Berliners passionate about historic market halls | Scene in Berlin | DW | 02.03.2012
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Scene in Berlin

Berliners passionate about historic market halls

Berliners guard their few remaining 'Markthallen' - the old market halls that have the city's history written into them - with a pathological jealousy. They hate shopping malls, though.

Berliners with good taste generally hate shopping malls. I've never really understood why, but they regard with them a kind of disdain other people reserve for kidney stones, reality TV or lima beans. My only explanation for this bizarre position is that these people have never been to the Neuköllner Arcaden.

Maybe it's because I'm a journalist, so I like to spend time generally hanging around, but I love my local Neukölln shopping arcade, which rises in proud steel-and-glass glory outside my front door. From the fellows in Tiziano's (the not very "Italian" ice cream café), to the low-paid Asian fast-food workers, to the unnecessarily fussy employees of the Hugendubel bookstore, to the security guards who chase the truant kids and the Muslim teenagers who eat McDonald's on the two-euro-massage seats waiting for the Cineplex to open, I feel like I know everyone there. For me, roofed shopping centers are a precious bolthole for the local community in an urbanized world.

What makes the general disdain for the shopping mall all the odder is that fashionable Berliners are extremely affectionate about their old Markthallen .These are the roofed market halls where people used to buy food in the days before supermarkets.

They still exist in most German cities, but in Berlin, where there is a peculiar passion for turning something obsolete into something cool, there is a veritable mania for keeping Markthallen out of the hands of major investors and those of local traders with kooky ideas about organic food and candle-making.

Fertile market women

I can understand this affection. Markthallen have a little bit of Berlin history written into them. In 1883, the authorities considered them so important to the fabric of the city that they ordered them built in each of the Berlin's main districts. Along with the ones that already existed, these became known as the 14 "historical" Markthallen in Berlin. Authorities thought they were safer and more hygienic than open-air markets, and instituted legislation to order traders to use them. Though renting stall space was more expensive, this was easily compensated for by the fact they could be used six days a week.

One of the city's intellectual godfathers, Walter Benjamin (a man who was so obsessed with the indoor shopping experience that he collected a mass of texts called the "Arcades Project"), also had thoughts on the Markthalle.

In his autobiographical musings, "Berlin Childhood around 1900," Benjamin envisioned Markthalle V in the Tiergarten district as a modern temple of commerce. He described the market women as the "priestesses of a commercial Ceres [Roman god of agriculture], market women of all the fruits of the field and the tree, all edible birds, fish and mammals, bawds, untouchable woolen colossuses."

Getting a bit excited, the bluff old Marxist continues, "Doesn't it seethe and bubble and swell under the hems of their skirts - is this not the real fecund earth? Wasn't some market god begetting the produce itself in their laps?"

Markthalle on Marheinekeplatz in Berlin

The Markthalle on Marheinekeplatz specializes in organic

Fossils or tasty treats

Despite Benjamin's hormone-fuelled fantasies, the Berlin Markthallen were not a success. A combination of poor locations, the rise of department stores, war and depression meant that they were already starting to close in the first decades of the 20th century. Today, only four are still in use, and the locals protect them jealously.

These four - numbers VI, IX, X and XI of the original 19th-century network - have suffered varying fates. The Arminiushalle in Moabit (X) has maintained its old character as a market hall for the largely working class locals. It is gray and bare and contains stalls stocked mainly with dusty electric appliances. But hanging around in the café, where you can get mainly chicken soup and pickled vegetables, offers a rare look at an otherwise fossilized layer of Berlin society.

Meanwhile, the Marheinekehalle (XI), in the affluent end of the Kreuzberg district, provides the diametrically opposed shopping experience. Souped up in 2007 following an injection of honest, well-meaning, politically-correct cash, the Marheinekehalle is now a delightful collection of about 50 stalls, mainly organic delicatessens selling tasty treats from various Mediterranean countries.

Sale at a discount shop

Discount shops are a deadly enemy for Markthallen

Between these two ends of the spectrum is the Eisenbahnhalle (IX), in the poorer but trendier end of Kreuzberg. This was long the frontline of the ongoing battle against the halls' deadliest enemy - the discount supermarket. Until only recently, this Markthalle was infected with this great cancer of Lidls and Aldis, but thanks to a local initiative, the old hall was bought and reopened last year with a weekly two-day market and regular cultural events.

But frankly, I'm happy enough with my modern arcade experience. As far as I can tell, one roof is as good as another, and some of them have two-euro massage seats beneath them. If you need me, I'll be in Tizianos.

Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Kate Bowen

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