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Wall Still 'in Their Heads'

A decade after reunification, people of one eastern Berlin district--like citizens of Germany as a whole--continue to feel a vast separation between easterner and westerner.

September 12, 2000|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — Before the wall came down, Angela Heine loved to visit the East Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg. Its once-elegant buildings attracted students, squatters, artists and dissidents who mixed easily with the working-class crowd.

She still likes it. A 10-minute bicycle ride from the heart of Berlin, the district is unique and yet something of a microcosm of Germany today. There are few places in the country where such different kinds of Germans--from well-paid western newcomers to aging eastern laborers--live in such proximity, for better or for worse.

Life in this neighborhood, especially for young people, reflects the slow erosion of old east-west social barriers.

But most people living in the district--like citizens of Germany as a whole--still feel a vast separation between easterner and westerner. Judging from the mood here a decade after the political reunification of Germany, the building of a culture and society not divided by east and west will be measured in generations.

"There's still a wall here. It's in their heads," said Brian Henton, 45, a British artist and craftsman who has lived in the district for three years. "They can't sit down at a table and talk to each other, because one is an Ossi [easterner] and one is a Wessi [westerner]. Even though they eat the same things, watch the same TV and wear the same clothes, they have nothing to talk about with each other, because they have this prejudice."

Prenzlauer Berg, which abutted the Berlin Wall until the barrier was torn down, now mixes two worlds that mostly fail to intersect. Often one world barely sees the other, or when it does, the strongest emotion is resentment or disdain.

Heine, for example, who moved to the district in 1996 after growing up in a tiny East German village, works with western colleagues at a music publishing firm in the former West Berlin. But at 35, she still has only eastern friends, she said, and when she is in her own neighborhood she avoids the upscale cafes around Kollwitzplatz, a park at the core of the district's most gentrified area.

"There are huge class differences, which we don't have as easterners," Heine said as she relaxed at a sidewalk table of the Leutwerk bar, a rather bare-looking hangout run by an easterner and patronized by easterners. "We've stopped going to Kollwitzplatz because as people with regular jobs we can't afford it anymore, and we don't want to sit with the yuppies and tourists."

Most of the typically five-story apartment buildings of Prenzlauer Berg were built about a century ago, and many survived the World War II bombing of Berlin because there were no military targets in the area. Under communism, maintenance was virtually nonexistent and the facades were allowed to crumble, revealing the bricks underneath.

The district's renewal began in the mid-1980s, when the exteriors of buildings along a single key street, Husemannstrasse, were renovated for the 1987 celebration of the 750th anniversary of the founding of Berlin. Nothing special was done inside the buildings, which still depended on coal-burning ceramic stoves in each apartment for heat. But busloads of tourists visiting East Berlin were often driven down the renovated street to give the impression that East Germans lived in this kind of attractive housing.

District Undergoes a Major Renovation

Now, on nearly every street in the district--which stretches about eight blocks west to east and 10 blocks south to north--workers are busy upgrading century-old housing, adding central heating and modern bathrooms and restoring facades.

Prenzlauer Berg has become a magnet for younger, often single, government officials now that the capital has returned to Berlin from Bonn. Many new restaurants and bars have opened, as well as boutiques and art galleries.

Working-class and pensioned-off easterners, whose attitudes were shaped by life under communism, still form a large majority in those apartments that have not yet been refurbished, and some have stayed in upgraded buildings despite rent increases. Some old-time artists and musicians have managed to hang on. Even a few former dissidents who have become successful politicians or government officials--including Wolfgang Thierse, the parliament speaker--still live here.

While this makes for a fascinating mixture of people, it's not an easy one to meld together.

"Getting together is very complicated," said Josefine Edle von Krepl, a former East Berliner who moved west for 12 years, then came back to Prenzlauer Berg in 1997 to run a vintage shop carrying clothing and jewelry dating from 1860 to 1960. "If you grew up in this or that system, things can't be equalized even in 10 years.

"When I meet someone for the first time, it takes me only two minutes to recognize them as a westerner or an easterner. It's a different behavior, a different way of gesturing."

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