About 50,000 of those immigrants have settled in Berlin, many of them taking up residence in makeshift camps and hostels, and infusing the city with a new multicultural dimension, a burst of energy and an element of tension.
Though unflinching about its past, Berlin is also looking toward the future. In just the past year, for instance, I’ve watched the neighborhood of sex shops and shoddy 1970s architecture around Zoo Station — once the main train station of West Berlin — undergo an ambitious redevelopment scheme. A new Waldorf Astoria, and the renovated Bikini-Haus complex, which includes the 25hours Hotel Bikini, the Israeli-owned rooftop Neni Restaurant, the Monkey Bar and the Gestalten Book Shop — are transforming this once-dowdy corner of the west into an uncharacteristically trendy neighborhood. Berlin carries you along on a wave of reinvention and revival.
I first arrived in Berlin in January 2000, to become Newsweek’s Central European bureau chief. It was not a fortuitous beginning. The winter was snowy, gray and bitingly cold; the supermarkets were dismal; I didn’t speak the language; the seam where the Berlin Wall once stood was still largely a landscape of rubble and vacant lots. But in the spring I met the former East Berliner who would become my wife, and I began to establish roots in the city. Then barely a year after getting there I was gone — on my way to Jerusalem.
Seven years later, after stints in the Middle East, at Harvard University and in South Africa, we returned, with two young sons in tow. I had left Newsweek and was trying to jump-start a new career as a freelance magazine and book writer, and Berlin — cheap, child friendly and ideally situated in the heart of Europe — seemed like a good place to spend a few years. Then the marriage broke up, I met another German woman, and in 2012 my third son was born. Without intending to, I had established a long-term connection to Berlin.
Nowadays, whenever I’m in Berlin, my daily routine revolves around Wilmersdorf, a quiet neighborhood of playgrounds and leafy plazas that some Berliners deride as burgerlich — a word connoting haut-bourgeois complacency. There’s little cafe life, little of the immigrant culture that has transformed the face of the city in the past decade. To find that, take a shortish bike or U-Bahn ride east to Kreuzberg, Neukolln or Mitte, where you’ll find vibrant markets, heterogeneous street life and a vibrancy that Wilmersdorf lacks.
But within walking distance of my apartment stand two landmarks that are among my favorite places: Viktoria-Luise Platz, a turn of the 20th-century square with a gushing fountain and one of the city’s best gelatoshops; and the Volkspark Schoneberg-Wilmersdorf, a sliver of lawns, copses, playgrounds, duck ponds and bike paths that terminates at the Rathaus Schoneberg, the imposing district hall where President John F. Kennedy gave his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in June 1963.
Moreover, just down the road lies Friedenau, a near-perfectly preserved island of Old World Berlin. A one-time settlement for convalescing veterans of the Franco-Prussian War, it developed over the next decades into a prosperous enclave of high-level civil servants, artists, writers and some Jewish families.
I often cycle with my son to his preschool down Handjerystrasse, a long street of half-timbered mansions with rounded galleries and gabled red-tile roofs; palatial villas with marble lintels, gray-shingled cupolas and columned porticos; and English-style country manors marked by handsome brickwork and tidy front gardens.
The place is rich in history, both tragic and inspirational: On Stubenrauchstrasse, the extension of Handjerystrasse, stands the home belonging to the founder of the Comedian Harmonists — an all-male, mostly Jewish vocal group that achieved worldwide fame during the 1920s but fled Germany soon after the Nazis came to power. At Fregestrasse 76, unmarked by a plaque, is the house that belonged to Friedenau’s most infamous resident, the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Marlene Dietrich is buried in the neighborhood cemetery, and on Niedstrasse, just off Handjerystrasse, one of Germany’s greatest novelists, Gunter Grass, lived for 30 years.
The neighborhood’s central location also makes it easy to reach the near-unbroken swath of lakes, forests and meadows that lie at the western edges of the city. On many Saturday mornings when I’m in town, we set out on bikes with our 4-year-old down the Sudwestkorso, a boulevard that cuts a diagonal swath through western Berlin. We often stop along the way at the BackerMann, one of Berlin’s most popular bakeries, for zimtschnecken (cinnamon rolls) or my son’s favorite, Ampfelmannchen — red and green cookies baked in the shape of the little figures that signal “stop” and “go” at western Berlin traffic lights. The boulevard spills directly into the Domane Dahlem, a working organic farm in the rustic Dahlem neighborhood, built around a restored manor house originally constructed in 1560.
A Saturday morning organic farmers’ market selling cheeses, local honey and fresh produce draws hundreds to the farm’s main courtyard; spinning, weaving and pottery demonstrations take place in the manor house during seasonal festivals. (Unlike in the Turkish markets to the east, the vendors here are almost exclusively ethnic Germans.)
For us the highlight is the ramble through the Domane farm, which begins just past the outdoor market area — a 29.6-acre expanse of chicken coops, pigsties, cattle pastures and vegetable plots that was taken over by an environmental society, the Friends of Domane Dahlem, in 1976 and opened to the public shortly afterward. This is a place where my son has dug for red potatoes, harvested apples, petted goats and fed chickens from the grain dispensers conveniently set up outside the henhouses.
Farther afield lie two of our other weekend getaway spots, Schlachtensee and Krumme Lanke, twin swimmable lakes inside the Grunewald, the wilderness on the outskirts of the capital that began as a private hunting ground of the Electors of Brandenburg in Prussia in the 16th century. Wildschwein still dwell deep in the forests, and I sometimes catch sight of these furtive, tusked and bristly beasts in the thick woods in the early morning. On fine weekends Fischerhutte, a pleasant biergarten and restaurant between the two lakes, is packed with affluent Berliners munching bratwurst and potato salad at picnic tables.
Occasionally, I take a break from writing to ride my bike through the Grunewald, past the Jagdschloss Grunewald — a hunting lodge built by the Prince-Elector Joachim II in 1542, and remodeled as a Baroque palace in the early 18th century. I head down a path through a forest to run or swim across the Schlachtensee, blissfully deserted during the workweek and best avoided on hot summer weekends. In the winter, we huddle under blankets at Fischerhutte and sip mulled wine and hot chocolate and, on the increasingly rare occasions when the lakes freeze over, haul our blades onto the ice for a day of skating.
These forays into haut-bourgeois Berlin can obscure the darker side of the city, but this aspect is an inextricable part of Berlin’s historical arc, and cannot be ignored. Any time I pass through the Grunewald S-Bahn station, in the leafy, placid Grunewald neighborhood, for example, I reflect upon the fact that this gloomy depot served as the major transit point for Jews from Berlin to the concentration camps.
My usual bicycle route to Mitte, the city center, brings me past the Bendlerblock, the former Nazi defense headquarters beside the Tiergarten, where Claus Von Stauffenberg, the decorated Wehrmacht officer turned anti-Hitler conspirator, and his fellow officers involved in an assassination plot were executed in the courtyard in 1944. (Von Stauffenberg lived in an opulent house at Tristanstrasse 8, built at the turn of the 20th century, just a few steps down from my first Berlin home, in Nikolassee; Hollywood filmmakers closed off the street for a couple of days back in 2007 to film the Tom Cruise movie “Valkyrie.”)
At Pfaueninsel, a one-time private island retreat for the Prussian King Frederick William II, paths meander through idyllic woodlands and meadows, frequented by peacocks and bordered on one end by a minicastle constructed by the monarch for his mistress. We’ve attended children’s birthday parties here, thrown Frisbees and picnicked on the wide lawns. A couple of years ago I learned that the Nazi leadership, too, appreciated the island’s pristine charms, and celebrated the closing of the 1936 Olympics by hosting a lavish “Italian Night” party here with 1,000 invited guests, including members of the SS. The experience for me has never been quite the same.
Kreuzberg, a sprawling quarter just south of the former Berlin Wall, and bisected by the Landwehr Canal, epitomizes for me the flip side of Berlin — edgy, disheveled and multicultural. Known in the 1970s and 1980s for its squatter houses and borderland hipsterism, today it consists of a gentrified and touristy stretch along Bergmannstrasse and the grittier area clustered around the elevated U-Bahn tracks of the Kottbusser Tor — Turkish markets, cobblestone streets, excellent cafes and still-cheap rents.
One of my favorite corners of this neighborhood is the broad green plaza at the end of Grimmstrasse, where the Admiralbrucke, or Admiral Bridge, crosses the Landwehr Canal. On one corner, Il Casolare, perhaps the best Neapolitan pizzeria in Berlin, draws hundreds of people on hot summer nights; the gelato shop across the road packs them in as well. The Planufer, a cobblestone street that follows the canal, winds past outdoor cafes and handsome prewar apartments before spilling into the Kottbusser Damm.
Here Kreuzberg segues into Neukolln and the Planufer changes its name to the Maybacherufer, where, on Tuesdays and Fridays, one of the city’s biggest Turkish markets transforms the area into a patch of Istanbul. In the dozens of crowded stalls that line both sides of the street, you can buy Turkish fabrics, glittery shoes, flatbreads, hummus, baba ghanouj, goat and sheep cheese and a bounty of produce ranging from fresh mint to pomegranates.
It was on a wintry night in this neighborhood five years ago that I made a serendipitous discovery. Walking down Grimmstrasse, I noticed a light glowing from a basement, walked down four steps and stumbled into Fatima’s Hand — surely the hippest art gallery, coffee bar and coiffeur in Berlin. Presided over by an outgoing Turkish-German impresario-hair stylist named Fatime Kahveci, the place consisted of a cozy bar and salon decorated with Che Guevara posters and abstract art by local painters, and a backroom hair salon.
Over the next five years I became a regular, honing my German over cappuccinos and haircuts, attending art exhibitions and film screenings, and enjoying one of the neighborhood’s most rollicking New Year’s Eve parties. Sadly, escalating rents forced her to surrender her lease last summer, and she now cuts hair in her Kreuzberg apartment, a victim of creeping gentrification.
After the 2008 closure of Tempelhof Airport — constructed during the Weimar Republic, expanded by Nazi Germany and immortalized by the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift — municipal leaders resisted pressure to sell the land to commercial real estate developers. Instead, to the approval of most Berliners, they turned it into a vast recreation ground, a semiwilderness in the heart of the city.
My two older sons and I like to show up here early on a Saturday morning. I park the car on Columbia Damm, adjacent to the park, and we maneuver on our in-line skates up the cracked, weedy asphalt paths leading to skater heaven: two mile-long adjacent runways that parallel the old main terminal building.
There’s a sense of skating through Berlin’s history, with the terminal — its imperial eagles still visible on its dun-colored facade — looming in the background and an old U.S. Air Force plane, a remnant of the Luftbrucke, the airlift, parked before a gate. Our long, effortless sweeps along one runway often segue into a battle against gale-force headwinds on the way back, but there’s ample opportunity to stop and catch our breath at the runway-side kiosks selling cappuccinos, hot chocolate and muffins.
Tempelhof has become a center of Berlin’s life, its hangars and terminal hosting big functions such as the annual Press Ball, for the German and international media, its sprawling grounds the site of concerts and other cultural events. In early fall we cycled across Kreuzberg to attend the Drachenfest, or kite festival, which fills the skies over the airport with giant lobsters, stingrays, sharks and teddy bears. Tempelhof is now also in the throes of becoming Germany’s largest refugee center: Hangars now provide shelter for 800 people; up to 7,000 will be housed there when work is completed.
Half a mile south of Potsdamer Platz stands the Gleisdreieck Park, another experiment in urban redesign. From the end of World War II until 2011 this was one of Berlin’s most blighted areas — in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, sprawling beneath three sets of elevated tracks. The city redeveloped the eyesore into an oasis of play areas, lawns, running tracks, a halfpipe and even a dance floor, while incorporating vestiges of the old rail yards. We often take our son here with his scooter and watch him glide with delight across the park, still divided by a scruffy old railway line.
Tempelhofer Park and the Park Am Gleisdreieck represent complementary approaches to urban renewal: the former preserving an abandoned space, the latter dramatically reinventing one.
Shortly after I first moved to Berlin 15 years ago, I began making forays to the eastern half of the city. My wife-to-be lived in a walk-up apartment just off Danzigerstrasse in still gritty Prenzlauer Berg, and we spent much of our time in the cafes and restaurants of Kollwitzplatz, before an influx of young professionals turned the area around it into one of the highest-priced real-estate markets in the city. Fellow foreign correspondents were slowly shutting down their offices in the west and moving to the Pressehaus across the Spree from the Reichstag. There was a pioneering and raw quality to the place, a sense of flux and possibility.
Today I still get to the east on a regular basis — a healthy jolt out of my sedate Wilmersdorf existence — though even once-frontier neighborhoods like Neukolln and Friederichshain have been tamed and gentrified during the past decade. But the vibrancy of the street life, the variety of the restaurants — from the fashionista hangout on the roof of Soho House near Alexanderplatz in Mitte to the wildly popular Korean hole-in-the-wall Yam Yam on Alte Schonhauser Strasse, also in Mitte — can’t be matched by anything in the west.
And a walk along the Spree on a darkening July evening — the Reichstag’s glass dome glowing pink in the setting sun, the lights of the postmodernist Federal Chancellery Building, the official residence of Angela Merkel, reflecting off the river — captures for me the essence of a confident, fully realized city that has swept away both its east-west divisions and the horrors of World War II. It’s the perfect counterpoint to the Stolpersteine and other vestiges of the darkest period of German history, another reason that I find the city such an optimistic and astonishingly varied place.