Updated: Dec 23, 2020
By Fabienne Lang
Without looking at a map of Berlin, can you place Moabit? Probably not. Yet, once you scan over the well-known names of Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg, or Friedrichshain, you'll notice unassuming little Moabit squeezed between the bigger Wedding and Charlottenburg neighbourhoods. Well, it's not so unassuming given the 70,000 inhabitants who live here, but that's a story for another day.
In fact, Moabit is now part of Mitte - which literally means "centre" in German - and sits a stone's throw away from the luscious Tiergarten, the manicured Bellevue Schloss, the river Spree, the imposing Reichstag, and the historic Brandenburg Gate.
You'd think the latter would make Moabit a prime location, and today it kind of does, but it was a different affair when the Berlin Wall was up. So let's take a step back in time to 1986, when the Wall was still standing and Moabit found itself even more marginalised than it does today.
When the Berlin Wall was put in place in 1961, Moabit was quickly shoved into the periphery of the city. What was once a prime central spot became a marginalised location. In fact, being near the Brandenburg Gate, thus the Wall's border, made Moabit a rather unattractive place to live.
The neighbourhood was part of the British allied sector, but aside from knowing it was British, it apparently didn't offer much "Britishness."
Most of Moabit was tucked away in a corner bordering the French sector in Wedding, and East Berlin in Mitte - which could be reached on nearby Chausseestrasse and the Brandenburg Gate. On top of this, Moabit is surrounded by the waterways of the river Spree, technically making it an island. An island of isolation, perhaps?
In any case, living next to the border wasn't an attractive choice back when the Wall was up, as Astrid Vehstedt, filmmaker and travel writer, told Christopher and I in November 2020. Astrid moved to Berlin from Hamburg (part of West Germany) in 1986 as she was fascinated by history.
"I really wanted to experience this special situation in a divided city, in a divided world really. And this was the point where this division was, it was the open wound of the world," she said.
"This was '86. I remember one weekend I wanted to head out for a bit and everywhere there was this Wall - it was like living in a cage really, but somehow you were nevertheless free." Astrid described Moabit, where she still lives today, as the peripheral state that it truly found itself in back then.
"The open wound of the world."
Unfortunately for Astrid, Moabit didn't quite live up to her expectations of living in a historical city. When she decided to move to Berlin, she'd imagined living amongst radical young party-goers, as well as experiencing thrilling historical moments to remember.
Rather, she found herself living in a quiet neighbourhood that "was dull, there were no cafes, there was really nothing. It wasn't too far from the border, and everybody moved to Kreuzberg because that is where everyone wanted to be," she explained as she stood by the Spree, the wind tousling her blonde-grey hair. It seems like the dialogue hasn't changed much 34 years later...
Berlin has rarely been described as "dull." Known as a party city, as well as a historical pandora's box, adjectives such as "crazy", "edgy", "exciting" come to mind - not "dull." Sadly, it turns out that some of its corners are described as just that, and Moabit has been one of them for some time.
That nickname is slowly changing, however. Once the Wall came down in 1989, Moabit suddenly found itself centre stage once again and part of infamous and swanky Mitte. Around five to ten years after the fall of the Wall, new government buildings such as the Ministry of the Interior and a remodelled Hauptbahnhof (Central Station) popped up in Moabit, turning it into a busier, more attractive area.
Buildings that had been damaged from the Second World War started to be renovated and rebuilt. Astrid remembers, perhaps not very fondly, the days when her flat had coal heating - something that changed post-Wall.
With infrastructure beginning to change, it still took a little while longer for any social hang out spots to emerge in Moabit. All Moabit had to offer at the fall of the Wall was "the Cafe Buchwald (which is still bustling today), and in the parallel street, the Kirchstrasse, there was a bakery there, and there was an Italian restaurant too, and this was it."
Oh, but how times have slowly changed. Now, thanks to the neighbourhood's central location, a higher number of newly-acquired office spaces and renovated buildings, cafes and restaurants offering flavours from around the world line Moabit's streets - you just have to know where to look for them.
With this growth in local businesses and international crowd comes the usual gentrification - a word we hear all too often in Berlin. It's not quite hit Moabit in full force, unlike the likes of edgy Friedrichshain and leafy Prenzlauer Berg, but it is happening here too.
Regardless of whether you're for or against gentrification, Moabit has taken nearly 30 years to grow its reputation as a sweet, international, and affordable neighbourhood to live in. It's not quite up to par with the bigger names in Germany's capital city, we'll admit that, but it's a true hidden gem that is steeped in history, and what many people describe as the true Berlin.