Around the world in 52 suburbs: Berlin

Turning her lens on the 'coolest city on the planet', photographer Louise Hawson is touched by small reminders of Berlin's horrific past and the larger-than-life characters of its decadent present.

Willkommen in Berlin! The world’s ‘it’ city. The coolest place on the planet. Well, that’s what I’d heard anyway.

While everyone raves about Berlin circa 2012, I spent most of my first week here obsessed with trying to see the city through the eyes of someone living here in the 1950s-70s.

I knew of course about the Berlin Wall shooting up in 1961 but it wasn’t until I arrived here that I really started to think about what it must have been like. Waking up one morning to discover you’d been either fenced in or fenced off, from family and friends – and for the East Berliners, any chance of freedom.

So for my first Berlin neighbourhood, I chose Friedrichshain, formerly part of East Berlin.

On my way there one day I met a woman called Birgit who was nine years old when the border between east and west was sealed overnight. She was visiting her grandparents in the east and wasn’t allowed to return to the west. Had her parents not been able to smuggle her back into the west, she would’ve ended up in an orphanage and never seen her family again.

What’s fascinating is that a city with such a shocking past now has such a decadent, hedonistic present. For 30 years half of its citizens were denied basic freedoms. Now you can pretty much do whatever you want and be whoever you want to be.

Like the ‘erotic activists’ I met at a flea market in the neighbourhood who make films of themselves having sex to raise money to save the forests. And C-drik, a gentle, articulate man who’s covered himself with a spot tattoo and topped it off with a brightly-coloured perfectly-coiffed Mohawk. Whatever. No one bats an eyelid.

After that I left the former east and explored an area in the former west - the borough of Neukölln. Unlike areas much further west that are radically different to the former east, Neukölln isn’t far enough west to feel that different – because it had one of the longest sections of border with East Berlin it wasn’t developed or considered a desirable place to live.

Today, north Neukölln is still one of the poorest boroughs, populated largely by immigrants, with unemployment, drug and ‘social issues’. But its cheap rents and gritty edge are making it increasingly hip, and students, artists and travellers are flocking there. Apparently it’s also where the latest hot bars are; I can’t comment given that I’m such an old fart but I’m told it’s where ‘real’ Berliners head after dark.

The hipsters also love the Turkish market that happens twice weekly by the canal in north Neukölln but I don’t imagine many know about the Turkish mosque nearby.

A stone’s throw away from the mosque is an amazing space, Tempelhofer Park. It’s an old airport that is now, well, an old airport, but one that you can run, cycle, or do whatever on. Berlin at its freedom-loving best.

North Neukölln is also where I spied my first Stolpersteine, small plaques embedded into the pavement commemorating Holocaust victims. I found them incredibly moving in the way they quietly announce the terrifying fate of an individual.

Having explored the northern part of Neukölln, I was curious how different the southern end would be.

At first glance, they seem to be worlds apart. The north, filled with grungy graffitied low-rise buildings and slowly being hip-ified, the south, a more suburban environment with massive towers that are severe and ‘brutalist’ but graffiti-less (aside from the stairwells).

Yet they both face the same challenges of cultural integration, poverty and unemployment. Both areas have a mix of ethnic Germans and immigrants, two cultures that couldn’t be more different.

I met a group of kids, all born in Berlin but from a mix of Lebanese and Serbian backgrounds, living in one of the massive apartment complexes called Gropiushaus in an area called Gropiusstadt. They were full of beans and mischief as all kids are, a refreshing change after weeks of hip-cool Berlin.

But just next door to them, outside another towering block, I met a German man who told me his building was fine because it was filled with ethnic Germans, but that Gropiushaus, peppered as it was with “Turks and Arabs who make a lot of noise” wasn’t so great.

Berlin may be "multikulti" but not necessarily happily so.

That was four weeks in Berlin and we are now exactly halfway through our year-long project.

It’s been more rewarding than I’d imagined. My camera has enabled me to learn about and experience foreign cities in a way I’ve never done before, and my weekly deadlines force me to keep discovering. But the project is also far more challenging than I’d expected.

My first Sydney-based project was challenging too but there I had the support of friends, family – and my daughter, Coco, was at school. This time around she and I are together 24/7 and in between working long hours and six to seven days a week on the project, I’m also meant to be not only looking after but home schooling her.

Added to that, every new city is a steep learning curve as I try to get to grips with its past and present and decide which areas to explore, at the same time as attempting to capture a new neighbourhood each week, interacting with people who I struggle to communicate with because I don’t speak Chinese, Italian, German or whatever.

And it’s more physically exhausting than I thought it would be simply because I don’t have a car. In my Sydney project, I was able to roam around large distances on four wheels. Here, it’s just two legs.

But suck it up right? It’s an incredible adventure that few people get the opportunity to do.

Perhaps the only important question is, would I do it again, knowing what I know now? The answer is yes, absolutely.

Mind you, we’re only halfway through. Ask me again in six months time.

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