Just as John Keats explored the inspirational but paradoxical nature of artifice and reality in his 1819 ode, the search for beauty in Berlin’s Schön-named places is similar. In a literal exploration of a modern city environment shaped by human history, one wonders: what nice guys in Schönherrstraße? What incredible forest in Schönwalder Allee? What fabulous flax in Schönlein? Or shiny coins along Schöntaler Weg? The line “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” becomes a philosopher-poet-wanderer’s dream trip.
Enter via Schönefeld Airport. Not technically inside city boundaries, there are very few beautiful areas, fields or any open country from which the original Schönefeld village took its moniker. Yes, one nominal grassy strip remains in front of the terminals, dotted with sundry trees, wildflowers and clusters of mushrooms, but the modern reality, Schöne-highway/hotel/housing estate, doesn’t quite have the same ring.
Veering in citywards through Schöneweide one can only lament, “Cold pastoral!” There isn’t any beautiful pasture, nor any grazing animals. The only ‘eye-feast’ verity may be a few stray willows. The sole idyllic zone consists of psychedelic murals adjacent the historic brick and Fachwerk Alte Feuerwache building on the droning main road. At least at the S-Bahnhof there are flowers hanging from the metal posts.
On the surface, it’s not so much better in Mitte’s Schönholzer Straße, where eyes light upon an isolated tree. One tree does not make a woods, unless factoring in the tragedy of a desolate conceptual garden of bamboo and floodlit plane trees at the eastern end. But lose not faith if you feel that here, “beneath the trees, thou canst not leave/Thy song,” for, cast thine other eye upwards and lo! Behold the panoply of beautiful wood/timber shutters at numbers 13-14.
A moment’s respite back south at Schönberger Ufer, strolling the bank, considering the history of this beauty-full mountain or hill. Schöneberg sports one of three Insulaner, mounds constructed of Berlin’s WWII-destroyed buildings’ rubble. (Go recycling!) Indeed, “What little town by river or sea shore.” Remnants of Alte Schöneberg village lie near Kaiser-Wilhelm-Platz, like the baroque Schöneberger Dorfkirche built between 1764-66 during rebuilding following the Seven Years’ War, and the overnight ‘millionaire peasant’ Hauptstraße villas from the speculative property boom of the 1860s and 70s.
This colourful hill’s hosted Nazi anti-gay purges and persecution, 1968 student demos, John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” gaffe, and it was the original burial site of Claus von Stauffenberg and his co-anti- Hitler conspirators. Back north down Ufer-side things are quieter: if you’re early-morning lucky you’ll be zoned by a hunting heron cruising the slow-moving tree-lined Landwehrkanal for a fresh piscine breakfast.
An entirely different kettle of fish is Schönlinder Chaussee named after the nearby village of Schönerlinde which dates back to the 13th century. The village itself is named after the linden, or lime tree. The verb lindern means to ease, relieve, soothe or alleviate, and linden has been known for its healing properties for thousands of years. If you’re suffering from nervous tension, a venture off the beaten track into Bucher Forst is sure to offer a measure of relief and inspire a sated sigh, “Ah, happy, happy boughs!”
From thence returning to this urbanite urn’s personal Kiez, Schönhauser Allee, Prenzlauer Berg, and Neue Schönhauser Straße, Mitte, and the beautiful house/home straights. When Berlin’s city walls were finally pulled down in 1860, the expansion of Berlin to the northeast took place from the old Schönhauser Tor (now Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz). An Allee is an avenue, often tree-lined, but – in part due to the subsidized gentrification programme (read, increased property tax revenues for bankrupt coffers) of recent times – many pockets of leafy schön have been axed in favour of some fairly ugly large houses. It’s continuing an old tradition – Schönhauser Allee would have been quite different if architect James Hobrecht’s original late-1850s industrialisation-era vision to afford more room to move had been followed.
As with the ruminative debate in and around Keats’ poem looking at his imagined scenes, when it comes to Berlin, it’s hardly an “unravish’d bride of quietness”. The search for its beauty lies somewhere in its mythical past, and always in the philosophical soul’s eye of each beholder on a personal quest about our “little town, thy streets for evermore”.