The Loneliest Street In Berlin

Because my mind only works intermittently, particularly as the weekend approaches, I often find myself having to buy one or two grocery items on Sunday, having spaced them out in the Saturday shopping, which I still approach with the same panic as when everything shut up at 2pm on Saturdays, as it did when I first moved here.

This means a trip to a train station, as generously defined by Deutsche Bahn. There’s an Edeka market in the Friedrichstr. station which has a lot of stuff my regular supermarket doesn’t, but is often so jammed that security guards close it down until it empties out some, resulting in a huge line in the station. The other alternative is the Kaiser’s in the Hauptbahnhof, which doesn’t have as much stuff, but isn’t such a mob scene most of the time.

When I go there, I usually walk down Invalidenstr., but after I do my shopping, I generally walk back another way, a discipline I learned long ago driving through Italy with a friend who repeated the mantra “never go back the way you came,” which I find excellent advice. So since there’s always something to see, I generally head back by way of Reinhardtstr., the lonliest street in Berlin. I also use it when I walk to the ARD studios on Reichstagufer to record my stuff for Fresh Air, so I’ve been watching it for a while.

All in all, it’s a pretty depressing walk, particularly if you approach it from the Hauptbahnhof. You cross the (re-channeled) Spree via a bridge, and then approach an intersection which gives you the option of heading south towards Unter den Linden or east on Reinhardtstr. Right there at the corner is a large, modern office building with a huge poster on it offering, as it has for over a year, offices for rent. “Here’s where decisions are made!” it says, not forgetting to mention the stunning views of the government quarter, the Reichstag and the Spreebogen complex. But mostly, it looks like the decision has been made to rent somewhere else.

The first block is desolate, even during the week. It’s kind of an orphan, not too accessible by public transportation, and with one empty apartment and office building after the other. One or two of the streetside apartments appears to have a tenant, but I also know that real-estate folks hang curtains in empty apartments to make it look like they’re inhabited. There’s a nice store selling 20th Century antiques, Art Deco and Art Nouveau, from Vienna, a tiny car-rental company, and a “design center” with occasional exhibits. Then you hit the corner of Luisenstr. and there’s a restaurant called Kanzlereck, “Chancellor’s Corner,” serving up German cuisine in a room in which photographic transparancies of past and present Chancellors of Germany are printed onto the window glass. This is probably a ploy to keep people from overeating.

On an island stands a statue of a naked guy wrestling a dragon down, in honor of Rudolf Virchow, who, with Robert Koch, put the adjacent Charité Hospital on the map by pretty much inventing the germ theory of disease and the science of pathology.

Keep going and you’ll see that the Kanzlereck was the gateway to Little Bonn. Actually, the whole area south of Reinhardtstr., particularly along Albrechtstr. and continuing to Schiffbauerdamm, can bear this title. Most of the restaurants are branches of popular ones in Bonn, and they and the bars hang out signs for Kölsch, the beer of choice for transplanted Bonners. Those Bonners are supposed to be living in these apartments, but as you continue to walk to Friedrichstr., it becomes evident that not very many are. The parade of empty buildings and “For Rent” signs just continues.

Which is not to say that nobody’s rented. There’s a store specializing in ostrich products (non-edible ones) like novelties made from ostrich eggs. There’s a very tiny musical-instrument repair shop. There was a brave Persian restaurant, with an authentic-looking menu, but it closed for lack of customers and is now a “Thai” restaurant. There’s the headquarters of the FDP, Germany’s Liberal party, and branches of a dozen or so media companies from around the world, Switzerland, Japan, and Frankfurt among them. Probably weirdest of all is a huge store that sells nothing but glowing balls. How they pay the rent is beyond me. And almost at Friedrichstr. is another mind-twister, a cellar store selling Luxembourg wine and Persian groceries. I didn’t even know Luxembourg was big enough to support a vineyard. And, inevitably, there are a few businesses that have hung on, probably since the DDR: a couple of cafes, a keymaker, an ancient stamp shop.

But mostly, Reinhardtstr. is about failure. The “Residence at the Deutsches Theater” was one such grandiose project, a gleaming white complex of luxury flats which is now, at least partially, an apartment hotel. It’s depressing to see the dust bunnies through the plate glass windows of the stores which remain empty despite every effort to rent them, the way their For Rent signs have yellowed around the edges. The sad fact is, a sizeable percentage of government workers never wanted to move to Berlin in the first place, and those who did go home for the weekend. They don’t like Berlin and they don’t like Berliners. They have their own restaurants, bars, and clubs, but mostly, I suspect, they do their jobs and pine for retirement.

It’s almost a relief to get off the street and start heading home, although as I pass the corner of Oranienburger Str. I always remember that line about tourism being like prostitution, in that you make your most attractive features available to all for a price and hope you don’t invite disease or destruction.

But that’s a rant for another day.

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