Dang, I should get out of the house more. Wednesday, as I was helping travel writer Cynthia Barnes get to first her hostel and then the giant ITB travel trade show, we took the S-Bahn out of Friedrichstr. and I saw that Lehrter Bahnhof was sporting huge glass-clad towers, which means it’s almost ready.
What this means specifically is that after ping-ponging around for years, Berlin will actually have a central train station. When the city was divided, West Berlin was served by Zoo Station (Zoologischer Garten, to be precise), which became a center for all kinds of scuzz, as German train stations will do — ever been to Hamburg? (Part of this is due to the fact that they invariably have at least one grocery store that’s open late — ie, til 10pm — and it will sell alcohol). Zoo was made famous in the film Christiane F., which was based on the true story of a teenage junkie girl who published her autobiography detailing her life there. I remember when I first moved to Berlin, wandering around that area and coming upon some vending machines behind Zoo Station that were the same as a lot of cigarette machines (which are attached to the outsides of buildings in a lot of Berlin) except it was selling needle-cleaning kits, sterile disposable syringes, and things like that, an admirable effort to halt the spread of AIDS, but a nice indication of who was lurking around.
The police did what they could to clean up Zoo, particularly after the Christiane F. scandal, but there’s no way you can clean up a place with that much traffic through it. Indeed, as we waited for the subway to come on Wednesday, Cynthia and I were approached by a whey-faced junkie who said he needed money for, uh, lunch. He reminded me of the days when I had to wait there at about 11:30 at night for the train to my old apartment and there was a gang of junkies run by a guy in a top-hat and badly-tattooed face that roamed around there. They fought the other junkies from time to time, and I was always scared one of them would push another in front of an oncoming train. I contented myself by watching the rats running around in the gravel between the tracks and was always relieved when the train came.
After unification, of course, the eastern stations opened up. Lichtenberg was, I believe, the first central station out there. It was where you left for Prague from, I know that. No services to speak of, no shelter from the elements, it was a grim place to catch a train which, more often than not, was going to another grim destination in Poland, Czechoslovakia, or Hungary. But soon after I moved to Berlin, Ostbahnhof opened up, a bit further west, a station built specifically for the modern traveller. Hell, there was even a McDonald’s in it, and it was walking distance from a lot of the best parts of east Berlin. In fact, it was so modern that for a while, it was called Hauptbahnhof (central station), although it clearly wasn’t, since anything headed west usually left from Zoo.
Then, after the city government had spent something like 35 million Euros restoring the old Lehrter Stadtbahnhof to its 19th century glory, it was announced that it would be demolished to make way for a new Hauptbahnhof. This station is sort of halfway between Ostbahnhof and Zoo, and is in the middle of absolutely nowhere. If you want to go to the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum of Contemporary Art you’d get off there (and be treated to a rather sterile and didactic collection — lots of Joseph Beuys! — with occasional good visiting shows), but there’s really nothing else in the neighborhood, since it stood in the no-mans-land between East and West. (Incidentally, yes, the museum is in an old train station, one of several claiming to be the oldest in Europe).
Anyway, as this article from the International Herald Tribune makes clear, it’s another boondoggle for Berlin which may, in a decade or so, pay off. But plans are underway to shut down Zoo and Ostbahnhof as end-stations for long-distance travel in the not-too-distant future, and I understand there are even plans to demolish at least part of Zoo. The closure of Zoo and Ostbahnhof, too, will wreak a certain amount of economic chaos in their immediate neighborhoods, since each has a nice little support system of businesses in the streets surrounding it which has sprung up over the years. This will inevitably lead to a lot of folks becoming unemployed, which is just what Berlin needs: more unemployment!
Now, I have to say, Lehrter — which is now being called Hauptbahnhof, making me wonder if they took the signs down at Ostbahnhof and stored them so they could put them up at Lehrter — is pretty near my house, and will be easier for me to get to than either Ostbahnhof or Zoo, but I doubt it’ll be open before I move. Those office spaces in the glass towers will have to be filled, and businesses selling food and all the other things you find in railroad stations here will have to be courted, and maybe the bits of the surroundings which aren’t government land will find some idiot speculator to build a hotel or a retail court or something so Lehrter doesn’t seem so isolated. But the end of Zoo Station is the end of yet another era in Berlin, the ’60s through the ’80s, and one can only wonder where the junkies in west Berlin will congregate after it’s gone.