In his seminal novel Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut envisions a capricious universe temporarily displeased with its own continuous expansion. In an act of unprecedented quirkiness, the universe decides to shrink back to a slimmer version of itself, making everyone on earth and elsewhere relive the last decade of their lives. This re-run occurs not only precisely the same way it happened „the first time through,“ but with everyone fully conscious of being trapped in a déja-vu of cosmological proportions. The result makes for a very readable excess of nostalgia, as well as a meditation on the passage of time and its tangible manifestations.
I readily admit that a timequake outside of the sheltered, fictitious realm of a novel is of a much more humble order than Vonnegut envisions. On walks along the former border strip you may, however, suddenly find yourself questioning the integrity of the space-time continuum. Potsdamer Platz is the most prominent location caught in one of these time warps. In the 1920s, this square was one of the busiest and most dangerous crossings in Europe: The traffic there was so intense that Berlin became one of the first municipalities in the world to install traffic lights in 1924, a manually controlled switch-board operation, curiously reminiscent of contemporary air traffic control. This innovation in traffic management, a replica of which is today on display at its historical location, conveys a sense of the symbolic meaning of this place in the discourse of the time.

As the modernist center of the city and a prime symbolic target in World War II, the area was wholly eradicated. Its rebuilding, in turn, was forestalled by the construction of the Wall, which was erected directly east of it. Consequently none of the buildings east of the Philharmony/Federal Library complex and west of the Leipziger Platz existed before the early 2000s. When I wandered around in this area as a teenager, the inner city wasteland extended to the underground line 2, which runs along a north–south route between Potsdamer Platz and Mendelssohn-Bartholdy-Park. It runs above-ground in this entire section, a fact that can easily be overlooked, however, because the tracks are overbuilt with hotel and office space. Fifteen years ago, none of this existed. I would take the train across the canal and enter the park station (which itself opened to the public in 1998). Overlooking the area to the west of the platform, I would see the skeletons of today’s skyscrapers, looming out of tons of sand and rubbish.
It is peculiar how rezoning projects create adjacent zones that change alongside ‚rejuvenation’ and other euphemistically-termed activities. Most commonly, these auxiliary zones become the next target of investment themselves. Sometimes, by virtue of a municipal ordinance, they survive the sudden onslaught of capital without changing much. In the former border area, the contrast between such differently affected zones can be staggering. Many of the buildings to the east of the underground tracks had been facing the tabula rasa that World War II left behind at the Potsdamer Platz from their kitchen windows up until the end of the 20th century. As you can imagine, this was not the most popular place to live up until very recently.
Developing real estate in the vicinity of the former Berlin Wall, therefore, created new kinds of borders. At the Potsdamer Platz, this new border runs along the underground tracks and is separating the old neighborhood from the new downtown. The superstructure on top of the skytrain is quite literally built as if it was meant to wall-off the area to the east. There is no old building fabric that would loosen up the structure, all buildings have the same height and the complex evolves in repetitive architectural patterns all along the eastern side of today’s Tilla-Durieux-Park.
Potsdamer Platz was designed as a city within a city, a theme prominent throughout Berlin, as many present-day districts evolved out of medieval farming villages. This more recent application of the principle starkly turns its back on the adjacent quarter to the south-east. Bypassing the new fortification on top of the skytrain, a timequake in the Vonneguttian sense is a reasonably accurate description of the experience. Situated behind it is a student-housing complex from cold-war times. Formerly at the dead-end of the Kreuzberg district, the building faced the rubble of the bombed-out Potsdamer Platz for half a century. It is not quite a jewel of brutalist architecture. I should know, because I was a resident of this building for a couple of months in the late 2000s. It is merely a chunk of concrete that gives an almost uncanny sense of an era both past and vividly present in this location. It has also become a bastion of publicly subsidized housing in plain view of an area geared towards the fancies of the affluent.
Naturally, urban rejuvenation and the associated phenomena are not exclusive to the city of Berlin. But, to the south-east of Potsdamer Platz, the frictions engendered by them are amplified by the fact that the rejuvenated parts did not previously exist. It is somewhat ironic that the legacy of the self-declared socialist regime in the East today contributes to such unmediated segregation, at least in aesthetic terms, right in the new center of the city.
Spending time here as a student was a surreal experience, as I assume it has been throughout the building’s existence. One was, and one still is, confined to the role of a spectator – a spectator to a strange other world behind a wall.

I would like to thank Alexia Elliot and Dawn Nichols for helping me improve the language of this essay.

Further Reading
Günther Bellmann (Hg.) Potsdamer Platz. Drehscheibe einer Weltstadt. Berlin 1997.
Peter Schubert Potsdamer Platz. Die Wiederbelebung eines legendären Ortes. Berlin 1998.


Berlin Wall

Ich war zehn Jahre alt, als die Mauer fiel und wohnte mit meinen Eltern in einem Haus in der Hufeland‑, Ecke Bötzowstraße, meine ganze Schulzeit über.

the 1920s

Auf die verfließenden Grenzen zwischen Nachbarn und Denunzianten sowie auf das Hervortreten einer anderen Form sozialer Kontrolle hinter der Institution des Gerichts wies die lakonische Prosa Tergits schon in den 1920er Jahren hin.


…dass le mur de Berlin zwar Berlin teilte, die DDR aber auch noch eine Grenze zur übrigen BRD hatte.


Das zeigte sich beispielsweise in Kreuzberg und Neukölln, wo einander unbekannte Nachbar*innen sich kollektiv organisierten und teils erfolgreich den Vorkauf ihrer Häuser durch die jeweiligen Bezirke durchsetzen.

the early 2000s

Since moving to Berlin in the early 2000s, I have lived in many areas of town. This, in fact, may be an understatement.


From the earliest medieval period of Berlin’s history, the term Kiez was used to refer to the quarters of the common people.

Potsdamer Platz

Seine Wohnadressen wechseln vom bürgerlichen Charlottenburg über Zwischenstopps in Schöneberg und Friedenau zu einer Kommune, die in einem besetzten Haus beim Potsdamer Platz angesiedelt ist…


„Ich hatte ja auch mal Krebs“, erzählten mir Zuschauer am Signiertisch nach Lesungen aus meinem Debütroman Im Sommer wieder Fahrrad…


Die Stadt, die zwischen östlichem Europa und vorderem Orient lokalisiert sein dürfte (geographisch wäre etwa an den Kaukasus zu denken), hat eine lange und tief eingeprägte Gewaltgeschichte.


In der Nacht packte ich meine Koffer, schlich mich aus dem Hotel und fuhr mit meinem Mietauto quer über den Stiefel von der adriatischen an die tyrrhenische Küste…


…she wanted to interpellate the romance of ruins, study it, take apart its ethics and its aesthetics and put it back together again…


She lay on her bed, staring, no longer astonished, into the ruins of nostalgia.


Die deutschsprachige Migrationsprosa aus Osteuropa ist häufig eng mit den urbanen Räumen von Großstädten verbunden.

Besser dem Nachbarn den Stiefel putzen als dem Fremden den Fuss küssen.

Wander, Deutsches Sprichwörter-Lexikon, 1873

Über das Projekt

Die Anthologie NACHBARSCHAFTEN, herausgegeben von Christina Ernst und Hanna Hamel, ist eine Publikation des Interdisziplinären Forschungsverbunds (IFV) „Stadt, Land, Kiez. Nachbarschaften in der Berliner Gegenwartsliteratur“ am Leibniz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung in Berlin. Seit 2019 erforscht das Projekt das Phänomen der Nachbarschaft in der Gegenwartsliteratur und bezieht dazu Überlegungen aus unterschiedlichen wissenschaftlichen Disziplinen mit ein. In der im November 2020 online gestellten Anthologie können Leser*innen durch aktuelle Positionen und Perspektiven aus Literatur und Theorie flanieren, ihre Berührungspunkte und Weggabelungen erkunden und sich in den Nachbarschaften Berlins zwischen den Texten bewegen.