This sign is on the street that leads to where I live, about one bus stop away.
Do you understand it?
Of course not, Kara, it’s in German.
But I bet, even after I translate it for you, you still won’t get what it means:
Glasses like on Ku’damm, Prices like in Pankow.
Pankow? Ku’damm? What?
This sign, which displays an apparently successful marketing slogan, since it’s painted directly onto the window’s glass, exploits Berlin neighborhood stereotypes to sell its products, which are eyeglasses.
Neighborhood (Nachbarschaft), City-quarter (Stadtviertel), Area (Bezirk) … however you entitle it, for city-dwellers, your neighborhood says a lot. It says a lot about who you are, your personality, how much money you make, what you value, etc. There are real differences.
I guess I didn’t really get it until I lived in Kansas City. I mean, in Nampa (ID) or Bourbonnais (IL) or Thornlands (QLD), we had streets and housing developments, but we didn’t usually know their specific names. Or if we did, it was really just a matter of how big the houses were there. But when I lived in Kansas City, you could tell a Lenexa person from a Westport person, not to mention the distinctions between Plaza, Brookside, Waldo, etc. Of course, there are big exceptions, as in the case of any sweeping stereotype. But these neighborhood personalities have always been interesting to me.
In New York, there’s Chelsea, the Village (and its various sub-parts), the Upper East Side, etc., etc. In Washington D.C., there’s Rosslyn, Georgetown, Adams Morgan, etc. etc. You name the city, you’ve got neighborhoods and their accompanying personalities.
Berlin is no exception. In fact, the neighborhood distinctions may be even more pronounced than in the U.S. because they’re entwined in the much longer historical expansion of the city (and its formerly growing city wall) and because, much later, the infamous Berlin wall served to effectively isolate certain portions of the city from one another for long enough that their “cross-pollination” was seriously hindered. I’m not sure whether the broad-reaching and often complete destruction that was experienced at the end of WWII eliminated some of the architectural signals of these distinct neighborhoods, or if the reconstruction that took place in the districts illustrates their differences.
In Berlin, a neighborhood is called a “Kiez” (pronounced keets).
When I visited the Rote Rathaus (Red Courthouse) on Alexanderplatz, there were these awesome windows that illustrate the symbols for Berlin’s various neighborhoods. I thought I’d post the pictures I took here and cite some of my (foreigner’s) impressions of what each Kiez is typified as/known for. Some of this is informed by Germans with whom I’ve spoken or by whom I’ve been taught.
Mitte (pronounced Mit-teh) means “middle” or “center.” It’s the center of city and the axis from which the roads branch outwards like spokes on a wheel. In the earliest days, what is now Berlin was actually Berlin and Cölln, two tiny towns separated by the Spree River, each with a Rathaus (courthouse), Cathedral, and a monastery. Very little remains of these early towns and they were both so small that their medieval boundaries would not even comprise today’s compact Mitte. My class/Goethe-Institut is in Mitte, as are tons of museums, historical buildings, and shops. People live here, too, it’s got a very metropolitan feel. Berlin’s Mitte was badly damaged in the bombardment in the end of WWII, so that it was a wasteland taken over by the Soviet government, with the division of Berlin post-war (4 sectors: Soviet, American, British, French; Soviet = East Berlin, which was the worst damaged in the war; the other three = West Berlin). Many repairs were made, but the damage was so extreme that many buildings were razed or are still being repaired today. The mixture of old and new in Mitte is interesting, one should always look for the tell-tale Communist architecture, the Plattenbau, which are pre-fabricated buildings, now known for their ugly boxy-grayness. Alexanderplatz is central in Mitte, and is a mish-mash of Soviet-styled workers buildings (Haus des Lehrers, for example), modern, western shopping centers (like Alexa), small cafes here and there, and a public transportation hub. From wherever you are in Berlin, if you locate the towering Fernsehturm (TV Tower), you’ll know where Mitte is.
Prenzlauer Berg (pronounced Prince-low-eh Bay-ugh; “low” as in cow) is, nowadays, a hip neighborhood occupied by young people and young families. It has lots of great cafes and shops that are available in the day time. In the evenings, it’s a key locale for the Berlin Szene (scene, clubs, parties). Formerly a fairly working-class, East Berlin place, after the fall of the Wall, cheap rent attracted a young crowd. Businesses and a sense of “hip-ness” followed. There are a lot of old buildings in this Kiez, so not everything is DDR (Deutsche/German Democratic Republic = East Germany) Plattenbauten. I live right on the edge of Prenzlauer Berg. The Kiez was very involved with the resistance movement that developed in the DDR era. Two churches in particular, Zionskirche (where Bonhoeffer had been in the late 1930s) and Gethsemanekirche, led the peaceful revolt against the growing repression of the regime and were key in the events of Herbst ’89 (the Autumn of 1989).
Pankow (pronounced Pahn-koe) is where I live. It’s just north of Prenzlauer Berg and remains a fairly middle-class/working-class neighborhood. It’s not flashy, but has neighborhood shops, cafes, and small parks. It’s got some old architecture, but was also home to a lot of state officials during the DDR era. Things aren’t open too late and some people dress in an ’80s throw-back style. That’s how I can tell that some of the old East German markers aren’t dead yet. Yet, the Obst und Gemüse Laden (fresh produce shop) down the road is run by a Vietnamese family and the bakery around the corner is owned by a Turkish family, whereas immigrant really weren’t prevalent in the DDR. Times are changing. They’re just changing slower here, much slower than in Prenzlauer Berg or Friedrichshain, for example.
Friedrichshain (pronounced Freed-ricks-hine) is becoming hip-ified, but has a long history as a grimy working-class neighborhood. Workers movements and communist affiliations ran deep here. In fact, most of the dwellings were so unappealing, unrenovated, and decrepit, that many stood abandoned during the DDR era, in favor of the more modern Plattenbauten in other areas. So, after the wall fell, the dilapidated, long-empty buildings attracted squatters, usually of the young, anti-establishment sort. Anarchists, punks, and nonconformists abound in the imperially named Kiez. If you visit, I’d highly recommend scouting out some of the awesome street art/graffiti to be found adorning buildings. Be aware that the use of the colors red and black is an anarchistic symbol, which will give you an idea of the meaning behind some of the art. Don’t expect it to be too rough, though, the neighborhood is softening. As an example, I saw an extremely pierced and tattooed punk couple pushing a nice, new stroller and walking a well-groomed dog.
Tiergarten (pronounced Teah-gah-ten) is home to … tada … the Tiergarten, which is a park for which this area is named. Tiergarten means, literally, “animal garden,” and was formerly the royal hunting grounds. Now, it’s just a rambling, expansive city park, filled with ornate monuments. Especially on weekends, it’s packed with people grilling out, playing sports, chatting, or sunbathing. I hear that nudity is permitted in the park, but I’ve yet to see it. In regard to the Kiez itself, I don’t have a feel for its personality. It feels more professional and governmental than residential, but I may be merely citing what I have seen there. That is, many government buildings line its eastern edge (closest to Mitte), as does the iconic Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate). Potsdamer Platz – the once glorious and central home to the first stoplight in Germany; then after the war and division by an ugly wall, a virtual wasteland; and now once again an architecturally modern marvel – is also on the edge of this neighborhood.
Charlottenburg is Berlin’s equivalent of New York’s Upper East Side. It’s wealthy, it’s western, it’s capitalistic, it’s pretty, it’s sophisticated. In Charlottenburg is Ku’damm, that is, Kurfürstendamm (which means, literally, Elector’s/Viscount’s wall), which is kind of like saying “Fifth Avenue.” It is fashionable and elite. When I stepped out of the U-Bahn onto Ku’damm, I literally could not believe I was still in Berlin. I’m not saying that Berlin is grimy – it’s not – but this was like … picture perfect Paris, kind of. The first stores I saw were Tommy Hilfiger and Starbucks, if that indicates anything.
Maybe now you can understand the meaning of the above ad. It’s like seeing an eyewear shop on Long Island that says, “Glasses like on Fifth Avenue, Prices like in Queens.”