Walking down Schönhauser Allee one misty evening, on my way to a Korean street food joint with my friend, he turns to me says, “Hey have you ever been there? I hear they have some great steak tartare.”
Nodding across the street. I look across, see the faded looping fluorescent sign: Fleischerei*. A cool-looking minimalist interior with long trestle tables, white tablecloths. Some bearded people drinking coffee in the window. I look at him and say, “Yeah I’ve been there. But it was 18 years ago.”
I briefly feel embarrassed, old. Wishing I was young and hip enough to say “Yeah I was there last week with friends, it was grand.” But only briefly.
For a year or two I lived in the squat next door to the Fleischerei. We hosted film nights in the courtyard, wild, tequila-fuelled punk concerts, raucous public breakfasts on the wide pavement just up from Rosa Luxemburg Platz. God, we must’ve been annoying. I studied art at the time (of course I did) and came up with a “meat” themed textile design project. I made a dress out of bacon bought from that butcher’s shop, when Lady Gaga was still at Catholic school. And as part of the project I took photos of all the women who worked in the Fleischerei. The boss-man turned up for the photo too, and even took me out back to the freezer rooms, where I took grainy out of focus shots of massive sides of beef hanging from hooks. They didn’t really know what the heck I wanted, but they let me take my pictures. Tolerated the weird young kids who had moved in next door and giggled about blood sausage being called “Tote Oma”*. Everything was shifting and changing so fast, I wasn’t aware that I was documenting something that was already shuffling off the stage. If they realised it, with the arrogance of youth, I didn’t. I thought it was always going to stay like that; me straddling the old and the new; the old there as my own private curiosity cabinet to delve into when ever I wanted, the new to be created by me and my peers.
So I’m always a bit torn when friends or acquaintances start bitching on about tourists, trendy beard people or rich doctors and lawyers with their four-wheel drives and organic store membership cards. On the one hand I always love a feisty bitchfest, (I didn’t get my name for being a sweetheart) but on the other hand I feel this seeping feeling of guilt because I know who kicked this whole thing off. I mean, let’s be honest, Prenzlauer Berg was not exclusively home to honest-to-god-amazing-creative-hardworking-humble-poor-people for the past 2000 years only to be suddenly overrun by the famed Swabian Muttis and American hipsters and hopsters (micro-brewing anybody?) and streams of short-term residents from overseas who populate the area now.
So let’s just adjust our perspective and step back 25 years. Oh what the fuck, let’s do it properly and go back 30.
OK what have we got?
Lots of old grannies (men, not so much, they all died in the war) and some families down on their luck who didn’t get that centrally heated flat in Marzahn or Hellersdorf. Musicians, poets, enemies of the state, people who didn’t fit in in the provinces so landed in Berlin. Oh, and about 60% empty flats. Let’s not forget, it was cold here; coals cost money, and ovens need heating. Every friggin’ morning or you freeze. Coal needs schlepping up stairs in buckets, and ash needs schlepping back down. Oh yeah.
Enter from the wings: foreign students and lefty artists looking for a cheap place to live and work. Yes, oh doubters, there really was a time, a heavenly time, when someone sitting next to you at a bar would lean in after a few beers and say “Hey, there’s a flat free in my house. Why don’t you take it?” You’d go, break in, move in, start paying the rent to the central housing association, and if they took your money (which they always did) it was seen as tacit agreement. Three months later you had a rental contract in your pocket and 100 Marks rent a month. Oh, and a toilet in the hallway, and a shower in the kitchen if you were lucky. I was lucky: my first “real” flat had an indoor toilet. But my kitchen and bathroom didn’t have any heating whatsoever, so let’s just say I did A LOT of cooking and not much washing.
But however wonderful and idyllic this idealised past of Prenzlauer Berg seemed to be, I am not sure that Frau Schmidt next door really saw it that way. By the time me and my ilk arrived in 1991 Prenzlauer Berg was already filling up with all the Alternative Folk who had been languishing in Schwerin, Dresden, Eisenhüttenstadt but hadn’t been able to move to the big smoke before the wall came down.
Frau Schmidt was old, and ill, dying of cancer, and wore a wig. She was forever peeking out of her door to see who was coming and going, and she would bang on the wall if my music was too loud. Which it was all the time. It must’ve been hell for her. And the family above me, who actually had to work. Getting up at 4am and cleaning large factories before the workers arrived. No, they did not want to stop by for my party.
When I was accepted at art school (after a year of hard labour working in the local council office) aside from meat themed projects, I started a massive art work that would cover the whole courtyard wall, (for courtyard think Heinrich Zille:)
which involved everyone in the house getting a disposable camera with which I asked them to document their interior décor. They just shook their heads in incomprehension. Plus, maybe they weren’t really interested. I ended up having to go in and take the pics myself. I thought it was a bloody brilliant. One family had fake brick wallpaper in the corridor, to make it look like some surreal medieval castle. Sideboards were filled with Kinder egg figurines and ceramic swans. For me it was so exotic. But to them I was the newbie. I was the annoying equivalent of bearded guy with silly glasses and short trousers. I was the one, where when they talked about “Ausländer” they would always tag on “But we don’t mean you, you don’t count.” And I was probably a whole lot more intrusive than they would have liked. And one by one, flat by flat, as the area changed, they all disappeared. Frau Schmidt took the final exit, the cleaners moved to Strausberg, one family moved to Poland, another to the wilds of Mecklenburg. And now I am pretty much settled into my role as “Hausälteste”. Now I am the lady in the hall who says “I remember when…” Everyone around me is having babies, and complaining about the noise from the bars and the tourists. So enough already with the bitching. I own up. It was me. I started this whole gentrification thing.
Fleischerei = Butchers Shop
Mutti = Mummy
Hausälteste = Oldest person in the house
Tote Oma = Dead Granny