Excerpt: 'Berlin Triptych' by David Wagner


Schönhauser Allee, 1997. Photograph by Nell Hester

Schönhauser Allee, 2000:

The owner of the snack stall by the name of ‘Day Pork Good Pig Cheap Night’ doesn’t know where Schönhausen is. His kiosk is just after the barely perceptible bend in the road at which Berliner Straße changes its name on its way down from Pankow and becomes Schönhauser Allee. Outside his kiosk, the pavement is padded with green carpeting, on which white plastic chairs rehearse the reclamation of public space. There are drinkers here at eight in the morning; the Truxa Bierbar right next door closes at dawn. Passers-by carry briefcases, cans of beer, backpacks or bags of breakfast rolls. At the top end of Schönhauser Allee, there’s a branch of a different bakery chain on every block. In between are Surprise Bazaar, Factory Outlet, All Kinds of Good Value, Conny’s Container, Special Offers and Parts, and Bargain Box – every item 99 pfennigs. ‘The whole of Berlin is a world exhibition,’ said a local politician, and this is its clearance section. The gaunt old woman who bends down to pick up rubbish from the pavement despite her blind person’s armband shouts, ‘Berlin’s turned into a pile of shit.’ She’s outside the building with the gigantic dome on its roof on the corner of Kuglerstraße. The architect must have been following the personal wishes of the last Kaiser, who wanted all corner buildings to be especially sumptuous. In the Chinese gift bazaar, two shirts cost 17 marks 90; since the weather warmed up, the shop-window dummy with hair on the back of his neck has been wearing sunglasses.

The linden trees along the top end of Schönhauser Allee are still small and don’t cast much shade. The Vietnamese men who sell contraband cigarettes on the corner of Bornholmer Straße and outside Burger King never seem to get warm enough. They’re always wearing anoraks. Perhaps to hide their bullet-proof vests? Very cautious strollers always anticipate gunshots in their vicinity. And plain-clothes policemen have been spotted kneeling beneath the trees, digging for hidden cigarettes.

There are benches with the backrests missing, photocopied ads for tiled stove demolition taped to front doors, Flowers 2000 conjures up a garden on the pavement. The walkway is no longer made of ‘pork bellies’ – as the Berliners call a certain type of granite paving slabs. They must have replaced the surface after 1990; alongside the small reconstituted stone slabs, cobblestones scrape through thin soles. People step on each other’s toes in the afternoons.

The elevated train track changes at the junction with Schivelbeiner; the sober extended viaduct – a general overhaul has begun – comes to an end. After the plain pillars at long intervals come the older, more curved supports standing closer together, designed by Alfred Grenander. The locals call the rail line on stilts the ‘municipal umbrella’ after the protection it offers from rain. The umbrella has holes in it, though; the pipes are leaky. And it doesn’t protect anyone from pigeon droppings.

There are two branches of Humana – First Class Second Hand on Schönhauser Allee, although the Butter-Lindner deli closed not long ago. The ‘Boulevard of the North’, as Schönhauser Allee was once known, has lost a lot. Two hat salons and five bookstores have remained, joined by the Schönhauser Allee Arcaden mall. And five or six shops selling mobile telephones. Since the shopping mall opened, not only the side streets have had vacant shops. At the crossing on the corner of Dänenstraße, a young woman is drinking buttermilk and eating cherry tomatoes with it, untroubled by the dust whirled up by the passing cars. The market, previously held on the once vacant lot next to the entrance to the demolished Schönhauser Allee station, has moved underneath the rusty viaduct. It’s a long way from the market under the Paris Métro tracks on Boulevard de Rochechouart.

Trains and trams run side by side past the newly illuminated Colosseum Cinema, up to the crossroads with Kastanienallee. On this older stretch of overhead railway, the track parts its legs, the pillars of the green-painted viaduct slightly splayed. And the rivets are scattered across the steel like sublime painted-over liver spots, only at regular intervals. From the train, the view is of cars, couples, passersby, bicycles, three-wheeled baby carriages or a man being pushed in a wheelchair, smoking along the way. The eye might alight on a leftover two-story house or on buildings where you can tell they’ve had floors added. ‘Suitable for gastronomy’ is written on the windowpanes of empty storefronts; from the overhead train you can see into balconies, bay windows, kitchens and living rooms, not nearly all of them shielded by curtains. Love stories could begin here under observation.

Above street level, the station at Eberswalder Straße, previously Dimitroffstraße – the last stop before the tracks dip down underground again – isclamped green between the facades. The station floats above the street like a giant green beetle, trams crawl underneath it like little yellow caterpillars, and cars wait at the traffic lights like brightly coloured aphids. Their exhaust fumes drift past the currywurst eaters standing outside Konnopke’s sausage stall.

Right where the railway tracks disappear into the ground, the Schultheiß brewery guards the city centre like a fortress. Freshly renovated and fully equipped with historically correct typography, it looks like it’s been brought back from the dead for a Disney movie. To go with it, the house at number 150 has had two decorative towers restored. The shiny canopies on top of them play at Arabian Nights.

The cars sound louder and louder on the cobbled road. After the Jewish cemetery comes the police station, and after that the empty space that makes Senefelder Platz larger than bearable. They say a bomber plane crashed here during the war, and little was left of the block it fell on. Schönhauser Allee almost gets lost in the sudden expanse, but it will soon be closed up by new roadside buildings backing onto Kollwitzstraße.

Down here, shortly before Schönhauser Allee issues into Torstraße, are the Pfefferberg and its garden and the Treviso Restaurant, set back slightly and protected from the tide of traffic as if on a raised mound. Two lots further south, in another gap, is a used car dealer, and on the last corner, where there was once a Schönhauser Gate, a shop for used refrigerators in one of the new office blocks. It probably looked different in the investor’s brochure.Schönhausen must be in the other direction, at the other end of Schönhauser Allee, beyond the Truxa Bierbar. All that remains of Schönhausen, in fact, is its name. For King Friedrich I, the palace now known as Niederschönhausen was still simply Schönhausen. The name sounds suspicious: a place of beautiful houses. Is it next door to Disney’s Duckburg?

Schönhauser Allee, 2013

The linden trees have grown tall, their leaves now forming a canopy over the pavement. There’s no weekly market under the railway now, and there hasn’t been for a long time; now there are one, two, three organic supermarkets on Schönhauser. Burger King on the corner of Paul-Robeson-Straße has closed down; a solarium tans bodies there now. No more Vietnamese men to be seen selling contraband cigarettes on the pavement.

The Krautzig Bakery recently celebrated its eightieth anniversary – they bake perhaps the best bread in Prenzlauer Berg. The China Pearl turned into a Vietnamese restaurant – how many of them are there on this road now? And how many hairdressers? Eight? Nine? There’s even a shop selling hairdressers’ supplies, down on the corner of Fehrbelliner Straße.

The overhaul of the elevated train track was finished. Now Alfred Grenander’s viaduct stands there all in green and freshly painted; it just took several years. The low-rise building on the corner of Schivelbeiner was demolished. The last thing in there was a Humana second-hand store; now they’re building an office block – another low-rise squeezed into a bombsite bites the dust. On the edge of the circle line’s trench, the eye has had to grow accustomed to the huge, shapeless three block clinic building. Before this piece of amortization architecture was dumped there, you could see slideshows on the now hidden end wall after dark. The bronze plaques on the bridge over the S-Bahn tracks, often tagged and fly-posted, still commemorate Berlin’s liberation by the courageous Red Army.

The number of cyclists has increased; in the summer, Schönhauser Allee turns into a bicycle highway. The tram stops in the middle of the roadas ever, often at risk to life and limb. And I still like walking up and down you, Schönhauser Allee, almost every day. I’m glad of the older linden trees on the strip in the middle, in the shade of the overhead tracks. It seems so unlikely, the way they’ve grown there.

Frozen yogurt and bubble-tea shops have opened up and closed down again. One bubble-tea shop has become a salad bar, another turned into a high end burger joint. The Polish specialities shop is still going strong and there are still two video stores. The third, the one with the best choice on the corner of Stargarder, had to close down – the shopfront is vacant right now; it used to be a drugstore. More vacant space in the shops diagonally opposite, where the Schlecker drugstore once depressed its customers. And the one where Café Nährreich cheered them up with good coffee. And the one full of gift ideas for men.

The 1-Euro Shop seems to be doing well. Next door, a store by the name of Mosquito Sausages sells grilled sausages and discount underpants, plus asparagus when it’s in season. A combination that never loses its fascination. ‘There was a military hospital in the Colosseum Cinema during the final battle for Berlin,’ I hear an elderly man say on the street. Around the cinema’s entrance, the many wads of chewing gum stuck to the pavement form a spotted pattern. It looks as though a very large predator were sleeping there, with us pedestrians walking over its back.

Two punks and their dogs are sitting on the pavement outside the Kaiser’s supermarket, wishing shoppers a good day. The scent of stationery wafts onto the street from the Paper Tiger stationery shop, its door wide open. Wohlthat, the budget bookshop (where I once spotted my book In Berlin in the bargain bucket) is now called Joker’s; the Anakoluth Book Shop has better books, an excellent selection. There’s a gummy bear shop that sells pizzas and cakes shaped out of wine gums, and it’s not easy – no surprises here – to walk past it with a child in tow. The shop with the words ‘world music instruments’ above its doorway regularly confuses me with its esoteric name. Peter Werk’s electrical goods shop has disappeared; later there was a fashion store in there and now it’s the sports shoe retailer Runner’s Shop, which used to be two doors down. We’ve bought lots of shoes in there over the years.

The Rossmann drugstore built new premises opposite, where Carglass used to be. And on the corner of Pappelallee, where Rossmann used to be, is now the Cookhouse – a shop that sells recipeideas to make at home along with the necessary ingredients. A few yards further on, meat and sausage products are hung on chains like art objects. The Mischke Butchery, however, displays its goods in a perfectly conventional case.

There are fewer mobile telephone shops, bakeries have changed their names, and there’s still no building on the wedge-shaped plot on the corner of Cantianstraße. An investor could construct the flatiron of Prenzlauer Berg there, I thought for the past few years – until I suddenly spotted a sign announcing the building of the Cantian Corner residential project in the spring. Complete with a rooftop terrace. Years ago there was an outdoor bar on the grass here one summer. But it was hardly a relaxing spot for a drink, on the Boulevard of the North. A lot of cars still drive up and down Schönhauser Allee. And the underground trains. And the trams.

There are some beautiful houses on Schönhauser. All alone in nature, as an isolated canyon, the street would be a wonder of the world. And it’s a wonder as it is, beautiful Schönhauser Allee.

South of Danziger Straße, where the club and events space NBI had its premises in the Kulturbrauerei (the site of the legendary ‘Supatopcheckerbunny’ evenings), there’s now an Apple store. The old NBI, its first incarnation on Schönhauser, has turned into a lesbian bar. There’s no Community House Central Marginal Location (where the band Britta used to practice) any more, and the gap next to it has been closed by a new apartment building. The huge empty space at Senefelder Platz, razed clear by a crashed bomber plane, has been built up. Unfortunately using the cheapest design they could get. The two lower floors of this perforated cardboard box now house a large organic supermarket. Inside – in an organic food store of all places – there’s an escalator for shopping trolleys. Moving walkways like in the Paris Métro. To make up for it, a life-sized cow is positioned outside the entrance; the cow is made of plastic. And at the spot where the cow now stands there was once an open-air bar too, called the Sun Deck. They sold drinks from a construction trailer; it was a great place.

Today, I admit, I’m glad of the two or three gambling halls left on Schönhauser, and I’m glad of the bookmakers and sex shops.

There are no cobbles any more; the road was resurfaced south of Senefelder Platz. The cars are much quieter on the smooth asphalt. On the left is the Due Forni restaurant (previously the Treviso). We often used to go there, often sat in the garden. The 8MM Bar is still there, but the old Bassy Club – an open fire usually burning in the backyard – is gone, oh, Schönhauser, you’re writing a piece that never ends…

Published by Readux Books. Translation © Katy Derbyshire 2014. Originally published as “Schönhauser Allee” in Mauer Parkby Verbrecher Verlag, Berlin. First English translation, 2014. Republished with permission of the publisher.


At the end of the last millennium, David Wagner visited various Berlin locations and described what he saw there – people, businesses, architecture, the food, the flora, the tempo of life. He then revisited them in 2013 and cast the same attentive eye on the changes that had taken place there. Berlin Triptych presents his observations on Friedrichstraße in the centre of the city, Schönhauser Allee in the east and Café M in the west.

About the Author:

David Wagner was born in 1971, and has lived in Berlin since 1991. His prize-winning debut novel My Night-Blue Trousers was published in 2000, and his book Four Apples was long-listed for the German Book Prize. His best-selling novel Lives won the 2013 Leipzig Book Fair Prize. He has written extensively about the city of Berlin in collections such as Mauer Park and What Colour Is Berlin.