want to feel like I have been keeping up with the literary world, I browse the new releases at Shakespeare and Sons, an English-language bookshop set up by a Czech-American couple on Warschauer Straße. When I want to feel like I am in Brooklyn, I eat one of their specialty bagels topped with cream cheese.

Once a week, I stop by Bones for Dogs, which provides regionally sourced and wild meat as food for domestic animals. The operators, Holger and Christoph, met at a previous job and bonded over their dogs and shared neighborhood. When they opened their shop on Glatzer Straße in 2008, feeding domestic canines a ‘raw diet’ was still considered a fringe practice. Nowadays, Christoph says he might serve ‘the punk, the old lady or the hipster from Mitte’ all on the same afternoon. But while Friedrichshain’s hip reputation makes it possible for the local businesses to thrive (and the dog-friendly atmosphere suits misanthropes like myself), he has moved out of the area he calls his ‘heart and home’.
‘The rents are unbelievable now. It makes me sad to see what’s happened to it, but all my friends still live here. And there are a few nice bars left.’

In the two years since I arrived, the ratio of children to dogs has steadily risen, a dead giveaway that it is time to make a getaway. A scoop of homemade Eis, a habit-forming summer pleasure, gets more expensive every summer. Third-wave coffee shops like the Australian-run Silo and the quaint one-room Sixty Degrees have opened up next to the Turkish delis and electronics repair shops. Come Friday night, busloads of teenagers disembark from coaches on Warschauer Straße, attracted by iconic music venues such as the world-famous Berghain (which alone has been reason enough for some to move to the area). On weekend mornings, Boxhagener Platz is overrun with brunching nomads from all parts of the city, and in late afternoon the club kids emerge from their cocoons.

As Friedrichshain transforms from a haven for squatters and leftists to a destination for tourists, foodies and antique/vintage hunters, Christoph isn’t the only one who wonders if it is destined to become too cool for its own good and drive out the stubborn misfits and aliens whose eccentricities gave it spirit in the first place.

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This is an excerpt from Eve Danger’s essay on Friedrichshain. Read the full version and more stories of Letters from Berlin here.

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