Editor’s Note: Today we’re happy to bring you an article by Ferdinand Nyberg, a Finnish citizen currently getting his Ph.D. at the University of Tübingen in Germany, where he works at a collaborative research center which investigates ‘threatened orders.’ His focus is in American Studies and his research will specifically center on the intersections of nineteenth-century temperance efforts, abolitionism, race, and gender. He’ll be contributing several articles to Points and we look forward to reading his work!
Few visitors to Berlin aged around 16 to 30 will be unfamiliar with Görlitzer Bahnhof; or, rather, they’ll be familiar with the park frequently referred to by that name (often shortened as ‘Görlitzer’ or ‘Görli’). As the name suggests, it was once a Bahnhof, a railway station; and one, it happens, with a fascinating history.
Built in 1866, it was to function as a major artery for trade and travel eastwards (notably to Görlitz). The impressive neo-renaissance station, commissioned by Prussian ‘railway king’ Bethel Strousberg, simultaneously advanced and symbolised Prussia’s rapid industrialisation and economic growth. But – as has so often happened in Berlin’s history – time and space had another say in the matter, and the station’s symbolic significance would take many turns.
In 1961, the Soviets erected the Berlin Wall (officially, the ‘Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart’) and Görlitzer Bahnhof, now located in closed-off West Berlin, lost its purpose. Within a year it was demolished, and its former location became nothing but empty space and rubble (in the 1990s, the area – already used for frolicking – was turned into the park we have today). Suddenly, Kreuzberg – the district in which Görlitzer Bahnhof stood, and one bordering the wall – had become a liminal and undesirable ‘Wild West’ in the already-liminal exclave that was West Berlin. Pretty quickly, locals moved out; either to West Germany proper or to newly-built government-subsidised housing projects (realising that the Berlin Wall might cause an exodus out of West Berlin, the government swiftly got to work, building spacious and affordable housing in the traditionally swanky parts of town). For a time, then, Kreuzberg was a destitute neighbourhood, myriad apartments standing empty. Some revitalisation would come through the German government inviting ‘guest workers’ from southern Europe and the Middle East to help instigate the Wirtschaftswunder. Thousands settled in Kreuzberg, which still forms the heart of Berlin’s Turkish and Arab community. Second, West Berlin became a sanctuary for ‘alternative types,’ defined broadly.[i] Students, artists, draft dodgers, and activists interested in ‘experimental living’ were attracted to Kreuzberg’s ‘different’ feel and eagerly took advantage of its low rents and ample squatting opportunities. Soon enough, liminal Kreuzberg had developed its own hybrid culture, a compound of left-leaning counterculture and ‘Middle Eastern’ elements. (A cultural admixture which, in retrospect, loudly forebodes the gentrification now taking place.) Görlitzer was, quite literally, central to these changes.
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