Alte Schönhauser Straße

In 1992, while I was an undergraduate at Bath university, I went to Berlin for an industrial placement year. I had started out registered for a 3-year maths degree without a placement, but there was a scheme you could apply to if you changed your mind and fancied going abroad in the middle of it. Hardly anyone applied for it, and I don’t think any applicants from my course were rejected unless they failed their end-of-year exams.

I was to work at the Konrad-Zuse-Zentrum (ZIB), a computing research institution that at the time was based in Charlottenburg, a tidy part of west-central Berlin. My girlfriend, also at Bath but studying languages and responsible for encouraging me to apply to go abroad in the first place, had managed to arrange a study year at the Freie Universität. She moved in to a student residence and I into a modern one-person flat organised by the company, in Mariendorf, in south Berlin.

Mariendorf wasn’t very exciting and my girlfriend’s hall of residence wasn’t all that great, so after a few months we decided to find a new flat together. My spoken German was just functional, hers was good, and between us we spent a lot of time talking to Mitwohnzentrale agents and looking around flats until, in February 1993, we rented a flat in Alte Schönhauser Straße, near the centre of what had been East Berlin.

Central (eastern) Berlin, 1993 (Falkplan)

Central (eastern) Berlin, 1993 (Falkplan).

Central (eastern) Berlin, probably 1975 (RV Stadtplan).

Central (eastern) Berlin, probably 1975 (RV Stadtplan). This undated map includes the U-Bahn stations that opened in 1973, but shows the 1976 and 1978 openings as “in planning”.

Alte Schönhauser Straße is close to the S-Bahn station at Hackescher Markt, an area officially known as the Spandauer Vorstadt lying just north of Alexanderplatz. This district, and Hackescher Markt especially, is now super-shiny and is known for bars, shops, and lots of tourists. But its present state is a result of a thorough and rapid redevelopment and restoration starting in about 1997. (See p27 onwards of this urban-planning slideshow for an interesting overview of these works.)

Berlin. Corner of Neue Schönhauser Straße and Rosenthaler Straße, 1993

Neue Schönhauser Straße / Rosenthaler Straße corner, 1993

In 1993 the area was still a bit of a mess. Many buildings on major streets like Rosenthaler Straße and Neue Schönhauser Straße were pocked with bullet holes or had obvious bits missing. What is now the fancy paved square filled with outdoor cafés, outside the S-Bahn station, was just a road. One of the commercial streets now present (An der Spandauer Brücke) was then a scrubby park, I assume because the buildings had been pulled down after the war and were not rebuilt until the area was restored. The now-restored Hackescher Hof complex was an unremarkable grey residential building: I had no idea there was supposed to be anything interesting about it. It could all feel a bit bleak.

Berlin. Rosenthaler Straße?, 1993

Street scene, 1993 – but I’m not sure exactly which street. If you know, I’d love to hear.

But this was a thrilling area to live in as a transient foreigner at the time. Many of the most decaying buildings were temporarily housing intimidating and/or tantalising makeshift bars, cafés, or art venues, like autonomous growths forcing themselves up through the gaps in what had once been reliable, gentlemanly turn-of-the-20th-century buildings. From Hackescher Markt up Oranienburger Straße to the looming art-project squat of Tacheles the area was full of a sort of place I had never seen before. It all seemed sudden, urgent, about to collapse. I knew very little about any of it and I can hardly even characterise myself as a participant, but I loved being able to be there.

Berlin. Rear view of Tacheles, 1993

Tacheles from Friedrichstraße, 1993.

Many of these venues turned out to be longer-lived than I would have expected — Silberstein, on Oranienburger Straße, and Tacheles itself both stuck around until 2013, gradually increasing their plate-glass quotient as they went. (The back of Tacheles, which ended up glazed over, was initially a void you could fall out of.)

* * *

The flat had four rooms, much bigger than the modern one I’d become used to, and it was I think smartly decorated and desirable for its time and place, but it did have certain limitations. Each room had a coal-fired heating stove, which worked pretty well, but of course you had to bring coal up in a bucket from the cellar and light a fire in each stove some time before you needed the heat. These stoves were commonplace at the time, so the air around smelled of coal smoke in a way that western cities hadn’t, I imagine, for some decades by then. There was no bathroom; the loo was outside the flat, shared with the flat next door. Hot water was through a small electric heater above the kitchen sink that could provide about a kettle’s worth. The owners had installed a standalone electric shower unit in the utility room, which was very natty but a bit ineffectual: switch it on, wait ten minutes for it to heat up, get in, enjoy two minutes of warm water.

Still, it was a lovely flat, and I loved the coal tang of the cold night air and the late-night sound of the Rosenthaler Straße tram, its swooping creak as it slowed for a tram stop, carried to the window across the wasteland at the back of the building.

* * *

As it happened, when the day came to move all our belongings to the flat, I was alone: my girlfriend was temporarily in the UK with her family. We didn’t have all that much stuff, so I thought I could just load up a backpack and take it on the U-Bahn. I took three or four loads from my flat and three or four from her rooms, and by the time everything had been moved, it was late and I was very tired. I dumped everything and fell into bed.

February in Berlin can be very cold. I woke up early in the morning and found it difficult to move my limbs. I could move my head, but when I did, a crushing pain rolled through it. I’ve never known a headache to compare.

I realised that I couldn’t move because I was too cold, and that I needed to do something about it. But I’d forgotten to bring up any coal before I fell asleep the previous night. To warm up, I would need to pull on some clothes, find a bucket, make my way out of the flat and down to the unfamiliar cellar, fill up with coal, drag the bucket back up, set up and light a fire, and hang on long enough for the stove to warm up. It was a painfully long journey for such a simple job.

* * *

I’ve been back a handful of times since 1993, though sadly never for long enough to get beyond the initial phase of just boggling at things that have changed. The really obvious changes are of course along the stretch of the Wall, like the whole new Potsdamer Platz, but it’s the details like shops and venues, or changes to transport layout, that are the most interesting for me.

Berlin. Kaufhof, Alexanderplatz, 1993

Kaufhof (former Centrum department store), Alexanderplatz, 1993. At the time the food store here was still a decent place for a normal weekly shop. It’s much more upmarket now.

Some of this has to do with the time-telescoping effect of getting older, but it also has to do with not being there. If I’d been working there while all this was happening, I would probably be unable to remember what it had ever been like before, just as I can hardly remember what London’s Docklands area was like before its second big wave of building at the turn of the millennium.

A Watery City

Olympic park: Orbit and stadiumA striking thing about the venues for the 2012 Olympics in London is that their locations make more sense when seen as connected by water rather than by road.

The Olympic Park sits on the River Lea and a couple of its former working branches, and is bounded on one side by the Lee Navigation canal.

Greenwich Park (equestrian events, modern pentathlon) overlooks the River Thames at Greenwich. You can get there on foot from the Olympic Park by taking the Lee Navigation towpath to the Limehouse Cut and traversing Docklands before cutting under the river through the Greenwich foot tunnel—see map below.

It’s a nice walk, though you can’t do it directly from the Olympic Park during the Olympics because the Lee Navigation towpath is closed for “security reasons”. I hope they remember to re-open it afterwards. In the meantime you’ll have to join the towpath at Stratford High Street.

Also on the Thames, the Royal Artillery Barracks (shooting) in Woolwich are just downstream, a bend away, on the same riverbank—roughly opposite the entrance to the Royal docks, on which the ExCeL centre (fencing, boxing, weightlifting etc) sits.

Hampton Court (cycling time trials) and Eton Dorney (rowing) are on the Thames as well, much further upstream. More centrally, you can find Horse Guard’s Parade (beach volleyball) and The Mall (marathon, cycling road race) set back only a couple of hundred metres from the river.

The Lee Valley white water centre (canoe slalom) is on the same river as the Olympic Park. Presumably you could canoe between the two of them, though it might take a while.

Lord’s (archery) is accessible from the Regent’s Canal; from there you can walk all the way to the Olympic Park along the towpath via the Hertford Union Canal—apart from that pesky tunnel at Islington, for which you’ll need a boat, or to rise to street level (see map).

Wembley Stadium (football) and arena (badminton) are on a site bounded by the River Brent. An ideal way to get there from Lord’s should be to take the Regent’s Canal down to Little Venice, the Grand Union Canal from there up to Alperton, and then follow the Brent through the Tokyngton Recreation Ground. But I’m not sure whether that last connection can easily be made on foot, and the Brent isn’t navigable. I’ll have to go and take a look.

Earl’s Court (volleyball) and Hyde Park (open-water swimming, triathlon) can’t be reached by water, but both were built on top of culverted rivers or streams—Earl’s Court on Counter’s Creek, which reaches the Thames at Chelsea harbour, and Hyde Park over the Westbourne, which formerly supplied the water for the Serpentine.

The odd one out is Wimbledon, which is nowhere near any present or former waterway as far as I can see.

 

Good and bad of the Olympics, so far

Good

The family and I went out to watch the Olympic women’s cycling road race yesterday.

Olympic women's road race, outboundOlympic women's road race

We watched them zip past on the way out of town, and then I stuck around to wave them back again in the hammering rain.

I really enjoyed it—you don’t get to see a great deal, but cheering people on in the rain gives you an uplifting sense of communal goodwill. Good crowd too, for two seconds of action on such a wet day.

Not so good

Linking to a photo on the Guardian website from Mike Blake of Reuters:

These soldiers, who were presumably in the Olympic park on security duty, have been called in to fill some of the premium seats left empty in an artistic gymnastics session. Other under-attended events at the weekend included swimming and diving sessions.

Gymnastics! Diving! You can be certain these events were over-subscribed with the general public.

As far as I can tell, the picture above is from the GA004 session on Sunday morning. That’s a session that we tried to get tickets for in the initial round of applications over a year ago. But, just as with all the other things we applied for in that round, we failed.

Still, looking on the bright side—those guys up there definitely deserve the seats more than the people they were actually allocated to.

A Good Time Not to Get Sick

This is our local NHS GP surgery.

I’ve no idea what the background is here, but the notice says it’s had a visit from the bailiffs and the office has been secured for non-payment of commercial rent.

I know NHS practices largely have to run as independent businesses these days, but even so, it’s kind of shocking to think of an NHS doctor simply being evicted or going bust. This seemed like a pretty normal practice—rather overworked, sometimes a bit impatient, mostly effective. But the market has spoken.

None of us has had need of a doctor lately, but I don’t quite know what you’d do if you turned up for an appointment  and found this. Other than go away again, of course.

I wonder what we should do—register with another practice now, or hope it reopens before we need it.

Running around London

During the past few months, for very boring reasons, I’ve been spending a bit of time running relatively long distances around London.

It’s been quite a revelation. London is, as every Saint Etienne fan knows, a very big place1.

It’s hard to find the time to walk around very much of it, just because the distances are so big. I used to cycle occasionally, but everything goes by a bit quick that way and you’re liable to crash if you spend too much time looking around you. Running turns out to be a pretty good compromise. I’ve been through more interesting bits of London—many of them via canal or river routes—during these few months than I have in years.

From Chelsea Bridge

I’ve lived in London for nearly 18 years and in west London for ten, yet I’d never before seen the splendid Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park up close, been along the leafy Thames path on the south bank west from Putney, realised that Trellick Tower (below right) sits on the canal side, or had any sense of the relationship between the westbound road, rail, and canal routes from the Paddington basin. (Did you know the canal goes over the North Circular?)

I’d worked near Mile End for six years without ever having been along the Lee Navigation or seen the dramatic Bow locks—never mind peering at the near-future Olympic site.

Trellick Tower

And I’ve worked in Docklands, yet the only time I’d ever been through Wapping and joined the dots between docks and City was on 7/7, walking home across London when all the transport was out.

I even realised recently that, no matter how many times I may have passed the front of the Palace of Westminster, I’d never been along the length of the building to get any real impression of the scale of it.

I’m not completely ignorant of this place: I know my way around the City and West End well enough, I’ve spent a lot of time walking in various areas further out, I’ve lingered in the Barbican and on the South Bank and so on—which is partly why it’s been so much fun to be reminded how much even of central London I’ve still never properly seen.


1 Apparently the quote about London at the start of You’re In A Bad Way is from the film Billy Liar. I’ve seen the film since becoming familiar with the song, and I didn’t even notice the line. Hopeless, I am.