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Scene in Berlin

Jane Paulick, BerlinJune 26, 2014

The early 1990s were a coming of age - both for Berlin and for DW's Jane Paulick. A recently published collection of photos of freshly reunified Berlin sent her on a trip down memory lane.

Photograph by Hendrik Rauch/bobsairport from the book "Berlin Wonderland," Copyright: Gestalten 2014
Image: Ben de Biel/bobsairport/Gestalten

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." What Charles Dickens wrote of 18th-century France could just as easily apply to East Berlin in the early 1990s.

Even then, it felt like a place that existed in a parallel universe, and given its complete transformation over the last two decades into the apogee of cool, looking back at those years is like trying to remember a dream. It wasn't in the least bit cool: You were about as likely to spot a tourist on Kastanienallee as a unicorn, and when you needed to wash your hair you went to a disused public swimming pool on Oderbergerstrasse and paid one Deutschmark to use the showers.

So it was with a mixture of nostalgia and disbelief that I flicked through the pages of "Berlin Wonderland: Wild Years Revisited, 1990-1996," a collection of photos recently published by Gestalten and bobsairport. As it says in the introduction, "it seems practically impossible that these photos were taken only 20 years ago."

Was it really so desolate? Did we really put up with stairwell toilets and coal ovens? And was it really as much fun as it looks? Yes, yes and yes. It took a lot of imagination to enjoy Berlin back then. But enjoy it we did.

Partly because we felt like we owned it. It's strange to recall how utterly empty all the neighborhoods used to be, now that they're teeming with Swabians from conservative southern Germany, hipsters and Spanish-speaking students. East Berlin was an unexplored frontier, exciting but often inhospitable. A rundown wasteland where the sand the city is built on spilled through the cracks in the pavement and the balconies not only looked like they could fall down at any minute, they often did. The roads were still cobbled, bathed at night in the orange glow of sodium vapor streetlights, and the few cars about were all mustard-colored Trabants.

Photograph by Hendrik Rauch/bobsairport from the book "Berlin Wonderland," Copyright: Gestalten 2014
Anything was possible in the German capital in the early ninetiesImage: Philipp von Recklinghausen/bobsairport/Gestalten

The Communist street names had yet to be changed - Danzigerstrasse was still Dimitroffstrasse, Hackescher Markt still Marx Engels Platz - a towering statue of Lenin still stood in Friedrichshain, and the shutters in the ground-floor windows hadn't been pulled up since before the war. It was like walking into a forgotten black-and-white film or the pages of a novel by Milan Kundera.

I'd never seen anywhere like it.

A small world

In contrast, I'd known exactly what to expect from West Berlin. I'd seen Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire" and of course "Christiane F.," and when I first stepped off the train at Zoo Station in August 1991, I noted with satisfaction that it looked exactly as it had in Ulrich Edel's gritty 1981 film about the city's drug scene. But it was 10 years later, the Wall had fallen, and the epicenter of Berlin's underground culture had shifted from the districts of Schöneberg and Kreuzberg to Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg.

So that's where I went. My generation of expats felt like we'd been given the keys to the city, moving into squats or paying less than 100 Deutschmarks for rent each month, which was just as well because no one was doing a whole lot of work. We drifted contentedly in the post-Soviet swell, buying second-hand clothes discarded by a nation thrilled it could now order from the "Otto" catalogue - our label of choice being "VEB" (East Germany's "Volkseigener Betrieb"); drank cocktails called "Russischer Koks," consisting of vodka shots with ground coffee and lemon; smoked Karo cigarettes; played our East German friends' Amiga records and congratulated ourselves on being in on what felt like a well-kept secret.

Photograph by Hendrik Rauch/bobsairport from the book "Berlin Wonderland," Copyright: Gestalten 2014
The Obst & Gemüse café was the place to beImage: Photography by Ben de Biel/bobsairport/Gestalten

Compared to today, it was extraordinarily sparsely populated, so it was easy to feel you knew everyone. We collected in the few clubs and bars that existed in that blissfully pre-cupcake café era, and got talking to strangers in the unlikeliest of places. I met someone who became a close friend in a dumpster we'd both climbed into in order to salvage some great oak furniture that had been thrown out, along with the accumulated baggage of entire lifetimes, by locals eager to start afresh in the West. I made another good friend waiting to use a free public telephone.

There was always one somewhere. People would wait patiently in line for a whole afternoon, earning the right to spend up to an hour on their own call. A private phone was an unheard of luxury, so if you wanted to talk to someone, you had to go round to where they lived. Everyone's front doors were covered in scribbled messages and whenever you returned home, you knew you'd find a few notes tucked in the doorframe.

Seismic change

The future looks wide open to everyone in their early 20s: It's a time to throw off the shackles of life in the parental home and enjoy all the freedoms teenage years were spent dreaming of. For many at that age, though, the real world can feel like it's always a few steps ahead, like a party you're waiting to be invited to. But I was lucky enough to find a city that mirrored my own state of mind perfectly, with post-unification East Berlin, like me, busy finding its feet in a world that had long been out of reach. We grew up together.

Browsing through "Berlin Wonderland," it crosses my mind that the 1990s were to Berlin what the 40s were to Paris, the 60s to London and the 80s to New York. Seismic change was afoot and Berlin, on the western edge of the former Eastern Bloc, felt it first.

Almost all the book's photos are familiar scenes to me: the backyard at the Tacheles art center, where the Mutoid Waste Company once installed an old MiG-21 fighter jet; the crowd outside the Obst & Gemüse café on Oranienburgerstrasse; the street parties and kids playing in abandoned Wartburgs.

Photograph by Hendrik Rauch/bobsairport from the book "Berlin Wonderland," Copyright: Gestalten 2014
The fighter jet behind Tacheles never actually took offImage: Stefan Schilling/bobsairport/Gestalten

The pictures make me smile, but it wasn't necessarily an easy time. Many of the people I met then didn't manage to keep up with the relentless pace at which the city was reinventing itself. And not everyone wants to live outside their comfort zone all the time (figuratively and literally): If it seems to me now that the summers were never hotter than they were then, the winters were also never colder.

Still, after the studied sophistication of London, where I'd lived before, East Berlin was raw and rugged and full of promise. Its appeal had a lot to do with the Japanese concept of "Wabi-sabi," defined by design guru Leonard Koren as "(…) a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete." By the time the Iron Curtain came down, it was a place in a state of advanced decay and its makeover was inevitable. We snuck in just in time to enjoy its dilapidated charms before they disappeared for good.

Berlin has turned out fine. But the city I moved to all those years ago no longer exists. It's a lost world.

Now, as Werner Herzog says at the end of his book, "Conquest of the Useless," "All that is to be reported is this: I took part."

Photograph by Hendrik Rauch/bobsairport from the book "Berlin Wonderland," Copyright: Gestalten 2014
Hendrik Rauch/bobsairport documented a time of political transformationImage: Hendrik Rauch/bobsairport/Gestalten