The German Reunification just celebrated its 30th anniversary. But in some parts of Berlin, the mentality of East vs. West has been encapsulated in culture, mentality and the facades of the city. Nicklas Peele, General Manager of the Red Wing Shoes brand in Berlin, Hamburg and München, took me on a privately guided tour through the area around Savignyplatz. His team just opened up a new shop for their long lasting leather working boots on Bleibtreustraße, where time seems to be going at a different pace.
“My mother is still amazed when she takes the S-Bahn across the former border. A few decades ago, this 10 minute trip was unfathomable for many people.”, Nicklas explains to me. I wouldn’t know: the train ride across the city had always been an integral part of my Berlin experience. But Nicklas knows that many locals remember the time before the “Wende” and still won’t take this journey. “They’re still not used to it. For them, it’s an unsurmountable distance.”
Memorial plaques of remarkable people and historical events line the streets and the platform around Savignyplatz. Arrivers are immediately reminded of Berlins scars.
The Savignyplatz is a green area and square in direct proximity to the Kurfürstendamm. Numerous shops, vintage stores with designer labels, book shops and galleries are the backbone of business around here. It feels Parisienne. Around the square there are about plenty of restaurants and bars, including famous Schwarzes Café.
Trinkets, souvenirs, questionable fashion boutiques, an old Italian ice cream parlour, plenty of cafés: “There are so many cafés here, and they keep opening up more. I’m baffled. How many coffeeshops does this area even need?”
But we ignore them all and head for the underpass between the train station and Bleibtreustraße. The bridge is named after the writer Else Ury and at night, its dancing neon-light installation juxtaposes the romantic gaslight-atmosphere of the surrounding street lamps. Nicklas tells me the neon was installed to light up the murky darkness beneath, but the rather modern approach to it was a controversy for the Kiez. “The locals didn’t think it fit into the general aesthetic of the neighborhood, but I kinda dig it.”
On Savignyplatz arrivers will find the oldest shops in Berlin, such as the hardware store C. Adolph. “I very much appreciate the proximity to such a store. They sell everything. It’s better than Amazon.” Indeed – rat traps, door locks, and a variety of brooms.
“I just wanted a broom and ran into the store. They asked me what kind of broom I needed. I didn’t even know there were different kinds! The staff advised me with competence and patience. That’s the kind of service and closeness that people expect when they shop in this neighborhood. But this mentality, it’s rare in Berlin. Everything is changing very fast.”
Red Wing Shoes
The modern world, it seems, doesn’t belong into this bubble of Gründerzeit-Architektur, vintage boutiques and quirky cafés. Which is exactly why Red Wing Shoes belong here. Their particular aura of heritage, functionality and craftsmanship is prevalent around Savignykiez.
In the 90s, the hand-crafted leather boots were worn by handymen and club bouncers, butch Harley Davidson riders and tough guys. Today, Red Wing Shoes are made for people who appreciate permanent quality over fast fashion. The service at the store is on par with a private consultation at KaDeWe: visitors are offered an Espresso (or Whiskey, depending) while their feet are measured. Customers can always send their boots back for wear & tear and small repairs – a kind of loyalty that isn’t so self-evident these days.
In an era of fast fashion and quick sales, the Red Wing approach seems almost anachronistic. Here, on tranquil and quaint Bleibtreustraße, it fits right in between handmade hat stores, antique shops and galleries.
Nicklas and his colleagues have acquired the Red Wing mentality for their new business. “A long lasting enterprise is only successful if you can make long-lasting relationships. This is how neighborhoods and communities work.” When they moved into Bleibtreustraße, they introduced themselves to all of the surrounding businesses. They wanted to understand the identity and culture of the locals here. “These are not the kind of people who would saunter along Münzstraße in Mitte. We wanted to integrate and not be the sore thumb that stands out.” Indeed – it’s different here.
And they really do know their neighbors. Nicklas was instantly recognized at Ali Baba when we went to get their famous mini-pizza. The slices are of unremarkable quality, but Ali Baba has been serving drunk and hungry and desperate patrons for over 45 years through the night. You don’t stick around for so long without making interpersonal connections.
We get an extra pile of pizza for being cute.
At Planet, 90s fashion didn’t have to be revived because it never ceased to exist in the first place. Planet Wear is really a real life throwback to the Berlin Love Parade era. Somehow it still survives in this part of town.
Superfoods & Daluma
Some things do change. Closer to Ku’Damm, retail facades become sleeker, businesses more contemporary. “That’s necessary”, says Nicklas. “People here want to evolve, too. The neighborhood is younger now. But there’s a noticeable difference between the stores here and their counterparts in Mitte or in Kreuzberg: they try to adapt to the style and traditions of West-Berlin.” It’s duly noted and appreciated.
Daluma and Superfoods are notable institutions that have made their beginnings in Mitte. Fresh, healthy, modern Millenial food has infiltrated every corner of the world. Why not every corner of Berlin?
West-Berlin, at least this part, is lovingly offbeat. People here aren’t slow to adapt to the fast-pace of modern, urban life. They are just particular. I suppose this is what preserves the unique and timeless charm of Savignykiez.