It was a bleak, uniformly hungover afternoon. The unseasonably shitty rain-weather wasn’t particularly inviting for a walk through Schöneberg, but Fousieh and I couldn’t be deterred from our mission. Fousieh loves Schöneberg and secretly wants to live here when she grows up. I wanted to see why and made a map of the different neighborhoods I wanted to visit.
Schöneberg is intense, and there are certainly many historical angles from which to look at this special part of Berlin. But mostly, I was intrigued by the residential areas around Motzstraße: here is the gay center of Berlin, dominated by sex shops, speak-easy saunas and sex-clubs as well as bars, pubs, and hostels. In the summer, Motzstraße transforms into a hotspot for gay tourists and Berliners who like to party at the Gay and Lesbian street festival.
But our walk started further up the road: on Potsdamer Straße, the new art gallery, fashion and fine dining hot spot of Berlins city center.
The transformation of Potsdamer Straße
From Middle Eastern grocery stores and afro shops to fine dining restaurants, ACNE flagship store and wealthy art galleries: Potsdamer Straße is a melting pot of lifestyles. Gentrification is a big issue here, at the crossing between the district of Tiergarten and Schöneberg.
It’s a very alluring Berlin mix. On the northern end of the street, shortly before arriving at Potsdamer Platz, the Philharmonie and Neue Nationalgalerie melt into fashionable restaurants and converted industrial spaces. The former building of the Tagesspiegel is now home to Blain//Southern, a famous international art gallery, and Andreas Murkudis‘ high end fashion store; right next to it, the lovely Panama restaurant.
What keeps Potsdamer Straße accessible – even if you can’t make it rain on a shopping spree – are the traditional locations that haven’t been displaced (yet), like Kumpelnest (Schönebergs version of Roses on Oranienstraße) and Victoria Bar.
The further you go down Potsdamer Straße, the nastier it becomes. The big LSD sex shop on the corner of Kurfürstenstraße is the beginning of the old Schöneberg – the Westberlin of David Bowie and Christiane F. It is the predetermined breaking point of the urban experience: young hookers, their pimps and junkies mix with Turkish street vendors and Russian fur wearing tourists.
We made a little detour to the Café Einstein Stammhaus. The Einstein brand is ubiquitous in Berlin. It tries to embody the typical European café experience, but I honestly don’t like it. The breakfast is dry, the coffee barely drinkable. It used to be the glamorous place to be of the golden twenties.
Unfortunately, those days have gone by – destroyed by the Nazis. At Café Einstein, the first of the Einstein chain, nostalgia reigns. Still, from a spatial point of view, the Stammhaus on Kurfürstenstraße is worth a visit: an Italian Renaissance building style is rarely seen in Berlin. It survived the war untouched.
The gayest neighborhood in Berlin
On Nollendorfplatz, we actually – and officially – enter Schöneberg territory. I haven’t been very exact so far, as Potsdamer Straße is still officially in the Mitte district of Tiergarten. But the political borders seem vague, anyway.
Here, in the middle of Berlin, is the extremely gay heart of the city. Schöneberg is Berlins traditional gay neighborhood, full of sex-shops and sex-clubs. We were pretty intrigued by the intense variety of fetish products. And although we’re no prudes, it does feel a little uncomfortable seeing massive plastic shlongs draped across many store windows.
We saw plenty of older male couples walking down the streets. Everything was so… male. I wouldn’t go out for drinks here, it doesn’t look like nightlife is diverse or particularly fun for girls. Just full of Grindr experiences and darkrooms. I guess I finally learned the difference between gay and queer.
But to be fair, the guys in one of the streetwear sex shops were pretty nice when they explained all the speciality gear to us. In fact, I was quite taken with the apparent obsession that those guys have with certain trainer brands and/or latex gear. If you don’t look closely, you’d mistake GEAR for another sneaker store. Until you see the giant dongs, of course, and the buff guys.
What you rarely see in the rest of Berlin are the little speak-easy clubs dispersed among the Motzstraße neighborhood. Only if you pay attention you can see the little entrance signs. I wish someone would take me on a little tour here.
Still – gay or not, this area of Schöneberg seems a little bit dusty to me. There’s nothing particularly lively going on, and the streets are rather empty. Couples of holding hands – maybe a few families passing by.
Relicts of modernism on Pallasstraße
Around Winterfeldplatz, Schöneberg is more like Prenzlauer Berg: a lively market, sweet Gründerzeit architecture, children and sweet bookstores. Little cafés and restaurants line the streets, and for someone who usually doesn’t leave Kreuzberg, a new culinary dimension opens up.
But take a wrong turn and you suddenly end up in another, entirely different world: a historical crossing. Relicts of the second World War and Nazi reign – a bunker, namely – are almost buried under a modernist monster of a building: the Pallasseum.
We had a quick snack at our favorite Korean imbiss, IXTHYS. I love the fiery Bibimbap here. The two elderly Korean ladies who run the place have a slight obsession with Jesus, which makes this place a quirky stop to heat up after the rain. Because it’s always raining in Berlin, it seems. Sigh.
So we continue to the Pallasseum after eating. This mega social housing project dominates the horizon on the corner of Pallasstraße. It was built on top of a WW2 bunker. The modernist architecture, which falls into the brutalist range, makes it a very popular photo op for tourists and passers-by.
I’m not sure whether to find it ugly or inspiring. Unfortunately, there’s no way to legally access the bunker (well, there are certain events all year round, but you can’t access without a tour or paying money). The so called Hochbunker was built by prisoners of war from the Sovjet Union between 1940 and 1945. It was never completed. After the war, the US Army tried blasting the bunker, but failed.
In the late 80ies, the bunker was then expanded by the West-Allies – after the Pallasseum building was built, supported on stalks, above it. Today, is is the largest civilian bunker in Berlin, although never used.
Scratching the surface of Schöneberg
After another short walk through Kleistpark, we finally end up strolling through Akazienkiez. It’s another cute neighborhood, not far from Gleisdreick Park and Yorkstraße. At this point, we become tired, and a little overwhelmed by what we’d seen so far.
The magic of Berlin lies in its great diversity. I think we can all agree on that. But just taking an unguided walk isn’t barely enough to find out more about the various stories, the vast history and the collective experiences of this part of town.
Fousieh and I finally resigned our mission, determined to come back soon. Maybe when the weather is nicer. If that ever happens.