“So, where exactly is the centre of Berlin,” I looked at a local friend and asked.
“Well, there isn’t one really,” came the reply after a rather lengthy pause.
The fall of the Berlin Wall brought 45 years of separation to an end. Berlin, the capital of the old Prussian state and the German Empire, the centre from which two World Wars were launched, was once again whole. The city now had to unify itself back into one coherent organisation.
Half a century of division is almost the full adult life of a whole generation of people and the maturing years of two whole generations. Even if the Berliners had the same heritage, this period of separation was enough to cause fundamental differences in systems, norms, ideas and practices. Something that Berlin and Germany, despite the rapid growth of former east Germany, is still coping with today.
Many of these differences simmer under the surface and do not appear clearly to the traveller, but Berlin has clear visible giveaway that shows the differences in physical form – the three city centres of Berlin.
Most cities have one city centre, not Berlin. There are three here, one that represents the past and the future, and two others that serve as a reminder to Berlin’s recent past.
Potsdamer Platz, once again at Berlin’s Centre
Potsdamer Platz was the heart of trade in Berlin going back to 1685, while officially a square, the platz was really a junction in between a collection of roads. A long history of slow evolution made this place the centre of Berlin commerce and trade and a booming town by the 1920s. It was there there that grande shopping arcades such as the Columbushaus (the counterpart to the French upscale department stall Les Galeries Lafayette) were located, although the upscale mall was born into Berlin at the brink of financial ruin and just prior to the Nazi takeover so things never went far with its success.
The rise of Hitler may have been the hark of dark omens but the immediate future of Postsdamer Platz seemed bright. The Nazi’s had global domination plans and Berlin was to be at the centre, it was planned to be the World Capital of Germania, or Welthauptstadt Germania those ambitions dictated a glorious centre, and Potsdamer Platz would then have been part of the centre of the world in that plan. Little was ever done in that period though and the plans for Potsdamer Platz were never released. The square was however, like the rest of Berlin, bombed to rubble by the end of the war.
It went absolutely quiet and the Berlin Wall went right through it – the square was part of the death strip. But just as the wall fell, so too did the quiet on Potsdamer Platz get replaced with noise. One of the first sections of the Berlin Wall to get chiseled was the old city square and today the plaza has roared back to life.
The beating heart and centre of a city rarely disappears, and if it had a prime position in Nazi plans for Berlin (for a rather disturbing reason), then it had a prime reason in reunifed Germany – this was to be the statement of intent, the reborn link of a new city and people.
Massive international firms came in and built stunning skyscrappers, and soon a new city was born. The platz’s success as a statement is still controversial, because the people who visit it are mostly tourist like me, not local Berliners (sort of explains my local friends reticence to name a city centre) although it is hard to doubt that this place has become a showpiece of the intentions of Europe’s youngest capital with some of the most up-to-date malls and fancy office spaces in the city.
Zoologischer Garten, westside Centre
Once Berlin was split into an east and west side, a central square needed to be created for the west side off Berlin, not so much as a place for congregation as a place for transit – where all transports arrives and leaves by (i.e. a traffic/transport hub) and a natural candidate emerged rather rapidly. The Berlin zoo, one of Germany’s oldest and best known zoo’s was located within the west part of Berlin and was one of the most popular in the world even back then.
It made natural sense for a traffic hub to be built in the vicinity.
Where traffic goes so go the people and soon fancy buildings were to be found here.
The zoo was the centre of nightlife in West Berlin with its bright flashy lights but also its pits of darkness. That piece of life captured movingly in the film Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo about a young girl who fell prey to addiction and later turned to prostitution to feed the addiction.
But through it all, one thing did not change, a church formerly built to honour the late Kaiser Wilhelm has stood in its place since 1890. An old church is nothing special in European cities, but an old damaged church with its spire still blown off is. This church has been converted into a memorial hall (and a new structure next door for services was built) to remind people of the horrors of war.
Whereas Potsdamer Platz is filled with commercial white collar buildings today, Zoologischer Garten is conversely populated with more hip malls and cafes and retail styled buildings, especially the concept mall Bikini Berlin. It is also home to a vast stretch of hotels.
Alexanderplatz, from rowdy to disciplined (and rowdy again)
Just as Potsdamer Platz was hot in the 1920s so too was Alexanderplatz. This eastern side square was the centre of nightlife in Berlin, one of the party capitals of Europe, a proud reputation it continues to retains till today by the way.
It was a no brainer when the city was partitioned for Alexanderplatz to be the showpiece for East Berlin and the DDR. The squares in Alexanderplatz were widened and the buildings were remodelled in the latest in communist fashion – greyish bricks. It was meant to be a sign of strength.
The wall fell and the mall has since changed in complexion. Despite the relative ugliness of the district, it is now prime real estate because of its central location within Berlin and is popular with the young, urbane middle class. Unlike the Zoologischer Garten the myth of communism that pervades Alexanderplatz means that the district has less fancy hotels and more hip backpacker hostels. It’s vibe is cooler and more laid back than the stylish Zoologischer Garten and business-like Potsdamer Platz.
As expected that means that cool cafes and restaurants and concepts can be found all over including the cafe that sells salads it grows inside the cafe, Good Bank
and the courtyard mall-alternative cafe-squatter ghetto all in one, Hackescher Markt (more on this in a later post).
ON THE MAP (Potsdamer Platz)
ON THE MAP (Zoologischer Garten)
ON THE MAP (Alexanderplatz )