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Berlin’s ‘Hermannplatz’: Center of the Universe

‘Hermannplatz’, a rather chaotic and ugly spot right at the border between Berlin’s ‘Neukölln’ and ‘Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg’ districts, is supposed to change. At least that is what the owners of the ‘Karstadt’ department store at the square want.

A few steps away from the northern corner of ‘Hermannplatz’, at the bus stop for lines M29 and M41, the same scene repeats itself over and over. Someone stops his car in the no standing zone, just to run a quick errand at the bank. For that reason, buses cannot perform the u-turn they need to make in order to get to the stop. Therefore they block ‘Urbanstrasse’. Nobody gets through this chaos anymore.

Mess at the Corner

At the same moment, rather fast bicyclists on the old and narrow bike lane right on the sidewalk ring their bells angrily because that corner is congested like hell, by people who are waiting for their bus and by those who are trying to enter the ‘Karstadt’ department store through its northern entrance, while other shoppers exit the building.

That corner is a mess. But so are all other spots on and around ‘Hermannplatz’. On the square’s south-eastern side, McDonald’s has been hidden behind a construction site for months. The renovation of a large building there does not seem to make any headway. The sidewalk and everywhere else on that side of the square is dirty and crowded.

‘Hermannplatz’ is the place to be. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

On the large intersection at the square’s southern end, where ‘Hermannstrasse’, ‘Karl Marx Strasse’ and ‘Hasenheide’ meet, the broken glass from the latest accident there was swept onto a tiny traffic island. At this spot, the fact that the number of accidents is not a lot higher is actually a miracle. Bicyclist cross on red, so do some pedestrians. Young men race their loud cars with manipulated exhaust pipes around that corner all the time.

Cheap Passion Fruit

The square itself is surrounded by four big streets. On several days per week, a small market attracts people. At one stall, fresh fish is being offered. Its smell spreads all over the place. At the large fruit and vegetable stall, Turkish salesmen keep on shouting their offers into the cold wind. “Oranges, oranges, oranges!” The other day they even sold passion fruit, a very exotic product from the German perspective, for half a Euro a piece.

On the sidewalk right next to the department store, a cop stops a bicyclist who supposedly rode along the old-fashioned bike lane in the wrong direction, instead of dealing with the real problems at this square. On the same side of the center of the universe, the doner kebab they offer at a small stall built into the wall of the department store tastes as well as it smells. But, because of the noise caused by all the traffic, this is not exactly the right spot to relax at during the lunch break.

A young lady who seems to be a drug addict, one of many assembled right here, is asking pedestrians for “some change” while three drunk Russians are sitting on a low boundary wall with their beer cans. They seem to be watching all the ‘wild life’ that is unfolding here in the sense that this square in full of movement, noise as well as smells of fish and doner kebab.

Drunkards with a German Shepherd

Downstairs, in the ‘U-Bahn’ train station, things are even wilder. About every sixty seconds, one metro arrives or leaves on one of the two levels. The line U7 takes people from Rudow in Berlin’s south-east to Spandau in its north-west, while the other one, the U8, transports passengers from ‘Hermannstrasse’ via ‘Alexanderplatz’ to ‘Wittenau’.

The countless rats on the tracks seem to be the only beings that enjoy living down here. But there are also tens of thousands of passengers per day, a bunch of drunkards and security people who check things once in a while. On the U7 platform, a lady exits a train with her little dog. The next moment, the poor pet is being attacked by a German Shepherd owned by the alcoholics who are using the station as their living room and ignore the smoking ban all the time.

This bus stop, the bike lane and the department store entrance need more room. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

In shock and pain, the little dog is screaming like a human baby. The wound inflicted to it by that big dog is bleeding. While the lady sits down to check her dog, four old men with beer bottles in their hands look down at her, saying the bite had not been so bad. She flees into another train, in order to take her pet to a vet.

Place of Harsh Contrasts

One level down, on the next platform, a junkie is sticking a syringe into his arm for everybody to see. His pants are half way down. Nobody does anything to stop him from killing himself. Along with stations like ‘Boddinstrasse’, ‘Kottbusser Tor’ and ‘Alexanderplatz’. ‘Hermannplatz’ is one of the worst in terms of drugs, alcohol, crime and dirt. The Berlin Senate wants to make public transport more attractive, including down here. It obviously takes time.

‘Hermannplatz’ is a place of harsh contrasts. The noise and chaos is happening in the station and up there on the square. The Karstadt department store, on the other hand, is a more quiet luxury temple. Its concept is old-fashioned, its prices are high. These department stores in which they sell absolutely everything, including oranges, butter, pants, stereos, shoes and pet food, came up in the West Germany of the 1970s. The same applies to the kind of architecture that defines this building.

What a place like this one needs is a relaunch, meaning a new building, a new concept, a new everything. The owners want to turn this thing into an American-style, far more modern place with shops, restaurants and other attractions, in order to become a magnet for visitors.

Investors vs. Critics

Right now, the cafeteria restaurant on the top floor is nice, but so expensive the regular residents of this neighborhood cannot afford it. Nobody in ‘Neukölln’ and hardly anyone in ‘Kreuzberg’ will pay 18 Euro for a Schnitzel and a drink. Neither will they invest 160 Euro for a cutlery set or 120 Euro for a new pair of regular shoes.

The supermarket in the basement offers it all, including the best brands, exotic fruit for four times the price compared to the market outside, or milk products for far more than they cost at the ‘Aldi’ budget supermarket located behind the gambling halls right outside the department store’s southern exit.

The building was last renovated in the year 2000. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

Critics of the owner’s plans to pull down most of the giant building and to erect a new one say a luxury store like this one would not really fit this area. They also believe rents over here might rise even more, should that plan become reality. Signa, the company which owns 50.1 percent of ‘Karstadt’, along with the building, is trying to calm the critics.

Local Politicians vs. the Senate

They just changed their plans substantially, by including affordable housing units and by making other adjustments. Nobody in Berlin should really reject any plans for cheap apartments, because of the alarming situation on the German capital’s housing market. Thousands of Berliners still need a place to stay, even though the city’s growth might be slowing down at this stage.

Some local politicians reject any new building of the kind Signa wants. On the other hand, Ramona Pop, Berlin’s Green Commerce Senator, and Governing Mayor Michael Müller generally support big investments of this kind. If the locals continue torpedoing the project, Red City Hall might just take over.

Just yesterday, the Antiquities and Monuments Office of the city state of Berlin approved the new blueprint Signa came up with. They wanted one part of the enormous building to stay, namely the one part that is left from the original department store building erected before World War II. But the story begins much earlier.

A Square that is Not a Square

As it turns out, ‘Hermannplatz’ was never intended to be a square. Its creation was a coincidence. At first, it was part of the road from Berlin, its much smaller, ancient version, to Mittenwalde. As the city grew, a tavern was established on the side of the future square, in 1737. It was called ‘Rollkrug’. Apart from getting drunk or eating, there was nothing else to do at this spot, since it was empty.

Some 150 years later, in the 19th century, the square we know as ‘Hermannplatz’ today was actually part of the city, meaning lots of buildings popped up, pedestrians and horse carriages were everywhere. In 1885, the square got today’s name, even though it still did not really look like a square, but rather like a street.

At some point, the ‘Rollkrug’ tavern was the only building here. Photo: Globus Verlag

During the Weimar Republic, in the mid-1920, the apartment buildings on the western side of ‘Hermannplatz’ were pulled down shortly after being built. The intention was to erect an elegant department store in their place, one that would be the pride of the city. At this stage, in 1925, the square was extended, meaning it became an actual square.

Blown Up By the Nazis

The predecessor of today’s ‘Karstadt’ building was constructed from 1927 to 1929. From that moment on, ‘Hermannplatz’ had a building that actually deserved that word. It looked like an American high rise since the architects favored the New York style. Two enormous towers with blue warning lights for aircraft were part of the huge construction.

In Nazi Germany, the department store at ‘Hermannplatz’ was one of the most modern ones in Europe. Photo: ETH Bibliothek

In the following years, this place was popular among people in the entire city, including its open air restaurant garden on the roof. Then the Nazis came to power. In the late 1930s, Jews were not allowed to enter the department store anymore, before they were deported and murdered. While the elegant building basically survived the war, the Nazis blew it up at the end of WWII. That way they wanted to make sure the Soviets would not get the valuable merchandise in the basement.

There was not much left after the Nazis blew up the building. Photo: Deutsche Fotothek

After the war, one small part of the big building was standing. It still is. The southern entrance to the parking garage leads through that original part of several stores. Berlin’s Antiquities and Monuments Office made sure the owners will not touch that original part, meaning it will be included in any new building they will erect for tens of millions of Euro.

Alien Element

Today’s version of the building is rather boring, in comparison. It was erected in 1951 and got several refurbishments and extensions, the last one in the year 2000. The new building is supposed to follow the style of the original one, including the towers. Its interior will be adjusted to the present, in the sense that the concept will be modern.

Back then, in 1929, the department store was said to be the most modern one in Europe. It had 24 escalators, the ‘U-Bahn’ train station was accessible from its basement, just like today, huge service elevators lifted entire trucks with goods up to the fifth floor, to make things easier. From the attraction it was in the Weimar Republic and even in Nazi Germany, nothing much is left.

The original part of the building can be seen on the left, behind the Neukölln trash. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

‘Karstadt’ is almost like an alien element in this quarter known for residents from different cultures. Turks, Arabs and other communities mix with German members of the large ‘alternative scene’. Many of the locals are not really the right target group for a huge department store. In this regard, the critics are right.

‘Manipulation and False Promises’

On the other hand, who says an attractive, new mall or entertainment temple would not attract all kinds of people from all parts of Berlin, along with visitors from other parts of Germany and abroad? The plans Signa has put forward might be a gift to this area. It would not hurt if ‘Hermannplatz’ would be affected in a positive way. It might became more attractive and cleaner.

If and when it happens, the construction noise and mess this will lead to is survivable. But first, critics need to be convinced and the details of the new plan should be shown to the locals. At this stage, the project’s opponents are still distributing leaflets and lists of signatures. They do not want the new mess, but the old one.

The ocean view from the top of ‘Karstadt’. Photo: Imanuel Marcus

Just an hour before this article was finalized, the ‘Initiative Hermannplatz’ posted a statement on a blue and while social media site, saying they could not take the new Signa plan too seriously. The company had spread “empty words” by adding the affordable living aspect. “We identify manipulation and false promises immediately!”, they said. Sure.

That way, the argument about a large investment project just became ideological. This does not seem to be about a nice new building or its features anymore, or about how it might change the neighborhood, but about the ‘system’. Welcome to Berlin.

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