East, west meet, but only across cultural divide


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, which marks the 10th anniversary of its reunification Tuesday. In few places in the country do such different kinds of Germans - from well-paid western newcomers to aging eastern laborers - live in such proximity.

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 - 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.

Prenzlauer Berg, which abutted the Berlin Wall until the barrier was torn down, mixes two worlds that mostly fail to intersect. People still identify themselves as Ossi (easterner) or Wessi (westerner). 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 has only eastern friends, she says. 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 says, relaxing 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.

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 much was done inside the buildings, which depended on coal-burning ceramic stoves in each apartment for heat.

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

Prenzlauer Berg has become a magnet for younger government officials since the capital has returned to Berlin from Bonn. Many 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 majority in the area. 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.

"Getting together is very complicated," says 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. "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."

To Juergen Schnappertz, 50, a foreign policy adviser to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democratic Party who was transferred from Bonn last year and now lives in Prenzlauer Berg, the district is western-dominated.

The longtime residents who remain "are not people who put their stamp on the cultural life," he says. "They are more in the background. Public life is more done by the persons who you can see. You meet them in the cafes and restaurants - the young people and the western people.

"There is no uniting of eastern and western German people. That is not the atmosphere. There's a separation in the bars and restaurants too. Those [easterners'] restaurants, I would never go in. It's awful. It's dark."

Musician Tim Schallenberg, 32, who emigrated from east to west in 1988, one year before the opening of the wall, says he works almost exclusively with easterners.

"If a westerner wants to join the band, I say, 'No, no.' Ways of communication are different. You have easier contact with other easterners. It's going to take one, two or three generations to get a real unified Germany."

Schallenberg explained that although he had wanted to escape the repression of East Germany, he missed many things about its society - and especially the Prenzlauer Berg scene of the 1980s.

"In former times, you could have a food stand where a professor would meet an ordinary worker," he says. "It was easy because we all had the same enemy, and we were equal. There wasn't jealousy because the level of wages was much closer."

Schallenberg enjoys the easterner-based scene that survives but dislikes the district's gentrification and growing role as a tourist destination. "When I see these tour buses come through this quarter, I sometimes feel like we're in a zoo," he complains. "In the West, everything is marketable. Even lifestyle is marketable."

Martin Fitzenreiter, 37, a bronze casting technician from the east who works at Flierl Art Foundry Gallery, said he is comfortable with how easterners and westerners are mixed together, yet separate, in Prenzlauer Berg.

"I don't think that's so bad," he says. "Otherwise we would just take over everything from the west. ... I think in the United States it would be the same: Nobody would be interested to look for the 'real' American identity.

"It's not real fighting between these two roots that exist in Prenzlauer Berg. They're just going their own ways. Maybe that is the new culture."

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