Prenzl’berg has come a long way since its East German days when there was no such thing as “hip” and the only colour amongst the putty-coloured façades were the dyed hair of punks. Since German reunification, half of the façades have been restored and brightly painted – the rare few by landlords who have reclaimed the properties their families lost when fleeing Nazi Germany, but the punks have been pushed out by rent hikes. Though fine restoration jobs on turn-of-the-20th century tenement houses seem to suggest an original splendour, life here was hard scrabble for the new arrivals in the late 1800s. Drawn by factory work, Prenzlauer Berg residents multiplied to 350,000 by the 1920s, making the area one of the most cramped in Europe. In 1927, less than half of the households had electricity. Now it is electric.
The post-1990 gentrification of Prenzlauer Berg began around Kollwitzplatz,which is named after the artist and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945). She lived on Knaackstr. from 1891 to 1943, and in 1919 was the first woman inducted into the Prussian Art Academy. Her most prominent sculpture is the one in the Neue Wache on Unter den Linden, Germany’s national war memorial. Her artwork mostly depicts the hunger, poverty, and hoped-for revolution of the people who had become the waste of the Industrial Revolution and war. The Käthe-Kollwitz-Museum (Fasanenstr. 24; Wed - Mon 11:00 -18:00) is actually in Charlottenburg, but Kollwitz’s plain but solid likeness is represented by a sculpture in the square opposite her former home. She’d be happy to see how well-fed the neighbours are today. There’s a weekly organic food market on the square, and President Clinton even came to dine here at Gugelhof while on a state visit.
There aren’t museums to speak of in Prenzlauer Berg, but you can still sightsee. The Jüdischer Friedhof (Jewish Cemetery, Schönhauser Allee 22-23) borders Kollwitzstr. and its gravestones include that of local Expressionist painter Max Liebermann. An older Jewish cemetery in Mitte was totally desecrated by the Nazis in the 1930s, and this one fell victim to East German neo-Nazis in 1988. Many gravestones remain, however. On the way from here to the Rykestrasse Synagogue (Rykestr. 53), you’ll pass the 30m high, round redbrick Wasserturm (water tower; Belforter Strasse), built in 1877. Lace curtains in its windows prove that there is a market for pie-shaped apartments. The synagogue was built in 1904 and is hardly noticeable in the back courtyard. This position in a residential area probably saved it from being burned during Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938. A look inside is by appointment only (tel. 442 59 31).
In GDR days, to be a punk was a defiant rebuke to the Socialist State but as soon as the Wall fell, a free, democratic market did what the dictatorship never could: push the punks out. One talented neighbourhood punk who made a name for herself back in the GDR days keeps an apartment in a fairly crummy, back courtyard building in an un-hip part of Prenzlauer Berg: singer Nina Hagen. The diva (born 1955) can still pull off ponytails and makes one suspect that heavy eyeliner is a secret anti-aging potion. She grew up in Prenzlauer Berg and scored her first hit, You Forgot the Color Film in 1974. Two years later she left for West Germany with her mother and substitute father, Wolf Biermann, a folksinger expelled by the GDR. At www.nina-hagen.com you can get a sample of her strong and gravelly Eartha Kitts-meets-Carol Channing voice, as well as generous information on her life and social activism.
Culture, if not so counter anymore, bounces between the brick walls of the Kulturbrauerei (Sredzkistr. 1, plus other entrances; see box). This 19th century brewery complex shut down production in 1967, but it now makes a living on the night shift. From here, you can stumble south on Kastanienallee, which is full of more restaurants, bars, and several funky shops. Or, head north to the U-Bahn Eberswalderstr. to speed to your next destination. If you didn’t fill up on food at the beer garden, grab a curry wurst to-go from Konnopkes Imbiss (under the U-Bahn tracks between Schönhauser Allee and Danziger Str.). It’s been grilling sausages since 1930 and along with Prater, is one of the icons of the neighbourhood.
Tourist Information Centre
Prenzlauer Berg is the first area in Berlin with its own tourist information centre, inside the Kulturbrauerei complex near the Eberswalderstrasse U-Bahn station. The staff can book accommodation and inform you about events in the area, nightlife, guided walks, and about what to see in Prenzlauer Berg. The centre is also involved in erecting German and English-language signs throughout the district with information for visitors. Visit their English-language website before exploring the area.
TIC Prenzlauer Berg, G-1, Schönhauser Allee 36, Kulturbrauerei, tel. 44 35 21 70, www.tic-in-prenzlauerberg.de. Open 12:00 – 18:00, Thu-Sat 12:00 – 20:00.
A word with Pro Prenzlauer Berg
The Pro Prenzlauer Berg association has been involved in the development of the touristic infrastructure and the regional marketing of the district for over 11 years, and strives to bring the eclectic attractions of this wonderful, creative Kiez to the attention of Berliners as well as tourists; “It’s simply delightful to walk through the streets and to give yourself over to the district’s buzzing atmosphere. For me it’s the most exciting part of Berlin”. Sascha Hilliger, Hotelier and Chairman of the Board, Berlin Pro Prenzlauer Berg e. V., www.pro-prenzlauerberg.de
Something's brewing here
The block in the northwestern corner of Prenzlauer Berg holds the KulturBrauerei (‘culture brewery’), one of Berlin's gems; a nightlife Mecca that with its red bricks, towers and chimneystacks resembles an old town setting. A cobblestone pedestrian way courses through the center of the former beer brewery, whose 20 buildings with 40,000 square meters are filled with bars, restaurants, clubs, galleries and a cinema. Now that it's also home to the district's tourist information centre (see elsewhere), it has established itself as the best place to start and end a day in the Kiez (district). 20,000 visitors each weekend can't be wrong; this is one of Berlin's special corners.