Most cities have a clear ‘city center’, which means if you are lucky you can brag about living in the center. These areas usually have many shops, bars, restaurants, and life in general. But in Berlin, things are a bit more complicated. What is the center of Berlin? There isn’t a single area that comes to mind as a “city center”. Many would say Mitte because it’s literally in the middle, but I would say the center is the mile radius around my apartment.
A few months ago, I visited an exhibition called Unfinished Metropolis, which celebrated the centenary of the Berlin metropolitan area. The exhibition featured an entire section on the topic of Berlin’s many city centers. As it turns out, the answer to Berlin’s central question lies in its complicated, fascinating, and quite tragic history. Here is what I discovered.
The old center of Berlin can be found around Museum Island, which is indeed in Mitte. But during the Weimar Republic, this area failed to develop at the same rapid pace as the rest of the city. It became unnecessary because the people were poor, the streets were small, and when the Nazis took power in the 1930s, they deemed the region unworthy of the glory of the Reich.
The Nazis planned a city center with towering buildings to rival those of Mussolini in Italy and Stalin in the USSR, but the project was never completed. After the war, the city was in disarray; bombarded and divided. The problem of downtown Berlin has doubled – East Berlin and West Berlin should find a solution.
And both have succeeded. Breitscheidplatz has become West Berlin’s new city center, a car park near the ruins of the Memorial Church. You can still walk this busy shopping street today; just hop on the U1 or U9 to Kurfürstendamm or the S-Bahn to Zoologischer Garten and take a look.
In the east, Alexanderplatz has become the center of commerce. The square was redesigned after the war to make the cars reflect modern times. You can of course still explore Alexanderplatz today, but it’s mostly a good station to get around Berlin these days (I mean U8, U5, tram and S Bahn? Envy those who live there .). But the answer to the question of downtown Berlin is not so easy to resolve.
As mentioned before, Unfinished Metropolis, celebrates the centenary of the consolidation of Berlin. Until 1920, Berlin was not a single city but a number of small towns surrounding the central region of Berlin. It makes a lot of sense when you think of all the fields ending in Dorf in Berlin (Zehlendorf, Reinickendorf, Heinersdorf, Wilmersdorf etc.). When Berlin became a single city, these small towns did not just fade into nonexistence, but continued to thrive as small shopping centers. Many of these areas still feel like their own towns, so much of the area outside the ring looks like quaint little villages. It’s always worth a trip to Lichterfelde West, Weißensee or Frohnau to see how these municipalities retain their own charm separate from the gravelly streets of Neukölln or Friedrichshain.
map: © OpenStreetMap and Iqra Nowshari contributors (CC BY-SA 2.0)
So there is no real answer to the question of downtown Berlin. It’s where you want it. If you live, shop, work and party in your Kiez, then this is your center.
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