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There’s dust blowing all across Karl Marx Straße. They’re renovating another house there. Another one of many now that the gold rush has passed the point of rumour. Pretty soon mine will be the last building on my street, just around the corner, without a new façade, without turn of the last century busts with the grime wiped out of their eyes so they can see the dim lights of Neukölln again.

Without clean white lines on pastel walls and a four figure rental contract.

It’s not new. It’s not as if Neukölln hasn’t been desired before, it has just been a while. Arbitrary lines drawn on maps by big men in clean suits have skittered across these streets since eternity. Like the dust.

Stalin liked the name Sonnenallee so much that he insisted there would always be a little stretch of it, a dog end left smouldering in the ashtray of post-war Berlin, that remained in the Soviet sector. The Wall crossed over it when it went up in ’61, leaving only what was enshrined in Thomas Brussig’s book “Der kurzeren ende der Sonnenallee.”

But Stalin never actually saw it. He just liked the name.

Stalin’s Sunshine Alley.

And, truth be told, the outside world has rarely been aware of the sun shining on Sonnenallee ever since. No-one ever told that story. It became a byword for social decay. It would be shown on exciting TV reports across the country as an image of what was going wrong with modern Germany.

Thilo Sarrazin said of the people there that they have no real use apart from selling fruit and veg.

It is the home to the mafia, they say on every headline. The Arab clans that tick every box needed for a curtain twitching, law abiding, terrified small town viewer past ten o clock whose buttons the likes of Sarrazin know how to push in their sleep.

The streets were cracked, and they still are.

On the corner of Hermannplatz the bicycle path peters out like a drawn out end to a boring story. It just trails off. Because no-one cared for years and years.

Families live here. They know each other, they went to school with each other and still do. They argue in the streets as they party and celebrate on New Years Eve like it is the end of days. Which it may well be.

But that was never shown on TV.

It makes disappointing viewing. A poor headline.

From my back yard the difference between the shining butterfly cabbage-white of next door’s wall and our own’s corpse pallid-grey is striking on days like these when it feels like there is a bit of life returning to the skies.

When the sun has the temerity to do more than just hang insolently and briefly in the sky. When it actually sticks around long enough to warm us and to light up our darker corners.

Revealing the dust that will always congregate in them, no matter how hard we try to keep it at bay.

At the renovation site they have started on the top floor, ripping out decades old vinyl flooring to expose raw wood which will be sanded and buffed and polished like emeralds for somone new. The matt sheeting, rolled up and dumped unceremoniously on the pavement, is splattered with white emulsion from a previous experiment at sanitising an apartment up there, but one made uncertainly, unprofessionally.

And a long shute made out of bottomless plastic buckets disgorges its waste from the roof down to a skip on the ground. Walking under it you hear the whooshing of decades of dirt and dust and sand enjoying a last ride down a log flume of degradation, of memories, of an attempt to pretend that things here can be started anew.

Though anone who lives here knows they can’t. Not really.

The dust here has been buffered around, it has eddied and whirled and been swept about for centuries, but it will never really go away. It’ll just coagulate in another corner, waiting for the next futile attempt to control it.

It never stays in the skip. It just wafts around, choking up the road, causing precious young women to cover their mouths with their scarves the way they do when they see a bum on the train making their way towards them.

Only two families have ever lived in my flat. The woman who was here before us was born here. She moved out around her ninetieth birthday, and, so my neighbour tells me, died a couple of months later in a home that could never be less deserving of the name. For her it was just a place to while away the hours until she left.

She’d survived the First World War, though she wouldn’t have seen much of it, she’d have just known of the shortages, of the growing sense of fear and betrayal, of the men and boys who never returned.

She lived through the so called golden Twenties when the Karstadt on Hermannplatz appeared so suddenly and strikingly, like it was transposed from the dreams of Fritz Lang or the sketches of Frank Miller. Lit up at night, a vision of prosperity and a looming, imposing, forced optimism, until it was burned down by the SS as they beat a retreat from the city, determined only to leave behind the soot and misery of a wasteland to the incoming Russians. Who would, in turn, give up this part of Neukölln to the Americans.

Apart from that bit at the end of Sonnenallee.

That soot still clogs up the corners of my flat. I try and keep it at bay, with the hoover, a dustpan and brush, a duster for the corners where it bejewels the cobwebs like frogspawn on a spring pond, but I’ll never manage. Not in a place like this.

It’s an impossible task, trying to halt the permanent desertification of Neukölln.

The ceiling of our flat, hers and mine, is still yellowed from God only knows how many thousands of fags were exhaled in here before I had to take my own dirty little habit onto the balcony with the arrival of mykids, born here, just like her, our predecessor.

The ash still skittles around. There is a small hole between the flooring in my hallway and the bathroom door, just in the left hand corner where a botch job was never finessed away due to lack of time or energy. Or just the will to make things perfect for a couple who could just as easily have turned out to be as transient as the hundreds of thousands of others who have passed through Berlin on their way somewhere more certain.

The developers can try to clean out those apartments around the corner, but they’ll never get rid of all that dust. It’ll just come back slowly, over the years, long past the time when the Guardian writes the next of their facile and shallow articles about how this is one of the coolest districts in Europe.

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  1. I enjoyed reading this – thanks. The last sentence made me chuckle. There are some beautifully crafted descriptive phrases here, a joy to read. I feel like I’ll be lying in bed tonight going over this in my head, linking it to parts of cities I’ve known well in my life.


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