Berlin and Beyond: GDR gold of old | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 25.05.2018
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Berlin and Beyond: GDR gold of old

A relic of apartment living in East Germany are "golden house numbers." But what were they and who got given one? Tamsin Walker went in search of Berlin's faded sparkle.

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WorldLink: East Berlin's golden house numbers

If you keep an eye out when walking the streets of what was once East Berlin, you're bound eventually, to spy a gold-rimmed black metal plaque screwed to the entrance of an apartment block. Awarded, as they were, to houses that demonstrated exceptional communal tidiness, I've often wondered about the personal and collective stories behind them.

I've also wondered whether any of the buildings I've lived in during my time here were ever granted such golden glory. I have my money on a certain number 39, where the older residents had clear ideas about how the house should be run.

There was to be no noise at lunchtime, not much on rest days, and none apparently, in my flat. The man who lived below me and who was born in the house, was always berating me for moving about - in stockinged feet, I hasten to add - too loudly in what he seemed determined to ensure never became the comfort of my own home. He even once invited me to his place to show me his shag pile carpet and tell me I should lay one in my living room. I never did.

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A woman walks past a crumbling facade and a pile of rubble in 1980 (picture-alliance/dpa)

There was much to be rebuilt in East Berlin

The golden house numbers were part of a GDR state-controlled citizens' initiative called "Schöner unsere Städte und Gemeinden - Mach mit!", which loosely translated means "prettify our towns and communities - join in". Launched in the early 1960s, it called on East Germans to volunteer their free time to help build things like sporting venues, parks and playgrounds that the state couldn't afford to fund. Attendance was noted. Absence too.

Over time, the concept was downsized to apply to individual blocks of flats, where tenants who banded together to improve their building in some way could compete with other houses to see their efforts rewarded with the sparkle of gold.

Politics, pragmatism and pride

Many people I've spoken to believe the initiative encouraged people to feel responsibility for their surroundings. But there was often more to it than that. Not least politics. Particularly in newly constructed apartment blocks where house wardens who were able to motivate tenants to be communally proactive scored points for demonstrating their commitment to the Socialist project that was the German Democratic Republic.

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In older bullet-marked buildings that hadn't been touched since World War II, there was always repair and cleaning work to be done and for some, the possibility of winning a plaque was an incentive. And then there was the simple matter of pride.

Golden House Number plaque (DW/Tamsin Walker)

Old pride and a new number five

This week, I came across an old, but renovated building where a black and gold plaque hangs with almost stately importance above the main door. The original number, which would have been painted on, has worn away and been replaced with an oversized sparkling metal five.

One of the tenants told me the plaque is still like a badge of honor for the now elderly owner. When I looked up at the home that is his castle, I saw him looking out of his third-floor window, arms folded with unspoken authority. The sight reminded me of my former neighbor and his aspirations to see me sacrifice my floorboards for a brown shag pile carpet.

The next day, I made a couple of phone calls about that certain number 39. Guess what? It was awarded its golden house number in 1981.

In Berlin and Beyond, British-born Tamsin Walker takes a closer look at some of the quirks and perks of life in Germany, which has been her home for almost 20 years. She tweets as @TamsinkateW

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