Life on the Karl-Marx-Allee. Read Part 1 here.
Philipp and Quentin live in an apartment next to the Rose Garden, in Block D North, a comely segment of the Karl-Marx-Allee designed by Kurt Leucht.
“It takes time to get used to the style of the buildings,” Quentin tells me. “It’s so massive. There’s nothing delicate in the style.” He points to the oversized street lamps from his window. The lampposts dwarf the cars parked beside them; the lights alone are taller than a seven-year-old child. Life disappears in this enormity. “If you’re sitting on the grass, you don’t see the insects. If you look out the window, you see everything.”
The apartment’s former tenant, Philipp tells me, spent some six decades here and just recently passed away. In the kitchen, Philipp shows me the “refrigerator” that tenant used in the days of the GDR: a wooden cupboard under the window, built into the building’s thick walls. It was the coolest space in the room.
When they were built, the buildings of the Stalinallee were—with their elevators, gas heating, warm water, and private bathrooms—considered luxurious. But the GDR faced a severe lack of resources: certain innovations and foreign-produced goods, like automobiles and refrigerators were produced and acquired at a stiflingly slow pace. Over time, the immaculate facades of the Karl-Marx-Allee fell off. The GDR was coming apart, and so were its buildings. The ceramic tiles began to drop—some fifty thousand square meters of them were lost. There were no replacements, and even if there had been, there were no volunteers and hardly any workers to put them up.
The disrepair was just another reason for citizens to scorn the Karl-Marx-Allee, which came to be associated with an increasingly disagreeable regime in an increasingly insufferable state. The secret police had their equipment in the attics and the basements; they were everywhere in the walls.
The tiles were already falling in 1973, when Wolf Biermann released his song “Acht Argumente für die Beibehaltung des Namens Stalinallee für die Stalinallee ” (“Eight Arguments for Keeping the Name Stalinallee for the Stalinallee”), a scathing satire of the boulevard, which by then had carried Marx’s name for more than a decade.
Accompanied by a festive accordion and upbeat drumming—just the sort of hearty Volksmusik a good laborer could drink to after a full day’s work—Biermann roars out his dissatisfaction:
The white tiles fall
But only on our heads
The houses will stand forever!
(in a state of building repair!)
In its second half, the song shifts into a didactic plea for the vision that had brought Biermann, Brecht, and other artists and ideologues to the East: a socialism with the “most beautiful streets, where people live happily” with the ability to trust their neighbors and to be trusted by them, too. A real Karl Marx Boulevard, befitting of its name.
Biermann had already spent seven years on the GDR’s blacklist when he released this song, and he would be exiled three years later; Brecht had died twenty years before that, not surviving the GDR’s first decade to see the erection of the Wall. A quote on Block A North of the Karl-Marx-Allee bears witness to Brecht’s initial enthusiasm. It’s one of seven he wrote for his friend Hermann Henselmann on the occasion of a nearby building’s inauguration in 1952:
Als wir aber dann beschlossen
Endlich unsrer eignen Kraft zu traun
Und ein schönres Leben aufzubaun
Haben Kampf und Müh
Uns nicht verdrossen.
But when we then decided
To finally trust our own strength
And to build a better life
Did neither struggle nor toil
But Brecht’s relationship to the GDR was itself vexed: he was a Marxist, not a Stalinist. For him, a new Socialist state presented a promising opportunity to build anew, to attempt a utopia, as the Stalinallee was meant to be. Of course, reality blocked the ideal course. Brecht initially supported the regime’s response to the uprising of the seventeenth of June, at least publically. “Organized Fascist elements tried to exploit the [worker’s] unhappiness for their own bloody purposes,” he said; a letter to the secretary of the Socialist Unity Party was excerpted as evidencing his total support.
The position was tremendously unpopular. Brecht was never really forgiven in the three sorry years that remained of his life. After his death, the West German Die Welt published his now oft-quoted “The Solution”:
After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writer’s Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
Over the next four decades, little improved regarding the confidences of the government or the people. The Karl-Marx-Allee remained tarnished, a reminder of the sorry confidences that were lost. “The low point was 1990, when many shops closed and the once famous restaurants and cafés stood empty,” Der Spiegel reported in 1997. Long before Green Day used the phrase, Der Spiegel called this “the boulevard of broken dreams.”
* * *
After reunification, the property of the GDR was inherited by the respective district housing associations, loading them up with whole districts full of decrepit buildings in sore need of repair. The historic Karl-Marx-Allee, which shortly before reunification had been declared Germany’s longest landmark in one of the last successful actions of the Socialist regime, had racked up an immense bill of overdue repairs fully beyond the Housing Association Friedrichshain’s means.
The fourteen landmark Stalinist buildings were sold in December 1993 to DePfa Immobilien, the real-estate subsidiary of a large German Bank, with the stipulation that they be renovated true to their landmark status. The finances were more than a little tricky. A plan was brokered with the city of Berlin involving tax breaks, subsidies, and waivers of dividends, and the first six buildings were completed under this model. But financial difficulties on the city’s side cut the promised subsidies, and Predac had to sell the eight remaining houses. They were purchased by a number of large interest groups, which subsequently renovated, divided, and/or resold the properties as condominiums or parts of investment portfolios, and some did better or worse jobs managing and restoring the properties.
“The houses were in an extremely poor state and the average rent was about one deutsche mark per square meter [roughly six cents per square foot] per month. The costs of repair were higher than the normal costs of construction for a new apartment. Alone, the windows, and especially the facades, cost nearly two thousand deutsche mark per square meter,” Werner Pues, the head of DePfa’s successor Predac Real Estate Management, tells me. Pues has been involved in the Karl-Marx-Allee in some capacity for over twenty years now. He hopes “to develop the Allee into a place where one can expect the extraordinary, the exceptional.” We meet at the opening night of a photo exhibition he co-organized called “Utopia, Uprising, Congestion—What do we have to pass on?”
When Berliners talk about life in Berlin, they like to talk about Kiezleben and Kiezkultur, colloquialisms for something like “neighborhood life.” Someone who never leaves the neighborhood is a Kiezhocker, a criticism that Berliners level against each other but never against themselves: Berliners have strong affinities toward their neighborhoods, their streets, the convenience stores nearest by their houses. Berliners always believe their Kiez to be the best Kiez—why would they go anywhere else?
The Karl-Marx-Allee doesn’t have a Kiezkultur, and everybody knows it. One lives in the Karl-Marx-Allee and goes out elsewhere; works in the Karl-Marx-Allee and cycles over to a distant coffee shop. Even the grocery stores struggle to succeed. The vibrant sidewalk life that existed when the GDR had its huge department stores, such as the Kaufhaus des Kindes, and its entertainment venues and “nationalities restaurants,” such as the Kino International or the glamorous Café Moscow, hasn’t been revived in the past twenty-five years.
Business owners and creative types set up shop here, conducting lives apart from the GDR residents—most of whom are now beyond their late seventies. The street is ninety meters wide, with heavy traffic. Just crossing from one side to the next can rid you of the urge to strike up a friendly conversation. None of the people I spoke to spend much time out here. Philipp and Quentin avoid eating on the street; Juri Wiesner drives his car into fashionable Mitte for client meetings over lunch. As an exception, Otto Stark is well acquainted with his neighbors—all from the GDR days, though their numbers are thinning.
There’s a great deal of effort that goes into forging a community feeling, or at least increasing visits to the Allee, by owners and developers like Pues, although by now he, too, believes that re-creating a thriving pedestrian zone isn’t on the horizon. He tells me that demand for the apartments has increased significantly in the last years; what matters is bringing in the right people, the right businesses—influential galleries, or the popular Museum of Computer Games, which moved here in 2011—to establish the Karl-Marx-Allee as a worthwhile cultural attraction that will draw the right visitors, if not quite crowds.
When I first visited the Karl-Marx-Allee in 2011, I was just passing through in a car, with plenty of other cars around me, all of us surrounded by the imposing, towering beauty of this place, a beauty that felt ideological and maybe terrible and graceful. I’d just begun to acquaint myself with modern architecture, finding awe in its embodied idealism—and, especially, in its idiosyncratic German strain, which spoke of so much tragicomedy, so much utopianism, so many mighty attempts. The Karl-Marx-Allee provides a parallel to that energy, a grand promise, something hopeful but never quite realized, which anyone passing by can feel.
This was never a street that belonged to anyone, nor a street to which anyone ever belonged—it’s far too monumental for that. It’s weighted with history, with heavy walls, too heavy for individual lives to bear. It’s a street to feel small in: a street that has tried at greatness, terrible and sublime.
This is the second in a two-part series. Read Part 1 here.
Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi is a writer based in Berlin. Currently, she spends her time thinking and writing about the once divided capital and, separately, the merits of metaphysics. She’s written for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Berfrois, and others.