I’m standing in front of Berlin’s Schöneberg town hall, a sandstone edifice with a soaring clock tower that would look more appropriate on a train station. There’s no one around, except for a few office workers hustling down the stairs to the basement cafeteria. By no means does this sleepy scene look like the setting for one of the most iconic speeches in history.
But 50 years ago, on June 26, 1963, nearly half a million people gathered in the square in front of this building, which was serving as West Berlin’s city hall, and listened to President John F. Kennedy proclaim, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” It matters little whether he inadvertently called himself a jelly doughnut. (German grammarians say he didn’t.) Those four simple words resonated deeply with West Germans, and overnight Berlin became synonymous with solidarity and freedom.
For a much more personal reason, I feel free in Schöneberg. This is the first place I moved to after quitting my last suit-and-tie job in Washington in 2006, so no wonder I associate this middle-class residential district of the German capital with bliss. Though short on conventional tourist attractions, the borough of Tempelhof-Schöneberg has plenty of fascinating sights. I’m enamored of its mishmash of neo-Renaissance residences and postwar eyesores, the bustling farmers markets and the ethnic groceries, the cozy cafes and the late-night watering holes.
It would be, however, dishonest to look the other way when history continues to cast its shadow every day. Take, for instance, Motzstrasse, a rambunctious street packed with gay bars. As far back as the swinging 1920s, well over a hundred establishments catering to not-so-straight hedonists thrived around here, making Schöneberg arguably the world’s first gay neighborhood. This is also where Marlene Dietrich cut her teeth in smoky clubs and Christopher Isherwood partook of the era’s desperate debauchery, which he immortalized in his novel “Goodbye to Berlin” (which in turn became the musical “Cabaret”).
This month, with gay pride events taking over the street almost every weekend and dance music spilling out of clubs, Motzstrasse is more festive than usual. Yet a palm-size copper plate hammered into the ground in front of a seedy bar reminds the revelers of the city’s chilling history. “Stolpersteine,” or Stumbling Blocks, designed to make people lose their footing, is a public art project that marks homes all over Germany where Holocaust victims once lived. At Motzstrasse 30, there are four such small tiles on the cobblestoned ground.
Auschwitz, Theresienstadt, Brandenburg. The metal plates simply state when and where the victims perished, along with their names and birth dates. Among them is Otto Hampel, who was arrested in 1937 for being a homosexual and eventually executed at age 45. As thumping electronic beats reverberate through the rainbow-tinted neighborhood, this simple memorial serves as a somber reminder that even the most decadent of places could be the site of atrocities.
Of course, I find solace in the fact that landmarks take on different significance as time goes by. From the Schöneberg Town Hall, a 15-minute bicycle ride takes me east to Tempelhof, a vast 1920s airfield that turned into an experiment of Third Reich megalomania. Nearly a quarter-mile long, the airport terminal supports a terraced roof that was designed to double as a platform where tens of thousands of spectators could congregate for mass rallies.
But as I stand on the roof, I’m delighted by a spectacle that would have given Hitler a heart attack. On the runways are windsurfers and bicyclists, rollerbladers and even a drummer who’s whipping his hair to the beat of his own music. (How — and why — on earth did he drag his full drum set out there?) Families and young folks of all ethnicities send up hundreds of smoke signals from their grills, while another part of the former airfield has become a pacifist’s wildest dream come true: community vegetable gardens.
After the airport was decommissioned in 2008, numerous investors wanted a piece of the green space — some proposing ideas as outlandish as submerging it in an artificial lake or building an exclusive clinic for the jet set. Ultimately, the 950-acre grounds were reborn as a public park, though the terminal remains closed except for special events such as art fairs, fashion shows and guided history tours, like the one I’m taking.
As you might expect from a building its size, the former airport terminal is a city unto itself, its precincts ranging from the staggering, unfinished hall adorned with Third Reich kitsch to bowling alleys that the occupying U.S. forces built and eventually abandoned. Descending from one floor to another feels like digging into an archaeological site, discovering layers of various civilizations.
One of the eras lasted from 1948 to 1949, when the Soviet blockade cut West Berlin off from the rest of the world. The Allied nations flew up to 1,398flights a day to Tempelhof to transport tons of food, coal and other necessities to keep West Berliners alive. John Hampton, a friend of my parents’ who was stationed with the U.S. Air Force in Berlin at the time, once reminisced that at any given minute, there were a dozen military planes circling above West Berlin, waiting for their turn to land and unload before turning right back around. “It was like a conveyor belt,” he told me.
Today, all I see soaring above are birds and kites. Now is definitely an easier time to be a Berliner.
The discerning taste of Berlin’s young creative class seems to roam through the city like searchlights, vanquishing areas with affordable rentals. Right now, the spotlight illuminates Rote Insel, or Red Island. A triangular strip of land carved from the rest of Berlin by railway cuttings, this corner of Schöneberg — dubbed “red” for its historic tendency to vote left — was once a decidedly working-class neighborhood best known as the birthplace of Marlene Dietrich and the resting grounds of the Brothers Grimm. And not much else. Today, reminiscent of ’90s Berlin, scaffolding and cranes reach up to the sky as the demand for more housing spills over to the quarters adjacent to the Rote Insel.
But there’s one plot of land that will never be built on. I ride my bike past the Schwerbelastungskörper, a concrete cylinder nearly 60 feet tall. This structure with the tongue-twister name, which means “heavy load-bearing body,” was built in 1941 to study whether Berlin’s swampy ground could support a 384-foot-tall triumphal arch. (Verdict: The column sank at least seven inches in the first three years. You do the math.)
As I circle around the cylinder, which was built mostly by forced laborers from France, what strikes me is its utter futility. Because this 12,650-metric-ton structure cannot be destroyed without damaging its neighbors, it remains standing amid nearby apartment buildings and railroad tracks, taking up precious space.
It does serve one purpose, though. It’s a reminder of an abominable plan that thankfully never came to fruition. Expecting global domination, Third Reich chief architect Albert Speer drew up the blueprints for the new “world capital” Germania. A small exhibition next to the concrete column shows his ruthless city plan, which would have erased much of central Berlin. All the trappings of lunacy are there: impossibly wide boulevards, a triumphal hall to hold 180,000 people, and the kind of gargantuan squares favored by illegitimate regimes.
But World War II took an entirely different turn from what Speer had envisioned, sparing Berlin from this madness. So what remains of Germania is a single forlorn column, refusing to sink into oblivion anytime soon.
Like the rest of Berlin, Schöneberg is chockablock with wartime structures that are indestructible for all practical purposes, being too unsafe or costly to detonate. When a new apartment complex called the Pallasseum was built during the ’70s housing crunch, the developers had no choice but to construct it over a 5,000-person bunker, which it straddles like a lower-case “n.”
Despite its palatial name, the Pallasseum is a grim concrete monolith, many of its neighbors regarding the 514-unit apartment building as an outright affront to good taste. So artist Daniel Knipping decided to do something about it.
Since many of today’s Pallasseum residents are immigrants, the building’s concrete facade has sprouted 300-some satellite receivers. Knipping transformed these passive receptors of culture into transmitters of stories by adorning the dishes with graphics of the residents’ choice. Some wanted photographs of their loved ones, while others selected close-up shots of flowers or natural panoramas. I can’t say that the images are beautiful, but they do make quite an edgy statement.
The Pallasseum may reflect the neighborhood’s changing zeitgeist. The vicinity of the building, after all, has re-emerged as an unlikely “it” quarter for contemporary art. Along Potsdamer Strasse, where hijab-clad housewives nonchalantly pull grocery carts next to hookers in fishnets, art galleries have been arriving in droves over the past five years.
But Schöneberg has something that hasn’t changed. Between the gay enclave of Motzstrasse and the contemporary art scene of Potsdamer Strasse is Winterfeldt Square, which turns into an open-air market on Saturdays.
My friend Sophie comes here every week. She’s an adopted Schöneberger, having defected from East Berlin with her family as a child in 1985. She has since moved to a neighboring district, but still pedals here on her bike, rain or shine, to fill her wicker basket with food for the week.
Sophie and I zigzag around the square through the crowd. There’s that quiet-spoken man who brings half a dozen different kinds of potatoes. Sometimes he has eggs — all different shades and sizes, as nature intended — and some days he shrugs defeatedly and says, “The chickens didn’t want to lay any.”
Then there’s the shy lady who makes all sorts of vinegar. Fig balsamic, elderflower, lemon-lavender — everything is so good that I could drink it straight from the bottle. In a more enterprising culture, she might rule a franchise empire by now; but in a typically Berlin manner, she couldn’t be less interested in racking up more cash by creating a Web site or handing out cards. She’s content refilling the bottles we bring back once a week.
Over there is the elderly Greek man who always throws in extra sun-dried tomatoes and, when the mood strikes him, pours us shots of ouzo even if it’s only 11 a.m. The ubiquitous “China-Box” hawker is here too, selling chop suey in take-out containers. There’s the scruffy churros man who’s generous with powdered sugar and laughter, and the earnest salad farmer hands out her manifesto about organic produce. The sullen man scoops out chicken yassa, or Senegambian stew, and the fruit vendors banter with customers in the coarse Berlin dialect. In front of his barrels, the flamboyant caper peddler drones on about his esoteric philosophy. The bakers hardly smile, but they don’t raise an eyebrow, either, when Sophie asks for just half a loaf of rye bread.
Carrying a basket of groceries was never part of the dazzling Berlin life that I fantasized about before stepping off the plane at Tempelhof almost seven years ago. This market feels provincial, with a recurring cast of characters week after week. And as I look around, my heart suddenly swells with love for all of them, friends and strangers. Schöneberg is an honest microcosm of Berlin, this battered, breathing, ugly and gorgeous city that I keep falling for.
Kennedy was right. “The proudest boast is, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ ”
Kwak is a travel writer based in Berlin and San Francisco. His Web site is kwak.in/motion.