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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Bike's Eye View of our Berlin 'hood: Wedding

"Berlin," said the bartender at a wonderful little cafe near here, "is so ugly, it's sexy." Or something to that effect. I guess that's why I like Berlin, because that's exactly how I feel ... after a vodka or three. After living in one of the prettier parts of Berlin, we moved to the Wedding area, which many Berliners consider to be the uglier part of town. Wedding has a bad reputation: It's working class, kind of gritty and run down, poor. But since we moved here a month ago, I've become quite fond of Wedding. I'm struck by the area's diversity. It's not only ethnically varied -- Wedding is home to many Turkish, African and Middle Eastern immigrants -- but also demographically diverse. Young hipsters live next to the working class; artists' studios sit next to industrial sites (or in industrial sites that were taken over by artists). In one tiny section of one block, I can go to the poetry center, buy antique tchockes, browse a huge selection of shishas, or hookahs, and go to an African restaurant. Wedding even has its own progressive, graphically-rich magazine. Most striking to me is the diversity of the urban landscape. You can be on Badstrasse, a hectic, busy, garish, commercial street one minute, and turn off, ride your bike half a block, and be in a green, quiet park next to the Panke River. I tried to capture all of that in this video. Because my favorite way to see the area is from a bike, I figured I'd give you a similar point of view; the video is all shot from a camera strapped onto my bike rack. All photos and video were taken within a 10 minute bike ride radius from where we currently live in Wedding. The music is by Damscray and DJ/Rupture.
Twist & Science (Damscray) / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Friday, August 13, 2010

My Commie Berlin bike and me

I suffered my first head injury* on a bike. I was five. When I was 11, I spent all my saved up paper route money on a Coast to Coast 12 speed. A year later, I dismantled it, combined it with another bike, and crashed it when I hit a rotten apple on a curve while delivering the aforesaid papers. I went to the emergency room. I started racing bikes (and getting spanked) that same year. On late summer nights as a teenager, I rode my bike home from my girlfriend's house, the fresh memory of her mysterious smell mingling with that of sprinklers on the grass. And when I came to the non-lit sections of street, I felt as if I were flying through the darkness. I worked in a bike shop for five years. I got married and had a kid and started a business and stopped riding and got chubby. Later, I started riding my bike again. I'm still chubby, but at least I can go out and purge my demons by riding up a mountainside, and not worry about cardiac arrest.

So, when I left the Old Country to move to Berlin, I wasn't about to leave my bicycle behind. I packed up my road bike, which was engineered to translate my aging legs' waning power into forward motion as efficiently as possible, and brought it over the pond. I then spent two weeks coughing up my lungs, looking at the unopened bicycle box with the impotent longing of an old man in the Sex Kino down the street. That I was on the mend was confirmed the day I crawled out of bed and tore open the box.

My first Berlin ride was a humbling affair. After the woman -- I'd peg her age at 62 -- passed me on a bulky one-speed nearly as old as her, I realized that perhaps my lightweight, many-geared machine was a bit much in a city with only one hill** to speak of. In my attempt to recover a sliver of my ego by overtaking the woman -- who, unfairly, was loaded down with groceries -- I swerved out of the bike lane and into the sidewalk. I was headed straight for the rear-end of a high-heeled pedestrian. Since I had no bell (rendering my bicycle illegal in Berlin), and since I don't speak German, I was reduced to making incomprehensible grunts of warning before abandoning all hope and swerving back into the bike lane, behind the aforesaid older but much faster woman.

The road into the Grunewald, a huge forest on Berlin's edge, provided quiet relief. It's a smoothly-paved, virtually carless street through the dense trees. I got down into the drops, stretched out my legs, kicked up the gear and started hammering. That's when I got the flat tire. It's also when I realized I had left the house without pump, tube or any other remedy, save a few bucks for a train ticket. I hobbled up the road to the S-Bahn station, clicked conspicuously across the shiny tiled floor in my cycling shoes and boarded a train. It was mercifully empty. And then the two women, attractively tattooed and fetchingly pierced, boarded the car and sat across from me. And laughed. At me. I was, after all, wearing lycra. Bright pink lycra. And so it was that I decided to change my life, or at least change my approach to this Berlin bicycling thing.

I needed a new bike. Okay, an old bike. One of the purely functional, no-frills one-speeds that are everywhere in this city. They stream by on the bike paths, which line every sidewalk along nearly every major thoroughfare in town, and the paths come with their own turning lanes and traffic lights. The bikes are practically piled up at every subway stop. Many seem to have been abandoned, overcome as they are by rust and weeds. Bike shops are plentiful, all of them selling an assortment of new and used rides. The bounty, however, has not rendered the bikes cheap. And equipping the family wasn't easy. But a fervent search, lasting a week or so, unearthed a nice shiny ride for Wendy, a ragged but cheap one for Elena and a vintage beauty for Lydia. Nothing for me. There was only one place left to go: Mauerpark on a Sunday.

Mauer means "wall" in German, and the Mauerpark is somehow meant to commemorate the Wall. More importantly, it's home each Sunday to a huge flea market, filled with vendors selling everything imaginable, from soft served ice cream, to vintage sunglasses, to enigmatic machines that were surely used by the Stasi either for listening in on dissidents or torturing them (if I weren't so intent on finding a bike, I would have picked one up for those evenings when the kids won't calm down, or when Wendy's feeling especially frisky). And then there are the bikes -- steeds in all shapes and sizes, sold by a motley cast of shady-looking characters. Rumor has it, every bike there is stolen.

After perusing dozens of Fahrrads, as they're called in Germany, I finally stumbled upon a guy who was asking somewhat reasonable prices. If the salesman weren't speaking German, I might have mistaken him for someone running a junkyard on the backroads of Delta County, or the goofy cousin on the Dukes of Hazard. He wore a dark blue jumpsuit, had long, greasy black hair, and a lopsided, half-toothless smile. His hands were stained black from handling many an oily chain. He had just a handful of bikes for sale, a less overwhelming selection than some of his colleagues. I pointed to a green one: How much? 45 Euros. How about the blue one? 55. Then, in true socialist fashion, he made the hard sale on the cheaper bike: It's much better, he said in German, because it's from East Germany. The other one, from West. No good. East is better. Sold.

Like all Berlin bikes, it has a bell, a head- and tail-light, a rear rack. It rode beautifully for the first few blocks of the trip home. Then the right pedal started feeling funny. No biggie, I thought, I was going to put better pedals on, anyway. It kept getting worse, though, and by the time I got home I had made a sickening realization: The bike guy was no smarter than he looked, and had forced a left-hand pedal into the right-hand crank, completely stripping the threads. I think I wept a little, but it was okay, because I did it privately and out of sight of pretty girls on the subway. I washed away my depression with a healthy dose of the Grauburgunder wine that they sell around here for remarkably cheap, and then I got excited about fixing up my bike. A big hammer, and another 20 Euros later, it was up and running again. In the process, I also learned something: Berlin has government-supported bike shops devoted exclusively to people who are unemployed and on welfare. I see a job in my future.

In the days since, we've sampled many a Berlin bike path as a family, saving us the cost of U-Bahn tickets, and giving us a means to explore weird little pockets of the city. We live about 100 meters from a heavily treed path that heads south into giant parks and beyond, to the farmland at the edge of Berlin. To the north, it cuts through cool neighborhoods before joining up with the Mauerweg -- the Wall trail -- and skirts the line that once divided West from East Berlin. I've got my bike again, and I'm happy. And last night, as we ate another round of doner kepabs after looking at another round of potential apartments to rent, my youngest daughter, out of the blue, said: "I can't imagine what it would be like to not have my bike. When I ride it I feel all airy and light." Amen.

*My brother decided it would be funny to push me really fast on my little red Schwinn. I went over the bars, head first into the pavement, resulting in a huge road rash on my forehead. As far as I know, it didn't cause any permanent damage. That may have come earlier, when some unremembered event caused the big dent that remains in the back of my head to this day. But since my parents deny they ever dropped me headfirst, I count the bike wreck as my first head injury.

**The only hill in Berlin is actually a huge pile of rubble, the detritus of World War II bombs. The city was pretty much obliterated by Allied bombing raids.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

I feel like Franz Kafka or, The bureaucratic war of attrition continues

I awoke that morning from uneasy dreams. I felt strange, which is not unusual before I have my coffee, but this was different. I felt transformed, though I could not put any more words to it than that.

The day began at 9 a.m. We went to the Job Center to drop off documents and ask a question and get approval for a housing expenditure. They told us that they could not complete our file until we got our health insurance cards from the AOK agency. The Job Center also said they could not answer our question; only the people at the local branch of town hall, or Rathaus, could do that. We went on the subway to the Rathaus. The man there said that we had to come back at 3 p.m., when they would not answer our question, but would tell us where we had to go to have our question answered. We could not call to find out where to go, he said. We had to be there in person. Our German friend was there to translate, but I am beginning to suspect that fluency in the language does not increase understanding, at least when dealing with the bureaucracy.

While we waited for 3 p.m. to arrive, we went across town to the Volkshochschule, where we were to register for our German and integration classes (required as a condition of my residency permit). They gave us a piece of paper, to take back to the Job Center, who would decide whether the government would pay for the classes or not. We went back to the Job Center at 2 p.m. It was closed to everyone without an appointment.

My pre-coffee feeling of being transformed came back to me. People looked different to me, I realized, and they were looking at me in a curious manner.

At 3 p.m., we went back to the Rathaus. The man there looked something up. He said we needed to go to the other branch Rathaus to have our question answered. We got on the subway and went across town. The receptionist sent us to room 146a, which required a seemingly endless trek through the cavernous halls of the Rathaus. People sat in seats in the hallways, waiting. We knocked on door 146a, and a friendly man with long, grey hair and a ponytail emerged (the dress/grooming code amongst German bureaucrats is decidedly casual... many look as if they just got out of bed and forgot to change out of their pajamas). He told us we had to speak to Frau Heinrich, and escorted us to her office door and told us to wait outside. Her door had a sign on it telling visitors to find her at 146b, but the man ignored it. He told us we might have to wait for an hour or more.

We waited. The man disappeared.

The clock ticked. The hall was long, and dark, and empty. We knocked on the door of Frau Heinrich. No one answered. We knocked on her colleague's door, and asked if we had been forgotten. She said no. Then she called Frau Heinrich to make sure we hadn't been forgotten. It turns out we had not been forgotten; Frau Heinrich never knew we were there in the first place. Frau Heinrich emerged from door 146b. She asked us why we had just sat there, waiting. Why didn't we come to 146b, like the sign said? We told her about the ponytail man. She didn't buy the story. I got the impression that she didn't believe the ponytail man existed. I'm not sure I believe it either.

We asked her the question; we needed her to approve an extra expenditure. She fetched her colleague to help her answer the question. They said they could approve it, but that the Job Center is the one who decides, and they would almost certainly say no. But, we explained, the Job Center sent us here; they said you decided. They always do that, the two women said. And we always say yes. And then the Job Center always says no. She gave us a piece of paper to take back to the Job Center.

We walked through the hallways. I suffered a strange hallucination in which the walls and ceiling and doors seemed to expand, and I felt as though I were tiny, like a beetle skittering about on the floor, looking for crumbs in a house full of stomping feet.

We went to the AOK agency, which is quiet and clean and very corporate, but everyone dresses in the same sub-casual way as the bureaucrats. They said they could not give us our insurance cards until the Job Center gave them the final approval. But, we said, the Job Center won't give us final approval until we have our insurance cards. They gave us another document to give to the Job Center. We went home. Darkness and rain settled on the city.

That night, I had uneasy dreams.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Berlin's super-sized community gardens (and why they should be exported to the U.S.)

When I’m in a city, I am drawn to the places in-between. Spaces, I mean, that somehow avoided being paved over, or built upon, or that once held buildings that have now collapsed, the rubble mostly hauled away, leaving only the structure’s ghost all filled up with spindly weeds. Sometimes these spaces are just surprising: When vacant lots are selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars just a short walk away, how has this space remained empty and undesired? Sometimes these spaces are surprisingly wild. When I visit Los Angeles, my wife always drives (thanks to urban-automobile-neurosis on my part), leaving me to wonder at the remarkably green strip of land that separates many lanes of interstate asphalt. The vegetation is so dense here, I think, these slivers of wildness so unnoticed by the harried passersby, that I can’t help but wonder why the homeless don’t carve out little abodes here, rather than in concrete doorways. Perhaps they do.

My proclivity for seeking out the spaces-in-between did not perish on the plane trip to Europe. I automatically started noticing them on our first S-Bahn trip through the city (the S-Bahn rides above-ground, and affords a view of the backside of Berlin, while the U-Bahn is the underground train). There are many such spaces here: vine-infested hillsides; buildings that look to have been bombed out in the war and never resuscitated; random grafitti-covered walls sticking out of the dirt here and there; and an enigmatic, hulking metal skeleton called a gasometer, whose purpose I still cannot divine. On that first trip, I noticed something else, too: Little settlements huddled into the spaces-in-between.

The first one I saw reminded me of those L.A. freeway strips. It was nestled between the S-Bahn tracks and some sort of factory, on a piece of land no more than 30 feet wide. A low fence surrounded it, and it was divided into several different plots. Each plot had a small structure, along with a lush garden. The gardens were immaculately groomed, yet densely populated with vegetables, flowers and often a fruit tree or two. I began noticing these complexes all over the city; some were tiny, some were as big as city blocks, with dozens of plots and the tiny little houses that made me wonder if Berlin’s multicultural quilt included Elves. Finally, I saw a sign on the entrance to one of these spaces. It read, Kleingartencolonie.

Turns out I was wrong about the Elves. In fact, these colonies are Germany’s allotment gardens, which are something like U.S. community gardens, super-sized. In these days of so much talk about urban agriculture and local foods, it’s an idea that U.S. cities might try to emulate.

The concept originated in the 19th Century, when the German government, instead of handing out welfare, granted land to poor folks to garden so that they could provide for themselves. The gardens were also intended to reconnect kids with nature, which was certainly an idea before its time. Over the decades, the number of allotment gardens grew; when the city ran out of empty land, it bought more, with help from the federal government. After World War II, people actually lived on their plots, which may explain why so many of the current structures look more like little houses than potting sheds.

Today, there are more than 800 Gartenkolonies in Berlin, alone. Within those colonies are a total of more than 75,000 garden plots, each measuring about 250 square meters. Apartment-dwelling Berliners pay between 300 and 400 Euros per year to tend to and enjoy the plots. They must follow strict rules; at least 30 percent of the plot must be devoted to food production, hedges can be only so big, they are supposedly not allowed to live on the plot, but some of the so-called garden cottages appear to be big enough, and adequately equipped, for full-on habitation. Traditionally, the allottees have been older folks, but in recent years the back-to-the-land movement has brought younger people, along with a new wave of immigrants, to the gardens. Thousands of people are on the waiting list for the gardens.

View Berlin Allotment Gardens in a larger map

In addition to getting people out of the concrete landscape so they can get their hands in the dirt and produce fresh fruit and vegetables, Berlin’s allotment gardens also add to the city’s already abundant green spaces*. The Gartenkolonies appear in even the most downtrodden neighborhoods, providing oases of tidy vegetation amidst the grafitti-stained concrete and dog poop-piled pavement. They appear to go mostly unmolested by the graffiti artists, who have covered nearly every other surface in this city with their work.

My first thought after finding out what these things were was that the concept needs to be exported to the United States, pronto. Then the caffeine wore off, and reality set in: U.S. cities with a true need for these things – New York, Boston, San Francisco – probably don’t have the land base to accommodate much in the way of these super-sized community gardens within the urban area; and the cities that do have a lot of land are mostly inhabited by people with big yards, and plenty of space for their own gardens. At least for now.

But then, we are in the midst of a major financial crisis. The housing bubble burst a long time ago, and it is showing no sign of re-inflating. The growth machine has screeched to a gear-grinding halt, especially in places like Phoenix, which had fed the machine with sunny skies combined with rampant air conditioning, favorable growth policies (read: a lack of planning and regulation), seemingly endless expanses of developable desert and farmland, mass-production homebuilding companies and lots of cheap credit and equity refugees. Because the greater Phoenix megalopolis didn’t just sprawl, but leapt into the desert, passing up perfectly usable land for cheaper plots further out, hundreds of acres lie vacant within the greater metro area. With thousands of homes already foreclosed upon in the area, I suspect that land is not selling at a premium. Which makes this a perfect time for the city to go for a bit of that stimulus money to buy up the land and convert it into it’s own garden colonies. Perhaps the banks, who I assume now own a lot of that land, would even consider donating it to the cause (not out of any sort of charitable urge, of course, but to get a tax deduction so that they can siphon more profits to CEO compensation, and also to unload some worthless assets).

Meanwhile, the financial crisis has forced Americans to curb their appetite for giant new homes, with giant green lawns, in giant new cookie-cutter developments far out from the city center. In fact, recent reports say that apartment rental rates are increasing thanks to all the foreclosures. And at least a few of those McMansions that surround the West’s cities are being divided up into multi-family rental units. I also believe that sprawling cities do evolve to become more densely populated, from the city’s core outward; old industrial buildings become loft apartments, and the creative class flocks not to suburban sameness but to downtown flats. That creates a whole new group of people who might feel a bit cooped up in those gardenless apartments; people who could save a bit of money and get their hands in the dirt in one of these garden colonies.

And for those of you who worry about polluting America's Jell-O-fed purity with some commie Euro idea, check out the great essay by Grist's Tom Philpott on the history of urban ag in the U.S. Turns out Berlin's allotment gardens look a bit like American urban gardening efforts of old (the German gardens merely persevered, rather than getting paved over by strip malls).

With bio-intensive gardening, these plots could feed a family for a summer, or offer an ambitious farmer enough produce to make some cash at the neighborhood farmers’ market. They’d add diversity to the concrete landscape, turn a few of those spaces-in-between into places of horticultural creativity (not to mention creepy lawn ornaments) and keep the Starbucks and strip malls at bay.

*Which truly are abundant, making Berlin one of the greenest (in the literal sense) cities in the world. There are the huge parks, such as Tiergarten (essentially Berlin’s Central Park), which is in turn dwarfed by the Grunewald (which is a forest, not a park), and many in-between. The waterways that wind their way through the city are all lined with green spaces and trails. In most parts of town, one can't walk little more than a couple of blocks without running into a public playground or park of some sort. We are currently staying in Wedding, which many Berliners consider the "bad" part of town. Yet within a two-minute walk of our flat, we are in a park replete with a vegetation-shrouded walking/bike path that stretches for many a kilometer in either direction. Huge parks are within an easy bike ride. And our neighborhood is flanked by Gartenkolonies of various shapes and sizes.