One of my first memories of the Panke involves a group of men in Wellington boots wading out into its modest current in order to release the little boats they were racing from Gesundbrunnen down into Wedding. They told me it was the “Panke Boat Race” and it was an annual event, but I’m not sure if they were simply teasing the neighbourhood newcomer, as I never saw them or heard of the race again. It was 2010 and we’d moved from Mitte to Gesundbrunnen. However close our new apartment was to the old, it felt like we were in another city. There, just a few steps from the front door of our apartment building, was the Panke.
The Panke is not an impressive river. It runs for 29km from near Bernau in Brandenburg to where it splits close to the fortressed headquarters of the BND on the border between Mitte and Wedding, emptying into the Spree from an underground tunnel close to the Berliner Ensemble, and via a series of waste- and debris-collecting locks into the Spandau Ship Canal just behind Hamburger Bahnhof.
It is a shallow river. Most people travelling on the trams that pass by beneath our window don’t even notice the bridge taking them over the Panke. But this little sliver of water and its tree-lined embankment, green spaces and footpaths became my new companion as I started to explore the neighbourhood that has now been my home for more than half of my twenty years in this city. It still is. If I am in Berlin, hardly a day goes by without my coming into contact with the Panke, even if it is just to pause on the bridge for a second on my way to Lidl. It is a place for morning runs and lunchtime strolls.
what the Panke represents more than anything else is the possibility of escape
In the summer, we sometimes take beer from the fridge or the local Späti and go and sit down by the Luisenbad Bibliothek, a few feet from the riverbank. I walk along it to reach the U-Bahn and my friend’s house, our favourite café and my dentist. When it comes to my own psychological geography of the city, the Panke and its riverbank trails are my main thoroughfare, my own personal Hauptstraße.
Close to home, the Panke and the frequency with which I come into contact with it, helps me trace the changes of this city as money and people flow north from Mitte, cross the bridge from Prenzlauer Berg, or slip in under the railway from Pankow to shift Gesundbrunnen, however gently, on its sandy foundations. When I first walked north from our apartment along the river, the Soldiner Kiez had a certain reputation. On the corner, where the river crossed beneath Soldiner Straße, I used to see the daytime drinkers waiting patiently for opening time at the pub while the bakery down the road was selling bread rolls and breakfast coffee to construction workers.
The pub is long gone, and the bakery now competes with a co-working space and a café named after Rosa Parks. The Penny Markt is still on the corner but graffiti on the wall nearby threatens the yuppies who, the writer fears, may be about to move in. “Hands off Wedding!” The slogan fills a bare wall close to the river. Gesundbrunnen was once Wedding. For most residents it still is. The two neighbourhoods were separated by administrative reforms in the early years of this century, but the river links them still.
Eventually I would come to walk ever further from the apartment along the river, and even to attempt, in one day, its entire length, from the Spandau Ship Canal to the edge of Bernau, in a futile search to find its source. Some said it was a place called the Devil’s Pool, tucked away behind a shopping centre. Others said it sprung in a wet meadow a few hundred yards away, although no-one could pin down the
exact spot. By the time I reached Bernau, the river was nothing more than a ditch between allotment gardens and it was almost completely dry. A bottle of schnapps lay empty at the point where the river – such as it was – disappeared beneath the ground. I like to think that the true source of the Panke was that empty schnapps bottle and I wondered if, by writing it down, I could make it part of the city’s modern folklore.
people preferred the old stories. The legends lived on to be repeated.
The more I walked the Panke, the more the stories of the river and its surroundings revealed themselves. From the watchtower by the Spandau Ship Canal it would meet the old border again once more at Wollankstraße, crossing beneath the railway lines through a tunnel that was bricked up for 28 years to prevent anyone passing through.
Today, cherry trees bloom where the Berlin Wall once stood, and new owners have taken over the gardens of the villas backing onto the river that once housed the head honchos of the DDR in a ring of grand buildings close to the Schönhausen Palace. In the DDR, people would speculate as to what could be found behind those high walls, feeding into the folklore of a young state that was barely to get past adolescence. When all the walls came down, it turned out that the reality of life for that chosen few was far more mundane than some of the wilder imaginings. But still, people preferred the old stories. The legends lived on to be repeated.
Those stories became ever more fantastical. On Wollankstraße there once lived a man called Otto Witte. He found himself living close to the Panke in the later act of an eventful life that involved hunting in Kenya, befriending Lenin in Switzerland and laying claim to the Albanian throne disguised as Ottoman royalty. Was any of this true? The life of Otto Witte was as slippery as the Panke itself. Perhaps it didn’t matter. All eras need their legends, their heroes and their charismatic conmen. Now, after more than ten years, the Panke peoples its scruffy embankments not only with stories of fake kings and the polyester princes of socialism on German soil, but also with our own, personal stories. It was by the river that our daughter – now fifteen – learned to ride a bike. It was by the river that I waited for her to come out of an operation at Buch, walking out from the hospital grounds until I unexpectedly came across the Panke in an overgrown park and greeted it like an old friend. And it was by the river that we celebrated the first of the lockdown birthdays, sipping beer from plastic cups close to the bandstand in Pankow’s Bürgerpark.
All eras need their legends, their heroes and their charismatic conmen.
In Karow, right on the edge of the city, we used the Panke to guide us to the old sewage fields, set up to deal with the waste of a Berlin that grew, in the second half of the 19th century, from around 500,000 residents to four million. Imagine! On the fringes of Berlin these fields were laid out, the waste pumped out from the centre to be slowly but surely filtered by the soil. It worked so well they were still using them in the 1980s. Now they are mostly nature reserves. At Karow, water buffalo graze the wet meadows and birdlife populates the ponds. Karow has long been the place we head to when the city gets too much. And throughout the more than ten years I’ve been walking its banks, what the Panke represents more than anything else is the possibility of escape. Yards from our apartment building, signs for hikers and bikers point the way upstream.
Follow us, they say, and we’ll bring you to Pankow and Karow, Buch and Bernau. Keep going and even when the river runs out, the trail will be there, to Usedom and the Baltic Sea. Walk across the border and you’ll be in Poland. Catch a ferry and you’ll be in Sweden. The steps are all laid out and they all start with the path along the Panke, the possibilities all a suggestion of this narrow, shallow river. It stands at the centre of my Berlin and it offers me a way out. It’s my constant companion and, of course, like all rivers, it is never the same each time we meet.