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Former East Berlin: Once Glum, Now Vibrant

Berlin, Germany

East Berlin is revitalized, featuring trendy neighborhoods and the Mauerpark (a park that hosts karaoke where the Berlin Wall once stood). The Spree River, with boat tours and “beach” cafés, has become part of the people-friendly cityscape.

Complete Video Script

But to really feel the vibrancy of the new Berlin, I enjoy exploring residential neighborhoods deeper in the former Eastern Zone. Young, in-the-know locals agree that Prenzlauer Berg is one of Berlin’s most colorful neighborhoods. It’s a classic case of an old workers’ quarter becoming trendy.

Prenzlauer Berg was bordered by the Berlin Wall. Today, what was once a former death strip along the Wall is a fun-loving park. The remains of the hated wall are now a showcase for counter-culture graffiti artists — a canvas for free-spirited spray-painters. The Mauerpark, or Wall Park, hosts a parade of alternative lifestyles. It’s a youthful culture of people with no living memory of communism. There’s plenty of picnicking and lots of entertainment. And each summer Sunday, the park hosts a giant karaoke free-for-all.

To better understand this dynamic city, I’m joined by my fellow tour guide and local journalist, Holger Zimmer.

Holger: Well, this is Prenzlauer Berg. This is my neighborhood, really, you know? And I’ve been living here since the end of communism and I’ve seen a lot of changes here. It’s a fine example of how Berlin developed. Back in the 1850s, ’70s, Industrial Revolution comes along, the population of Berlin doubled within the space of 30 years, from one to two million, so people needed apartments, people needed space to live, so that’s why all these buildings were built.
Rick: A huge building project. Look at this, lots of workers’ accommodation.
Holger: And we were lucky that we can still see it, because they haven’'t been destroyed in the Second World War. So that’s pretty much survived here. And then after ’45, this is East Berlin here, this is communism, so people don’t pay rent, so the buildings actually collapse, fall apart.
Rick: So it got really run-down during communism.
Holger: But that means when ’89 comes along, the Wall falls, people move in, young people, students, creative people move in here, and they basically take these old buildings that no one else wanted to live there anymore, with coal heating, with like a toilet that’s just kind of like half a floor down, and they come and live there, you know, and they doll it up and they change the place completely.
Rick: Must have been a very creative time.
Holger: Absolutely, lots and lots of vibe, lots of people out on the rooftops playing guitar, playing music, just meeting on the street, and, I mean, the artists, let’s face it, they have gone, but —
Rick: So that’s gentrification. It’s cool, people come in with money, the creative people move out, and now you’ve got comfortable, desirable apartments.
Holger: And like me, like, I came here as a student. Now I have kids and I enjoy living here.
Rick: So you don’t have to go downstairs for the toilet.
Holger: Absolutely, yes. And I don’t need to bring up my bucket of coal anymore.
Rick: Nice.

Rick: I love these happy little crossing signals. They’re so jaunty.
Holger: Yeah, that’s one thing people here really kept from the communist times, and they really fought for them.
Rick: It’s a popular demand.
Holger: And we call them Ampelmännchen.
Rick: Ampelmännchen.
Holger: Little light man.
Rick: Okay, Ampelmännchen.

Holger: So here’s a place where the old spirit still survives.
Rick: Let’s take a peek in.

Rick: So this was originally squatters.
Holger: This was a squatter place, yes. Next door.
Rick: And today, today they’re paying rent?
Holger: Today they’re paying rent and they still care for their house, they still do something, of course. They don’t have much money, but they still keep it up. Former squatters now have a place to stay.

The Spree River — which cuts through the heart of the city — has taken on new life. A relaxing hour-long boat tour — which comes with an interesting narration — is both time and money well-spent.

It’s a poignant cruise because this river was once a symbol of division. But today, Berlin is thoughtfully incorporating the river into a people-friendly cityscape. Cruising along a delightful riverside path, you’ll pass the impressive new buildings housing the German government, fine bridges symbolizing the new connection of East and West, and inviting “beach cafés.”

Berlin. Visitors here are understandably fascinated by the Nazi sights, communism, and the Wall. But for today’s young Berliners, that’s history. In their city, former military parade grounds are where you go for a tan and the Wall is simply a back drop for a party. For any Berliner under 30, their world has always been capitalistic, democratic, free, and peaceful.