For much of the 20th century, inner-city wastelands defined Berlin. After the war, gaping scars appeared across many districts that remained empty long after the Wall rose. Along this new East-West border, formerly central streets became no man’s land, with neither side willing to invest in the desolate plots. Potsdamer Platz became deserted, railways stopped running, brownfields in Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg succumbed to the elements. Other spaces were taken over by artists or the party scene.
By the turn of the millennium, the unwanted sites became sought-after locations for investors. Berlin’s wastelands were finally developed. Office buildings now stand where birch trees once grew, and where open-air clubs sprung up in wilder times.
Here are 12 Berlin wastelands as they were then – and now.
Potsdamer Platz was a muddy urban wasteland in West Berlin, with nothing but a weekend flea market held on its derelict grounds during the 1980s – which, incidentally, was not known as the Polenmarkt until the Wende years. Wim Wenders captured the surreal atmosphere of the historic site in The Sky over Berlin, perhaps his most famous film. Although attempts were made to revitalise the square with the reopening of Martin-Gropius-Bau and the construction of the M-Bahn, new winds did not blow until after the fall of the Wall.
Topography of Terror
Excavations at the site of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters and the Reich Main Security Office began in the mid-1980s. Directly next to the Wall, near Martin-Gropius-Bau, was a historically contaminated wasteland on the edge of West Berlin. Until 1945, the Nazis planned and organised parts of their terror policies from there.
After the war, history was suppressed. The site served as a dumping ground for construction waste and was forgotten, until citizen initiatives began to campaign for the grounds to be made visible and for a historical debate to take place. Archaeologists uncovered basement walls and foundations of Nazi buildings on Niederkirchnerstraße in Kreuzberg. The Topography of Terror Foundation was established on the site in 1992, with a museum and documentation centre opening in 2010.
Berlin once again became the capital of the German Federal Republic on October 3 1990, officially ending the era of the Bonn Republic – but many embassies didn’t move from the Rhine to the Spree until the late 1990s. The historic Embassy Quarter in Tiergarten was partly transformed into a wildly overgrown wasteland during the West Berlin years. Scrub, meadows, rubbish heaps and historic embassy buildings created a strangely dystopian scene. Today, contemporary embassies rub shoulders with their older counterparts in this patchwork district.
The imposing building on Invalidenstraße was opened as a long-distance railway station in 1836. Under the name Stettiner Bahnhof (Szczecin Station), it was an important transport hub and connected the Prussian metropolis with cities north of Berlin such as Angermünde, Eberswalde and Stettin. The geographical alignment of the tracks gave the station its new name in 1950: Nordbahnhof. However, it lost importance after the war. The station was closed in 1952 and later demolished.
Today, Berlin’s S-Bahn still travels north at Nordbahnhof, and the preserved reception building is a reminder of the former station’s history. Around 2005, the area was still defined by urban bleakness – an empty oasis in the heart of the city. Today there’s no sign of it, and the nearby wasteland on Schwartzkopffstraße has also disappeared. Instead, the monstrous headquarters of the Federal Intelligence Service stand where the Stadion der Weltjugend was once located during the GDR period.
Old Central Livestock and Slaughterhouse
The Alter Zentralvieh- und Schlachthof (old central livestock and slaughterhouse) in Berlin opened on March 1, 1881. At that time, the area belonged to Lichtenberg – today it would be categorised as Prenzlauer Berg. The slaughterhouse was considered one of the largest and most modern facilities of its kind in Europe, supplying the greater Berlin area with fresh meat for decades. In GDR times, the site was expanded and continued as VEB Fleischkombinat Berlin. Operations ceased in 1991, and in the first years after the fall of the Wall, the site became an overgrown industrial wasteland that remained part of the Berlin cityscape throughout the 1990s.
After years of standstill, investors began to subdivide and develop the site. A huge new building quarter in the heart of the city has been growing there since the early 2000s. The Alter Schlachthof area is not yet complete, but the plans for the future are now clear.
RAW Gelände in Friedrichshain comprises 71,000 square metres of land abandoned after reunification. The expansive plot initially attracted artists and the party scene rather than investors. Around 1999, the RAW-Tempel with its many subtenants and socio-cultural offerings first set up shop on the decaying Reichsbahn site. Although now closed, the creative minds of this temple were alone for a while – until the clubs came.
An illustrious nightlife caravan took shape: Cassiopeia, Suicide Circus, Astra Kulturhaus, Badehaus Berlin, the bar ‘Zum schmutzigen Hobby‘ which had been driven out of Prenzlauer Berg, plus the skaters and climbers, snack bars and pubs. And of course, the Urban Spree art space with its large beer garden – a big adventure playground for adults. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more ‘Berlin’ party atmosphere in one place.
Some places in Berlin have changed completely since the fall of the Wall. These certainly include Potsdamer Platz, Heidestraße (between Mitte and Moabit) and also the banks of the Spree along the borders of Friedrichshain, Mitte and Kreuzberg, down to Treptower Brücke. For many years, it was an area characterised by wasteland and overgrown plots of land, where creative groups and nature could make themselves at home. Today, the Spreeufer is probably the most symbolic development area in the city.
The Spree’s banks are where the party activists from Bar25 became the developers behind Holzmarkt, and where the new office buildings of international media companies – including Universal – were built. The banks are where the first large-scale, anti-gentrification campaign began, fighting these new developments under the slogan ‘sink Mediaspree’. The protests fell on deaf ears. On the Kreuzberg side, all the gaps were filled with lofts, the clubs disappeared, office and residential towers spread out along the East Side Gallery. Mercedes-Benz-Platz became the ultimate manifesto of money and power in the supposedly alternative district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg.
Before the war, Leipziger Platz was one of the city’s most prestigious locations. The department store entrepreneurs Tietz and Wertheim opened their temples of consumption here, and the Prussian elite met in fashionable coffee houses to do business, discuss politics and gossip about the latest scandals. After the war and the division of the city, Leipziger Platz lost its importance. GDR city planners let the square fall into disrepair; too broken, too close to the Wall.
A wasteland emerged, which, after reunification, interested the festival organiser and club operator Dimitri Hegemann. He took over a vacant building right on Leipziger Platz and opened the Tresor club there – and the rest is techno history. The wasteland at Leipziger Platz remained untouched well into the 2000s. Today, like nearby Potsdamer Platz, it is completely developed and dominated by the Mall of Berlin shopping centre and adjacent office blocks.
The wasteland on Cuvrystraße in Kreuzberg combines the history of club culture, gentrification, street art subculture and social hotspots. Today, shiny new buildings exist there at high-end real-estate prices, but after the fall of the Wall, the Spree-side plot underwent numerous phases. In the 1990s, the nucleus of Yaam Club settled here. People sat on wooden crates by the fire and listened to reggae. The city discovered the river and the banks; a new attitude to life emerged.
At the end of the 2000s, punks, dropouts, homeless people and Roma families settled on the overgrown property. The tabloid press was outraged by ‘Berlin’s first favela’. The street artist Blu painted his legendary mural on the adjacent firewalls. Around 2012, BMW and Guggenheim tried to set up a lab on the site – a think-tank at the interface of urban development, art, architecture and innovative ideas for the future.
However, nothing came of it. Left-wing Kreuzbergers stormed against the idea, and the lab turned tail and set up shop in Prenzlauer Berg. At some point, the property was cleared and fenced off, with investors beginning a multi-million euro construction project shortly afterwards. Blu brushed over his striking work with black paint in 2014, but that couldn’t stop the tide.
Kreuzberg remains hotly contested, with every gap, every wasteland, every shred of urban space becoming the wet dream of investors who fantasise about expensive condominiums and shopping centres. The situation is no different on the Dragoner-Areal (dragoon area), which has been hotly contested for years. Real estate sharks against small fish – luxury developers against small businesses. In the 18th century, the site served as a base for the 1st Guards Dragoon Regiment of British monarch Queen Victoria. Where Mehringdamm meets Obentrautstraße, almost five hectares of prime plot are to be found. Soon, any remaining grass will undoubtedly give way to glass and concrete.
The speed with which even the largest wastelands disappear from the cityscape is illustrated well by the Stralau peninsula. In GDR times, Alt-Stralau fell into disrepair – the old industrial buildings stood forlorn, and hardly anyone lived beyond the old village centre close to the picturesque church. Stralau Bay was quiet and lonely. In the 1990s, the area on the border of Friedrichshain and Lichtenberg was transformed into a creative adventure playground. Construction work began, and today a new district is being built there.
Little by little, the wastelands are disappearing from Berlin, the city is becoming denser, more concrete, more expensive. Every unused square inch stirs greed and can be turned into gold. For a short time, the wastelands were something of an urban reprieve – until they weren’t.
Original article by Jacek Slaski for tipBerlin. Translated by Lucy Rowan.