Spreepark – A tale of former glory and a long, long fall from grace.

On the Banks of the river Spree in Berlin sits a giant, overgrown, rusting amusement park.

It began back in the DDR times and was sold after the Wende (literally ‘the turning’, generally known as the fall of the Berlin Wall) to the Witte family – old Carnies wanting to own their own show. And own it they did – for a while it was very successful. Then the Berlin Senate decided to limit the parking spaces because of the Forest reservation all around the Park. And within 5 years they went broke. Not giving up, the family Witte decided to move to Peru- yes Peru – and start a new Park.

They shipped the most loved attractions, rented a house and tried to make it work. But it didn’t. Broke again, the father decided to play with the Devil and cooperate with the drug cartels, helping to ship cocaine back to Germany in his amusement machines. It didn’t work. He spent 4 years in prison in Germany, his son is still in prison – unfortunately for him in Peru where conditions are terrible.

When I arrived in Berlin people would simply jump the fence and brave the sporadic security to take photos of up-ended dinosaurs and the creaking Ferris wheel. For a short while you cou do a guided tour (unfortunately only in German)– on Saturdays with the daughter of the former owner who would show you where she left her footprints in the concrete path and talk about the glory days long gone.

An old train chugged it way around the outskirts revealing the overgrown landscape with glimpses of machinery through the undergrowth. It was a sad and somehow eerie experience. And like much of Berlin it no longer bears any resemblance to what it was 10 years ago.  The site was bought at auction by the city of Berlin who is now ripping everything out to re-develop the site.  Stay tuned for what will be the next phase of this extraordinary story!

Modernising or ruining a counter culture city?

As defined by the Oxford Dictionary:

Gentrification: verb (gentrifies, gentrifying, gentrified)
[with object]
renovate and improve (a house or district) so that it conforms to middle-class taste.
(usually as adjective gentrified) make (someone or their way of life) more genteel:a gentrified Irish American
Gentrification is the word on everyone’s lips in Berlin. It’s in the media every week. It’s bandied around by politicians and locals alike. It’s present at almost every dinner and party I’ve been to in the last year. So why is it suddenly so omnipresent?

I first came to Berlin in 2004. I moved to live here in 2005. Admittedly that’s nothing compared to someone who’s lived here their whole life. But it’s been nearly a decade. Long enough to settle in, learn the language and to bear witness to some remarkable changes here in the city. I can’t imagine how the life-long Berliners feel when they look around their city and the changes they’ve seen in their lifetimes. Everyone is complaining about major rental increases, entire neighbourhoods are changing so fast it’s hard to keep track of it all, and the older Berliners are seriously worried about how they will manage on their pensions if their rent doubles (a real possibility in some cases).

20 years ago Prenzlauerberg was a dump full of junkies and alcoholics. 10 years ago Prenzlauerberg was a hub for artists and creative types – it was close to the centre but cheap enough for people without much money. I first stayed with a friend of mine in one of the oldest renovated squats in East Berlin on Kastanienallee. This suburb is now one of the most expensive in Berlin and the street is now locally referred to as ‘Casting Alley’ because of the young beautiful hip things sipping lattes in the trendy cafes.

Friedrichshain was full of punks and students and it still felt a bit ‘edgy’ to me. 5 years ago everyone who could no longer afford to live in Prenzlauerberg moved to Friedrichshain. Now even that is too pricey.
Kreuzberg was the old bastion of long term west Berlin artists, squatters, social renovators and immigrants. Now it hosts the best Berlin fashion design store (as voted by Berlin Fashion week 2012) and a shop that sells 2500euro fold up bicycles.

The suburb Wedding was a scarey place, with many Turkish immigrants and some streets with a pretty high crime rate, full of 1960’s concrete housing blocks and betting shops. These days many smaller bars and designer places are relocating there, the old disused swimming pool has been turned into a funky location for perfomances and other offbeat art, and even one private english/german bilingual school is considering relocating to Wedding.

But nowhere does the change surprise me as much as in Neukölln. 13 years ago this was the place I first lived in Berlin. I shared a flat with a guy called Randy (no joke) and paid €180 a month, utilities included. It was (and still is) a major enclave for the Turkish immigrants in Berlin with more Turkish than German being heard on the streets and in the subways. It had (and still has) the highest percentage of families living on welfare. It is a major drug centre of Berlin. It was also a primary place for peadophiles to prey on young boys from poor families. The planes landing and taking off at the nearby Tempelhof airport made life pretty noisy.

But a nearly 10 years ago the airport closed and has subsequently become a massive open green space for public use, with community gardens, a bird sanctuary, a kids festival, a music festival, a kite festival, Berlin fashion week and much much more. And what has happened to Neu Kölln? I was down there a month or so ago and was overwhelmed at the speed of change in my old neighbourhood. It seems like almost every week something new opens up – a designer clothes shop, an organic bakery, a whole in the wall waffle shop that serves soy milk lattes, not to mention a couple of really damn good restaurants (when I lived there the Döner on the corner was the only option for a night out).

What has happened in Neu Kölln is that there is now the sense of a two tier society sharing the same suburb. The first is people who are genuinely poor, struggling with social issues or identify with the Turkish culture. The other consists of artists, foreigners, students, hipsters, start ups, trend followers and young entrepreneurs. And the people wanting to live in the funky neighbourhood these people create of course.

So what happened to the Turks, drug addicts and welfare cases?

They’re still there. For now.