Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin


Map of Kreuzberg/Neukölln 1888 (source: Zentral Landesbibliothek Berlin)

Trying to untangle the past of a place resembles the game of What´s-in-the-box. You do know it: you fill a cardboard box with things, close it, make two holes on the side and let children slide their arms inside to guess what has been hidden there. You cannot see it, you cannot smell it, you can only touch it in the dark and try to imagine the shape.

For the past several months (actually almost two years but with long, long offspring-induced breaks) I have been busy learning Kreuzberg anew. Not as it is but as it was. Before the world wars, before the ruins, before the city planners´terrific idea to get rid of the useless “fancy bits” (Sanierung meant not only renovating the houses but also getting rid of facade decorations which were very often priceless works of art) or of whole areas at one fell swoop. And before the so called modern urban architecture began its triumphal – according to some – march across the borough.

It is not an easy task. Guessing the locations, looking for traces, digging – sometimes literally – your way through the labyrinths of no longer existing streets and buildings might be the most fulfilling activity on Earth (I knew would agree) but it ain´t simple. Neither is finding help.

The help I need can be found with The Authorities. For someone who has been notoriously unwilling to face them and for whom every visit to the Inland Revenue Office or Ausländerbehörde (another German word for “hell”) meant having to take heavy sedatives and/or practising the art of whispering heavy curses while looking harmlessly brainless, well, for such a someone writing emails to Behörden (the agencies such as the mayor´s office, borough urban development office, etc.) and making phone calls to them is very much not a pastime of choice. Yet, it turns out that people working in those “dark satanic mills” in Berlin are much friendlier and much more willing to help as one could think. Already the fact that they are prepared to try and understand my German missives is a true sign of their benevolence.

And thanks to one such person at the Rathaus Neukölln (the park of Hasenheide used to belong to Kreuzberg but now is part of Neukölln) I have become a proud owner of five old urban maps showing the area where the Elisabeth-Kinder-Hospital, future chapter in the book I am working on (I believe I forgot to mention that before), used to stand. And all of a sudden my blind search in the box labelled “Old Kreuzberg” is not so haphazard any more.

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