A walk through Berlin’s historic district Luisenstadt down to the block around Ritterstraße might be refreshing but not exactly aesthetically pleasing. This neighbourhood has never ranked among the prettiest. It does make an effort but fails. The problem is not new. Back in 1903 the English edition of the renown Baedeker guide warned Berlin visitors: „The industrial Luisenstadt, to the South and South-East of the Spittelmarkt, is the most densely populated and least interesting among Berlin districts“. Again, from the aesthetic point of view – perhaps. However, the area around Ritterstraße has also been interesting, lively and cosmopolitan. But, of course, it wasn’t Unter den Linden or Kudamm.
At the same time as Baedeker recommended its readers better head for the „Wintergarten“ and Stadtschloß, crowds of visitors from all over the world flocked to Berlin’s „Goldene Meile“ (Golden Mile). From the 1880s on a whole export district grew around Ritterstraße in what is today Berlin-Kreuzberg: textile industry, electro-technical workshops, bronze ornaments manufacturers, cardboard-box factories as well as printers and stationary product entrepreneurs had been settling there for decades. Soon the future SW68 (old postal code for the area, like SO36, traditionally used as its nickname) – which became not so much a postal code as a seal of approval – small and medium-sized factories began churning out screws, pipes, lamps, bath tubs, toys, gramophone plates and even wheel spokes for the first racing cars in Germany.
The industry ruled the Kiez (Berlin word for a neighbourhood) but it lived – even if not exactly smoke or noise-free – in the background.
The term Kreuzberger Mischung, or „Kreuzberg Mix“ (sometimes also referred to as Berliner Mischung), is almost forgotten today but according to many Berlin historians this is where its cradle stood: in the former Luisenstadt. Within the approximately 25-hectar area divided into more or less regular blocks, the city tested the new “living-and-working” concept on a larger scale: the plot fronts along the street were lined with residential buildings, many of which had at least one side-wing and/or what is known as a Quergebäude built parallel to and behind the courtyard separating it from the front house.
The back and the sides of the long plots were occupied by small workshops and factories, which with time expanded, swallowing most of the free space on the site. Gradually, the said plot became nearly completely built-over and the small gardens some of them had at the beginning became the song of the past.
But business boomed. Sample stores, warehouses and the famous show rooms – whose owners planning to set up shop windows in the 1890s had to apply for a special permit as shop windows were actually something for Unter den Linden or Leipziger Straße. Company agents set up their offices, door to door with shippers and carriers.
Names such as Butzke, Massary, Pelikan and Deutsche Gramophon Gesellschaft appeared. Advertisements, reps and sample stores, produced the air of a professional trade fair. The electrifying, pulsating atmosphere of the neighbourhood attracted crowds of business people, traders, inventors and even tourists.
By 1914 no fewer than 1,344 foreign companies offered their goods and services in and around Ritterstraße. In total the area was home to 1,391 factory owners, almost 3,000 agents, 92 export companies and 21 shipping businesses. The name Rollkutschenviertel (Haulier District) said a lot about the quality of living there.
Still, no-one really complained. Jeschäft (Berlinerisch for business) was good, money flowed and everything was going so well that in the first half of the 20th century almost every single building in Ritterstraße housed a show room or a factory or workshop.
In spite of the heavy recession during and after the First World War, in 1936 the Exportviertel Ritterstraße had a sales turnover worth over 100 million Reichsmark!
And then the next war began and six years later, on February 3, 1945 it blew the whole district off the face of the Earth. The air-raids that night pulverised nearly the whole Luisenstadt and the southern end of the neighbouring Friedrichstadt (north of the Landwehrkanal and to both sides of Friedrichstraße). Gone were the crystal vases, the leather goods, the bathroom fixtures, wall carpets and telegraphs. Gone, too, were small munition factories that replaced all the school-furniture manufactures, steel wire and paper bags workshops which instead of offering their usual goods, had began to produce cartridge shells and explosives. What remained after the cannons stopped spitting fire and went silent in the end was a neighbourhood that never managed to pick itself up again. What also remained were the curious vases sold by Herr Weckmann, a businessman from Ritterstraße 37, after the war. He recycled the no-longer needed metal cartridge shells – you could take Ritterstraße out of business but you could not take business out of the street.
The text was originally written in German for my weekly column "Aus der Zeit" in Berlin's newspaper the Tagesspiegel.