Thursday, November 18, 2004


Okay, I'm a lazy bastard, so I didn't go take pictures of the site next door, and now it's too late. German workmen can work fast, and this crew certainly has. (And, unlike many work crews in this town, these guys really are German instead of Czech or Polish, both of whom work cheaper and aren't in German unions). So we'll have to resort to the magic of words.

One really good, if totally obscure, movie about Berlin is called The Big Lift, a 1950 fiction film about the Berlin Airlift that was Montgomery Clift's first role. It was shot on location, at Tempelhof Airport and on the streets of Berlin. It's not a very important film, other than exposing the Eternal Perfidy of German Women and having a wonderful scene set on the U-Bahn (subway), but one institution it deals with is the brick-women. Even in 1950, it wasn't hard to find a scene of desolation in which to film, and in these blocks of bombed-out apartment buildings, hundreds of women were at work, picking up bricks, knocking the mortar off, and stacking them up to be recycled into new buildings.

Or, rather, this was what happened in the American, British, and French Zones. The Russians had a different idea: they would build the new society on top of the rubble of the old one, new, daring, beautiful Socialist architecture without a single reference to the past. Which they did, in the more visible parts of town, except calling it new and daring was maybe a stretch.

But the first time I went to East Berlin, in the company of someone who was something of an Eastophile, we went to Prenzlauer Berg to meet a friend of his who lived there. From what I can remember and figure out in retrospect (because who'd have thought I'd ever go back, let alone live near there?) it must have been Prenzlauer Allee, because I marvelled at the Planetarium in Ernst Thälmann Park, a masterpiece of Socialist Futurism that looked like it could launch itself into orbit. There was a real constrast between that and the buildings along Prenzlauer Allee, which apparently hadn't been bombed, and the side-streets. There, lots still contained the rubble of bombed buildings. Weeds grew up among them, and small trees had established root-systems in the ruins. The West Berliners rebuilt. The East Berliners paved over the wreckage or just let it sit there.

Now, as I've mentioned, the construction next door has started again, with the scooping out of a big hole which had been dug some years back and just let sit while the company developing the project apparently went out of business. And, as I reported earlier, the Countess in our building had said they were just going to smooth the property out and plant grass. I think she was half right: the proposed second building isn't going to be built (the existing building is only half-full as it is, and has gone from offering apartments for sale to offering rentals as well -- never a good sign. But they've dug out what appears to be a passageway for the underground garage that was advertised, and now they're putting in concrete forms that look like walls for it. That's the noise you hear in the background as I type.

What the digging uncovered, though, was bricks, thousands of them. And as I looked at it, I realized that there had almost certainly been a building behind Borsigstr. 4, as with most buildings in this city. Depending on the lot, you either had several buildings, one behind the other (I've seen up to five consecutive buildings), or you had a sort of E-shaped arrangement without the central bar. The buildings were called Vorderhaus (front house), Hinterhaus (rear house, and, if there were more than one, zweite Hinterhaus, dritte Hinterhaus, etc.), and, for the one on the side, Quergebäude (side-building). Since the blocks are bigger, you don't get the same building pattern as you do in New York, for instance, so the Hinterhof (rear courtyard) model makes sense.

In fact, the Berliner Hinterhof is a beloved insitution. I feel very fortunate to have seen one aspect of this, in the first apartment I lived in. A guy with a hurdy-gurdy (well, actually a small barrel organ with one leg and a strap holding it to his body) came to the neighboring building and ground out a melody. The windows opened up, and tissues wrapped around small change rained down on him from the old ladies living there. Several histories of Berlin have pictures, by Zille and various photographers, of a man and his kids performing in a Hinterhof for the residents, playing instruments, singing and dancing. Another aspect I've taken part in many a time is the Hinterhof party, where everyone just gets out there in the summertime and (with permission from all the residents, of course!) grills, eats, and drinks. One of the many silly things in the German Pavillion at Expo 2000 was a huge room where you went in and were transported into the middle of a Berlin Hinterhof party via film projected all around you. It was a pretty weird party, though, because people of all ages were there, and black people and Turks and Orientals. I only know one person who gives parties like that, and he's considered very special -- and even Turks don't come to his parties.

Anyway, this is getting far afield from the bricks in the lot next door. I know this neighborhood was bombed because the building across the street is brand new, as is the one across Torstr. from it. If a building was only damaged, it would be repaired, as my house was (I assume). But the Hinterhaus at Borsigstr. 4 was flattened, and the place where it had stood was covered over and turned into a lawn that stood there up til the time they started developing. To see this ghost appear -- the cellar, in particular -- is very odd.

I used to see a lot more of this sort of thing earlier in my stay here, of course. Once the city was unified there was an astonishing amount of work to be done, and there was (I know this is hard to believe if you've been here recently) far more construction than there is today. One danger was the UXB, the unexploded bomb. I used to exercise in the Tiergarten, our Central Park, when I lived next to it, and there was a bunch of construction in there. Imagine my surprise when I read an article that said they'd dug out a couple of UXBs from a trench I used to pass every day. Or there was the little incident where a bombed building was being dealt with over on Frankfurter Allee and the guy with the backhoe hit a UXB. Half a block got vaporized, but amazingly the only fatality was the poor worker who'd hit the damn thing. The pictures in the paper were pretty impressive, I'll tell you.

Of course, not all the ruins were dangerous, and some were downright cozy. Tresor, one of the first techno clubs to open over here, was the safe and the storage area in the basement of a department store. But the store had been bombed to the ground, so there was only a small building on top, and then the other dance floor downstairs in the vault. And I'll never forget the bombed-out lot next to Friseur. Friseur was, as its name implies, a former hairdressing salon. (East German businesses, being communist, didn't have names, which was one of the things I found so disorienting about walking down East Berlin streets, since it seemed like you were walking in circles -- didn't we just pass Friseur? -- when you weren't). While it lasted, Friseur was a rock club, a stuffy, hot, and uncomfortable one, but after the show, you would walk into the lot next to it, and, if you were lucky, you'd see a couple of candles burning on the ground. Walk over to them, and you'd see a hole with a stairway in it. Walk down the stairway, and you'd be in an amazing illegal club run by a bunch of insane Brazilians which may or may not have been called Favela. (That was the name of the bar they opened afterwards). They introduced the caipirinha to Berlin, and it remains one of the city's favorite drinks. I (sort of) remember an amazing evening there with the all-female rock band Die Braut Haut Ins Auge, who were friends with an old friend of mine here after their gig at Friseur, and walking up the stairs at the end of it all, and, as my head emerged from the hole, noting that the sun was coming up. I paused at ground level, seeing the lot and the city beyond it from a mouse's eye view, then continued up the stairs, onto the street, and, with the rising son at my back, proceeding through the Brandenburg Gate back to my apartment to try to catch a few hours' sleep.

I was once approached by someone on behalf of Seiji Ozawa and asked to recommend some clubs "on the edge" he could visit after conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, and I enthused about the Brazilians. Wonder if he ever went there?

But that real estate was too valuable to remain like that. I think the building where Friseur was still stands on the edges of Potsdamer Platz, but the lot is long since built on, and I wonder if I could find it today. Still, it's a measure of the devastation of this city that it could be 2004 and a long-buried cellar right next door to me would come to light.

But it leads me to a thought that's both historically accurate and, for me, a part of my own history: this city is mostly about where things used to be. For Heinrich Zille and for me.

No comments: