International writings: Stephen Henighan on Berlin and bohemia

Stephen Henighan continues our series of regular cross-posts from international writers or journals with similar political or aesthetic sensibilities to Overland.

Stephen Henighan by Lorena LeijaStephen Henighan is a celebrated writer of non-fiction, novels and short stories. He was born in Hamburg, Germany to an English mother and a father whose parents were Scots-Irish immigrants to New York. His parents met in Yemen, and by the age of nine Stephen had lived in seven houses in four countries. The remainder of his upbringing took place on a farm in Eastern Ontario. He earned an MA in English literature and creative writing from Concordia University in Montreal, and a PhD in Spanish American literature from the University of Oxford. Stephen has lived, worked and travelled in many countries. He currently teaches Spanish American literature at the University of Guelph, Ontario.

His most recent book, A Grave in the air, is a collection of recent short stories. Visit Stephen online at

This piece was originally published in Geist.

Building Bohemia

According to my mother, I visited East Berlin before the Wall was built. I made the trip in embryonic form, and eventually entered the world in Hamburg. In spite of having no ancestral ties to Germany, since leaving the country as an infant, I have returned twelve times, for visits ranging in length from a few days to a few weeks. I’ve never completely mastered the language – I read novels with a dictionary – but the fascination of Germany remains strong. In summer 2009, during the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I returned to East Berlin.

Berlin wall

I rented a small flat in Prenzlauer Berg, where I had stayed for the first time in 1993. Then it was a district of close-set apartment buildings whose buttress–like balconies, covered with pocked, disintegrating grey stucco, gave them a sombre appearance. A gargantuan statue of Ernst Thälmann, an early leader of the German Communist Party, dominated the horizon. Formerly the very discreet gay neighbourhood of East Germany, at the time of my first visit it was home to a sprinkling of cafés that had sprouted amid the prevailing greyness. Today Prenzlauer Berg is one of the most exciting neighbourhoods in Europe, and Berlin is arguably Europe’s most energetic city, one of the few certifiable sites of an active bohemia.

The recipe for bohemia includes lots of culture and no economy. As an imperial capital drained by its division during the Cold War, Berlin is perfectly equipped for this role. When the Wall went up in 1961, Communist East Germany took possession of most of the city’s cultural treasures. The Brandenburg Gate, the magnificent museums, the national opera, most of the theatres, the Humboldt University, the central avenue of Unter den Linden, and the main square of Alexanderplatz, were all in the east. West Berlin got the zoo. A shard of the capitalist world afloat in the sea of Communist East Germany, it was cut off both from its own past and from the economic dynamism that characterised West Germany in the 1960s. The clever industrialists who rebuilt the bombed-out wreckage of 1945 into the world’s most successful manufacturing economy put their money into the Ruhr Valley, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg; they avoided investing in the dull, barricaded western sector of a once-great city near the Polish border, whose population was draining away and which was hemmed in on all sides by Soviet tanks. (As West Berliners used to say: ‘Every direction you drive in is East.’) Visitors to West Berlin rolled into the Zoologischer Garten train station, descended into a bleak parking lot across from the elephant pit in the zoo, fought their way through a couple of blocks of sex shops and peep shows and landed on the Kurfürstendamm, one of Europe’s most expensive shopping streets. But it was a castle built on air: a shopfront for capitalism maintained by Nato subsidy. In East Berlin, meanwhile, little was built for forty years other than the vast, soulless boulevard of Stalinallee, tailor-made for parading tanks, and a tall silver television tower in Alexanderplatz whose purpose was to oblige Westerners peering over the Wall to concede that East Germany, too, had technology; everything else stagnated. Stagnation during a period of vigorous capitalism is the necessary prelude to bohemian creativity.

In 1991 when Germany reunited and named Berlin as its capital, a massive building campaign began. Nearly twenty years later, the building continues. The no man’s land that used to surround the Reichstag when the Berlin Wall ran directly behind it has been converted into an elegant modernist civil service quarter arching over a bend in the Spree River. The museums have been renovated and modernised. Yet almost two decades after demonstrators shifted their chants from Wir sind das Volk (We are the people) to Wir sind ein Volk (We are one people), West Germans and East Germans barely mix and maintain quite different cultures. One of the few districts where mixing has occurred is Prenzlauer Berg.


On returning to Prenzlauer Berg last summer, I hardly recognised it. Sandblasting, renovation and repainting have honed the older apartment buildings to tapered elegance. Squads of cyclists race down the red bicycle lanes on the sidewalks. Nearly every block has a small bookstore, new or second-hand, reflecting the owner’s taste and interests. The other shops are also small and independent: fruit and vegetable outlets run by Vietnamese families, cycling shops, Internet café s and more inexpensive restaurants than I could count. Any night of the week, it seemed, I could walk into the opening of an exhibition at an art gallery. At these events, as many people were speaking English or Russian as German. The suffocation of Greenwich Village by real estate development has dispatched New York artists to East Berlin, where they can afford studio space; similar motives have attracted artists from Moscow and London. In a corner store run by a West African man who sold traditional carvings alongside cigarettes and beer, I was told that Prenzlauer Berg has eighty-eight identifiable ethnic communities, in addition to both East and West Germans. A frenzied intercultural dating scene animates the cafés; yet, in apparent contradiction to the district’s air of youthful insouciance, and its identification as one of Berlin’s three gay neighbourhoods, Prenzlauer Berg has the most prolific women in Germany. Local women average more than two children each, possibly the highest rate in Europe. Young mothers in tank tops, pushing prams with thin, tattooed arms, take over the sidewalks in the morning hours. Parks that East German commissars built for factory workers are overrun with infants.

There are two keys to this cauldron of creativity. One is affordability. Berlin has little economic activity other than government and tourism. This is particularly pronounced in Prenzlauer Berg, where people have jobs rather than careers, drifting from an art gallery to a graphic design studio to the workshop of a local fashion designer, none of whom may stay in business long. Even the entrepreneurs who renovated my apartment building were rock musicians who started their business on government grants.

The second, less obvious, but possibly even more significant factor underlying Prenzlauer Berg’s bohemian culture, is the way in which residual symbols of East German socialism have been assimilated into the neighbourhood’s ethos. After a fierce debate in the mid-1990s, plans to remove socialist street names and statues were reversed, and many of these distinctive ‘eastern features were retained. Ernst Thälmann continues to tower over the park that bears his name. If Prenzlauer Berg incarnates some positive features of globalisation, such as vibrant intercultural interaction, while it has avoided such crass or demeaning consequences as big-box uniformity and homeless people, it is because the neighbourhood’s residents, who vote for a bewildering array of left-wing political parties, have inherited a public sphere that assists them in articulating opposition to negative features of contemporary capitalism. Bohemia exists because people support policies to maintain it. This may be the most important lesson Prenzlauer Berg has to teach us.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays