Spandauer Vorstadt in Berlin is not like the other districts. Being a hotspot for arts and culture, it comes at a price.
Sep 2016   |   DISCOVERIES
Well connected, cluttered with amazing architecture, densely covered with exquisite shops and hip cafés. Off the beaten track, there is a lot to discover for art and design lovers. For most people though, the quarter has become unaffordable.
At the end of the 17th century, space within the city walls of Berlin had become quite limited. The city boundary extended from the main building of the Humboldt University to Alexanderplatz, which are less than 2 kilometers apart. Luckily, prince Frederick William had given estates in the west and north of Berlin to his wife electress Dorothea as a wedding present. Dorothea, in turn, decided to section the land and sell it to citizens in order to make some profit.
Previously, the land was mainly used for agriculture. Only in today’s Scheunenviertel, which is how the eastern part of Spandauer Vorstadt is called, the prince had a few barns built. Due to fire hazards, he had forbidden to store any hay within the city walls. However, as hay was needed for the animal market on Alexanderplatz, the barns were built at the gates of Berlin.
In the 18th century, Frederick William commanded all Jewish citizens to move into Scheunenviertel, which was densely developed by then, in case they did not own a building in the city. Even then, anti-Semitism clearly was on the political agenda. This way, a Jewish community was established in the district that can still be recognized from the Jewish cemeteries and the Neue Synagoge in Oranieburger Straße.
During industrialization, the district turned into a problem case. Many people moved to Berlin to work and could only afford the rent in densely populated Scheunenviertel. Often times, way too many people were crowded in a small apartment, poverty rose, crime and prostitution increased.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Scheunenviertel was redesigned. Some of the narrow lanes were overbuilt to make space for more generously designed houses. As core element of the new district, the Volksbühne was established in 1914 at Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz.
On the contrary, the part that was sold by electress Dorothea came to be quite attractive to the middle class. This might have been due to the central location of the district and its vicinity to Monbijou Palace, where Dorothea spent her summer days. The palace was situated in today’s Monbijou Park, but was damaged during the Second World War and, just like the city palace, deconstructed by the magistrate of eastern Berlin in 1959.
When Berlin evolved into an international city at the beginning of the last century, also Spandauer Vorstadt changed. When the eastern part of the quarter was redesigned, also many of the buildings were constructed that today still characterize the district. Spandauer Vorstadt became especially popular for amusement, thus many of the new buildings were arcades, dance halls, theatres and vaudevilles.
The quarter’s charm arises, amongst other things, from its particular street pattern. There probably isn’t any other district in Berlin, in which the street pattern is as tapered as here. This creates various little palces in the shape of a triangle that are used as playgrounds, parks or as seating area for cafés. Walking through the streets, different routes open up from time to time bringing about variety and a certain playfulness. In this regard, the quarter sometimes rather resembles a Bavarian town than the rest of the mostly lavishly structured Berlin.
In Second World War, Spandauer Vorstadt got damaged only relatively little. This is why one can still visit some beautiful backyards today. The Hackesche Höfe for example offer a great range of different art and fashion stores. Especially the first yard is also quite impressive in terms of its design: Its facades are decorated with a costly art nouveau tessellation. Other lovely backyards are the one in front of the Sophiensäle or the Kunsthof Berlin in Oranienburger Straße.
Spandauer Vorstadt probably would not be the same without its central location. An important influence originates from the many cultural institutions in close vicinity. In the 19th and 20th century, a world-class cultural center was built south-east of Spandauer Vorstadt. The plan by Karl Friedrich Schinkel from 1822 to build several museums on the northern Spree island broke the first ground for this development. Only a few hundred meters west of Museum Island, the Deutsches Theater, the Berliner Ensemble, the Friedrichstadtpalast and art collection Boros are located just around the corner.
In the north-east the quarter borders on Prenzlauer Berg. The district remained relatively undamaged during Second World War, too. However, after the division of Berlin, the buildings were not taken much care of as focus was on creating modern apartment blocks instead. Even after the German reunion, Prenzlauer Berg was still an extremely dilapidated district with lots of abandoned properties.
A comprehensive restoration program eventually achieved that the attraction of the neighborhood was reestablished. Today, Prenzlauer Berg is known as residence of high earners and families. Accordingly, many of the side streets in Spandauer Vorstadt close to Prenzlauer Berg are filled with small boutiques, galleries, cafés and restaurants. The clientele here is rather wealthy and international.
What makes the district special is also its biggest risk at the same time. Strong gentrification and a continuous press of tourists especially in the area of Hackescher Markt, Oranienburger Straße and Torstraße make prices go through the roof. In this regard, the quarter seems to break away from the rest of Berlin.
Anyhow, the quarter has preserved a certain attraction and authenticity. Some walls are covered with street art and there are bikes and scooters standing around all over the place. Monbijou Park is one of the few parks in the center, in which it is allowed to do barbecue in summer. Torstraße is a popular nightlife area for Berliners, too. The Volksbühne headed by Frank Castorf shows some of Berlin’s most provoking theatre plays and draws educated citizens into the area.
What is more, also the history of the district can still be experienced at many points. For instance, the dance hall Clärchens Ballhaus in Augustenstraße has been in operation since 1913. Not far from there, the Jüdische Mädchenschule was recently renovated and now houses exhibitions and restaurants.
If Spandauer Vorstadt will remain attractive for a broad public depends on whether the balance between history, culture, internationality and a certain imperfection can be upheld.
An important role plays the further development of the Tacheles. The building was constructed in 1909 as an arcade named Friedrichstraßenpassage. It had survived the war to a great extend, however when its statics were deemed critical, part of the building was demolished in 1980.
The artists’ initiative Tacheles occupied the building to impede demolition of the remaining parts. In fact, a more recent assessment found the statics to be sufficient, so that a preservation order was put on the Tacheles building. The artists’ initiative was able to use the building for exhibitions, a cinema and catering until 2011. Finally, they went insolvent and had to leave the building.
Now, the waste land around Tacheles is supposed to be developed. The remaining part of the former arcade is planned to be renovated and used for cultural purposes. The cubic capacity of the new buildings is planned to resemble the one of the former arcade. This could be the most important urban development project for Spandauer Vorstadt since the reconstruction of buildings around Hackescher Markt.
Another major project close to completion is located just opposite of Bode Museum, called Forum Museum Island. It comprises of a number of high-priced apartments, office lofts, showrooms and shops. The good thing is that six impressive buildings of different architectural styles were entirely renovated in the course of the project.
The question is, though, which effect this ongoing gentrification will have on the other parts of the quarter. On the opposite side of the street, there is the Strandbar Mitte: A place, where people can dance tango, salsa and swing under the open sky and buy refreshments at some wooden shacks. This kind of venues could easily be endangered by the rising price level.
We can only hope that Spandauer Vorstadt will still be able to offer something for all citizens in future, not only for those with a fat purse. Otherwise, it’ll probably be “looksies, no feelsies!”