Welcome back to the seventh part of this article series, where I’ll be taking you on a virtual tour of Berlin’s 12 Bezirke and introducing you to each district’s history, reputation and attractions. Today’s article will take us to the north-eastern district of Pankow, which seems both to reflect the area’s liberal flair of the present and traumatic events of the past.
Pankow is the most populous and second largest district in Berlin. As of December 2020, 410,716 people live here. It was merged with the former boroughs of Prenzlauer Berg and Weißensee as part of the city’s 2001 administrative reforms. Prenzlauer Berg has since become one of Pankow’s most popular and trendy areas. Its highest point is a hill 91 metres above sea level, consisting of rubble from the buildings and apartments that were destroyed during the Second World War and subsequent Battle of Berlin.
During the Cold War, the Western Allies recognised Pankow as the unofficial and symbolic capital of the GDR, even though the latter considered the general parameters of East Berlin to be its capital. Between 1945 and 1960, Pankow’s Schönhausen Palace was the home to multiple members of the East German government.
East Germany’s counterculture movement is often associated with Prenzlauer Berg, becoming a central location for Christian activists, bohemians, state-independent artists and the LGBTQ+ community. The neighbourhood also became an important site for the peaceful revolution of 1989, which resulted in the fall of the Berlin Wall.
As was the case with much of East Berlin, the borough was dominated by dilapidated grey residential areas in the wake of German Reunification. The 1990s saw buildings that had once belonged to state-owned housing associations being sold to private investors, which kickstarted the borough’s massive problem of gentrification.
Named after the Panke River, which runs through Berlin and Brandenburg, Pankow borders Mitte and Reinickendorf in the west, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg in the south, and Lichtenberg in the east.
Unlike most of Berlin’s districts, Pankow is subdivided into an impressive total of 13 localities: Prenzlauer Berg, Weißensee, Blankenburg, Heinersdorf, Karow, Stadtrandsiedlung Malchow, Pankow, Blankenfelde, Buch, Französisch Buchholz, Niederschönhausen, Rosenthal and Wilhelmsruh.
It goes without saying that Pankow is characterised by a leftist political culture. In the borough’s parliamentary elections in September 2021, the Greens won 16 seats, followed by the Left with 12 and the SPD with 11.
In recent years, the Kiez has been recognised as an ideal location for young, well-to-do families, with plenty of green spaces, fairly sized houses and an obvious suburban feel in the outskirts of the district. Amalienpark, for example, is associated with upper-middle class families and impressive houses with front gardens.
Prenzlauer Berg is by far the most popular locality in Pankow, and much of the district’s reputation is a reflection of what goes on here. In the same vein as Neukölln and Kreuzberg, Prenzlauer Berg has attracted many creative types who define the area’s art scene. Restaurants, bars, cafés and galleries contribute to the district’s bustling atmosphere, and the neighbourhood also attracts a large student population – albeit those who can afford the expensive rent.
Things to do
Schönhausen Palace has a long and extensive history tied to some of Germany’s most significant historical turning points. It was once the summer residence of the Prussian kings, before becoming the seat of East Germany’s first and only President, Wilhelm Pieck. From 1965 to 1990, the palace was transformed into a guest house for official visitors of the GDR, including Fidel Castro, Kim Il-sung and Indira Gandhi.
The building also reflects an earlier rejection and oppression of the creativity and artistry for which the district of Pankow is now famed. During the Nazi regime, Schönhausen Palace was utilised as a space to store confiscated artwork. 780 paintings and sculptures were stored here, some of which formed part of the ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition.
A large proportion of Prenzlauer Berg’s population was Jewish before the Second World War, and there are many sites in the area that attest to this history. The district is home to Weißensee Cemetery, the second largest Jewish cemetery in Europe, and Germany’s largest synagogue on Rykestraße. The synagogue survived Kristallnacht unscathed, largely because it was surrounded by residential buildings.
Weißensee Cemetery. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0
And that was your brief introduction to the district of Pankow! Our next stop will be Reinickendorf…