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The visitors who get out at Frankfurter Tor may find themselves wondering if this is the same Berlin. It’s a far cry from the cosiness of Ostalgia, even if the East Side Gallery is within walking distance and Trabi safaris still drive past sometimes. Just a few streets away, the cafés of Simon Dach Straße in the heart Friedrichshain are crammed with locals and tourists taking brunch or stopping off from the flea market just around the corner on Boxhagener Platz. I cannot pretend that this is a slice of authentic GDR but somehow, it’s a place that has always fascinated me ever since I first came here late one evening a few years ago

I cannot pretend socialist realism architecture is beautiful but the scale of it overwhelms you. There are the two imposing towers with their green roofs which can be glimpsed as you take the S-Bahn from East to West, at the top of which you may see lights and silhouettes whenever the space is rented for exclusive parties. Traffic still constantly roars down the wide avenue, making it nearly impossible to cross the road but the place feels strangely deserted. This used to be the heart of East Berlin called Stalinallee, where the streets would be lined with people to see processions or big name visitors driving by, the apartments in the imposing cream and grey buildings were positively luxurious compared to others on offer in the GDR and as a result much sought after.

This is not a place where you will find wonderful restaurants and cafés, the ones I’ve tried can be described as decent at best but you don’t come here for that but rather to try and get a glimpse into an already distant history of a city that you never knew.

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On the morning of my last visit, rain lashed down on the city, washing the last remaining colours away but on my way in the tram, I stubbornly persist in my hope that it will have stopped by the time I arrive.

The question I’ve often asked myself is whether people are still keen to live here. I look up at the thin windows, just as an elderly woman steps out onto the balcony; perhaps she has lived here since the flats were first completed and the idea comes to my mind of how much I’d like to look inside her apartment. Pushing open the door to a building sometimes left open, you might even find the old wooden letter boxes and gaze up at the seemingly never ending flights of staircases. There are still some positive signs however; small statues line up at the tops of buildings, including those of Trümmerfrauen or women who helped to clear away the ruins of Berlin after the Second World War. They were given priority for the flats here as a sign of gratitude for their hard work. Large balconies are covered with masses of flowers and plants and from an open window I can hear music playing.

I come across a young couple speaking English who pause briefly for a coffee. We smile at each other as I watch them go past with their dog whom the man addresses as “Mademoiselle”. “No, not Mademoiselle”, the girl insists, “Whenever I need her to do something, I call her Madame”. The grey dampness of the day has made me tired and cold and I stop off at a café which I hope won’t be so bad. A disco ball is suspended from the ceiling above chintz covered furniture. I take a seat at the window and opt for a latte macchiato and plum Streusalkuchen. I’m flattered that the man who takes my order refers to me as “junge Frau” despite my recently turning 30!

The coffee is too strong and topped with chocolate which I hate and the cake might not be so bad, except for the artificially tasting sauce they’ve poured over. Nevertheless, I eat and drink, still rather charmed by the atmosphere of the place which couldn’t be more different from Starbucks. An older couple come in and order coffee, before asking the owner, a Turkish guy how long he has been in Berlin. “Since 1976”, he informs them. “Ah, but then you first came to West Berlin. Tell me, is anyone interested these days in the old Stalinallee?” This is precisely the question I’d also like to ask but the man simply shrugs his shoulders.

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In spite of my fondness for this place and its sense of melancholy, certain things disturb me. Some chains like Rossmann and McDonalds occupy some of the buildings, contrasting in the ugliest possible way with their brightly coloured signs while Berlin institutions struggle to stay in business because this is no longer a popular place to shop. Wonderful places like the Kosmos Kino and the Karl Marx Bookshop have disappeared; the former is now rented out for events while the old sign is all that remains of the latter. Important East German writers and intellectuals used to gather there for readings and discussions once. I had wanted to go there after seeing Das Leben der anderen 4 or 5 years ago and was lucky enough to achieve my dream a couple of years later. Already the deep wooden shelves seemed rather empty and there were few customers but I managed to find a copy of Kafka’s stories which I’m attached to for that reason.

Alongside, a sign tells you that this was the location of the old Rose theatre, destroyed in the Second world War and never rebuilt. The columns of the façade make me want to slip on an evening gown and join the crowds going in for the performance.

The future for the old Stalinallee seems open; its buildings stretching over 2-3 kilometers are thankfully protected but I wonder if they will all be occupied by bars, become abandoned once the old residents have gone or be bought by foreign investors. Turning my back to the street, I hope at least things look brighter than the threatening clouds gathering above me.

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Text and photos by Vanessa. She is an English trainer and presentation coach who has been living in Berlin since 2007. Her other blog is Coffee and Pie.

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