As somewhat of a follow-up to this post over here, I just spent an hour or so walking around an area of Pankow. Running north and east of the tip of Prenzlauer Berg, it is a rather surreal combination of suburban old-East buildings, trees and parks, allotments and slightly desolate geography peopled with accidental, old city dwellers.
Walking alongside the S-Bahn tracks up Norweger Straße, the path turns surprisingly greener and the right hand side becomes a series of small outdoor allotments populated by children, grandparents and the odd parked car (the path next to it even has its own name—Kastaniengasse). Twenty-something degrees Celsius also brought out dog-walkers (mostly Labradors and terriers), barely-dressed women and a large gaggle of middle-aged cyclists on some kind of Here-Is-Where-The-Wall-Used-To-Be tour.
After a few minutes, the Mauerweg veered left at a right angle. Later I would walk down here, beneath very low-built S-Bahn bridges and past a playground with what I assumed were poorer families enjoying table tennis and strange trampolines made from around 2 feet square recesses in the pavement filled evidently with some kind of bouncy material.
For now, I headed right onto Dolimitenstraße, where the buildings were a mixture of post-1989 housing project developments and older blocks with knotted, dark wooden doors which were about 6 feet high and had small, diamond-shaped windows. Making a short circle I came back past a small park where young Turkish guys were playing basketball, dogs were being walked, and people’s yet-again-unclothed torsos were being sunned.
What really strikes me about Pankow, an area which is more or less outside of the central sections of Berlin, is how very green and suburban and extremely quiet it was. Hardly any cars and very few bus or Straßenbahn stops appeared until I made the circuit back onto Bornholmer Straße, and most of the people I saw were engaged in Saturday afternoon relaxation. It was certainly enough of a break from people and city-saturation for today (and I took a few decent photographs), but the old-East feel of desolation and the replacement of Prenzlauer Berg yuppies with poorer families and odd buildings made it distinctly more alienating.
Verfremdung & Factions
By comparison to the US, perhaps it is easier to find this slightly odd but pleasant feeling of Verfremdung in places such as Berlin, and in European countries in general, because the delineation between areas (and people’s subsequent notion of what the areas are like) is far less definite. In American cities (I have no real experience of this but it seems possible) the areas—and most especially the demographic of people living in specific areas—is more confining. Taking Boston as an example, you could argue there are predominantly African-America areas, Italian, Irish and probably other inhabitant-defined locations. See here for some ethnic demographics in Boston.
In typical US bipolarity, people crowd together to form a community in a particular geographic location, and then split into factions and fractions within that location. Maybe it’s related to insecurity and identity anxiety, but it also means that the more surreal experiences are confined to a certain place, are all the more surreal because of that, and the people there might frown more upon letting ‘outsiders’ from the larger community into their cit-faction. Of course if you can identify with them, perhaps you will stand a chance. Not that that means I will be going into a dive bar in Southie.
But then many things about the United States involve a constant struggle between integration and freedom of identity. Isn’t that what the country is all about?