A Berliner’s soul is crazy about his retreat in the countryside. Be it the house at the Baltic sea, the cottage in Brandenburg, or, as in my family, the summer house somewhere in the city’s calmer areas, sometimes as small as an allotment garden: The love for one’s own small retreat from the frantic city is what every Berliner (and perhaps every city slicker) is born with. Sometimes decades of commitment and joy shape the lovely gardens and many a Laubenpieper, as we call ourselves, make their dreams a reality there.
However, back in November 2010, the city of Berlin denounced demise charters for 314 Neukölln allotment gardens, covering an area of 125.000 square meters. The ground was subject to make place for one of the last sections of the city highway A100. In order to conduct the planning approval, the properties were cleared soon. The residents had to move out. Dreams, that grew over decades, were smashed in a minute. Though they received a compensation, I am sure every allotment gardener shed bitter tears that their beautiful gardens should make place for a highway.
Protest arose and ruled the headlines for weeks. Residents collected newts and frogs, thus rescuing them from the excavators. But the diggers came anyway. In one part of the allotment gardens areas, of which the biggest were “Treue Seele” (68 properties) and “Stadtbär” (67 properties), tree felling commenced but had to stop due to an court order in February 2012. As of now, the demolishing is stopped for an uncertain time. While one part of the allotment garden area is rid of any green, thus resembling a moonscape with abandoned, even burnt down cottages scattered around, most of the properties still look like they were left just a few weeks ago.
Stefan and I were curious: What happened to the place? Which stories would it tell, which memories would it bear?
We followed the old, overgrown trails that still visibly lead through the estate. Every once in a while, we’d turn left or right to see what would lie beyond the sprawling hedges. Avoiding to break anything even more, leaving everything where it was, we carefully explored the gardens and the cottages one at a time.
The cottages were devastated. The windows were broken, the doors smashed. Sometimes even the wooden walls were torn down. Debris lay around. Demolished furniture, splintered lavatories, soggy carpets, single shoes, sometimes even neatly put pairs of shoes, clothes, long overdue food, newspapers, books and once in a while a framed picture. Scattered around and smothered beneath a thick layer of dust lay the resident’s torn memories.
A handwritten sign read: “Grandpa Egon’s rag-fair – everything from A to Z”. More like a workshop, it was tucked away behind one of the cottages in the fashion of how those DIYers tend to add a little addition a time. The strangely and contorted designed room was vacant. Sunbeams lit the narrow space and its dusty air. Shelves and nails on the wall, where once the tools waited to be used, reminded of its long gone purpose. If there was one emotion if any, sadness would best describe the mood that emanated from Grandpa Egon’s rag-fair.
As in most of the cottages, signs of subsequent guest were present here, too. The inevitable graffiti, shattered beer and liquor bottles, emptied bags of crisps, tea lights and all sorts of colourful party equipment bore witness to subsequent visitors. We even found condoms (don’t even try to picture the scene). In fact, the area is quite popular today: We met curious visitors, looters, rioting teenagers and people who came to harvest flowers and fruits. Even the rave community discovered the place and made itself at home in one of the gardens.
But as we passed through the properties, making our way through the hedges and shrubs, we were astonished how nature has reclaimed the abandoned allotment gardens. All sorts of colourful flowers grew among the heavily sprawling grass, ivy invaded through the shattered windows. There were apple trees lowering their branches through unroofed cottages, filling the floor with a big basket worth of fruits. Butterflies: Red Admirals, Adonis Blues, Brimstones and, of course, Peacocks. We saw Pale Tussocks and Eurasian Jays – not to mention the many singing birds we heard only chirping. We ate apples and pears from the trees. We found strawberries, blackberries, grapes, plums – but either they were simply not ripe yet or we were just stuffed from the fruits we already had.
The mood was both strangely beautiful and sad. Though we didn’t demolish anything even further, though we didn’t take anything with us, taking photos seemed just as wrong. We entered people’s houses, curious about what we’d find or whom we’d meet. Apparently, homeless people slept on some of the beds that were still intact. By the end of the day, I felt like an intruder who came too late to make his fortune with it. Is trespassing other’s private spaces just as wrong when they’re long gone? It doesn’t quite feel right, though.
I wouldn’t judge anyone who went there for the sake of discovery, even not the looters and the party crowd. Yet I thought to myself: How would I react, if I saw my garden filled with cheerful, dancing people, which is home to some of my best memories? Growing sentimental the more I thought about this peculiar notion, I found myself in discussion with Stefan, Sara, Marcus, Nico and other friends. In the end, as most remarked, we’re beneficiaries of this irrevocable situation. We can respect and empathise with the residents and – excuse these last solemn words – tell their stories with our pictures.