I first noticed the Kleingarten as my plane was making its final descent into Tegel, patches of green lining the Berlin-Spandau shipping canal just south of the airport. Translating as “small gardens,” these allotments are more enchanting than the prosaic English term implies. They’re also a staple of modern German society, with an estimated 70,000 in Berlin alone.
I got a closer look at allotment culture by cycling on the bike path that runs along the canal, starting near the Hamburger Bahnhof in Mitte and heading northwest. In less than twenty minutes you reach the entrance for the beach at Plötzensee, and not long after you’re riding alongside the lake’s Kleingartenkolonie. There are no cars, just tanned Germans pruning, weeding, or enjoying a drink in the sun of their gardens. But these postage stamp-sized plots are more than just rural oases plonked down amidst acres of urban apartment blocks. While you’re not allowed to live in them full-time, all the allotments have structures, ranging from cheerfully painted sheds to mock-hunting lodges—complete with antlers over the front door—to McMansions to rival those found in any self-respecting suburban enclave. The Kleingarten continued unabated as far as I rode, to Tegeler See, Berlin’s second largest lake situated just northwest of the airport.
On the return leg of the cycle, I veered off the canal-side path and rode along one of the interior lanes of the Kleingartenkolonie Plötzensee. Here middle-aged women busily snipped away at their shrubs. Most used electronic clippers, but one younger woman was wielding a pair of old-school, over-sized scissors, a scene that reminded me of the pristine neighborhood exterior shots in Edward Scissorhands. Later I read that allotment clubs typically have strict rules, from hedge height to the ratio of fruit to flowers to vegetables grown on your plot.
According to a BBC article, allotments were first setup in Germany in the 1800s as an antidote to the country’s rapid industrialization, becoming an important source of food during the two world wars. There’s a more recent historical connection in Stasiland, a tremendous non-fiction book I’m currently reading about the lives of ordinary Germans in the GDR. One of its central stories revolves around Miriam who, at the age of sixteen, made an impetuous attempt to escape across the Wall near Bornholmer Strasse. The Kleingartenanlage Bornholm I butted right up against the border, which ran through adjacent train tracks. Her attempt starts like this:
“Miriam climbed through and over the fences separating the gardens, trying to get closer to the Wall. ‘It was dark and I was lucky—later I learned that they usually patrolled the gardens as well.’ She got as far as she could go but not to the Wall, because there was this ‘great fat hedge’ growing in front of it. She rummaged around in someone’s tool shed for a ladder, and found one. She put it against the hedge and climbed up. She took a good long look around….Between her and the west there was a wire mesh fence, a patrol strip, a barbed-wire fence, a twenty-metre-wide asphalt street for the personnel carriers and a footpath…”
This morning I rode my bike to see the Bornholm allotments in the northwest corner of Prenzlauer Berg, not too far from my apartment in the old East. To get to them, I crossed the Bösebrücke, the border crossing between East and West Berlin that was the first to open on November 9, 1989, when a socialist party bureaucrat mistakenly announced that crossing points would be open effective immediately, precipitating the fall of the Wall. There are a few pieces of the Wall left as a memorial there—now known as Platz des 9. November 1989—but to get a sense of what Miriam saw you have to go a few kilometers away to a re-creation of the setup at the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse. With its mingling tourists, it gives a benign, day-lit impression of what a teenage Miriam encountered as she peered over that hedge.
Back in the Kleingartenanlage Bornholm I walked my bike around the narrow pathways. Fruit trees were heavy with apples, pears, and plums, and there was little evidence of the hipster takeover some claim is happening in allotments around the city. There were enough garden ornaments to populate a miniature golf course—not just gnomes, but windmills and donkeys and wagon wheels—a display which, as far as I could tell, was completely without irony. Unlike the allotments at Plötzensee in the West, Bornholm was a ramschackle affair. Gardens were lush and overgrown, with sunflowers and roses and canna lillies higher than my head, perhaps a sign that, twenty-six years later, residents still have a lingering distaste for the rules of the GDR. As for Miriam, her escape attempt is just the beginning of her bewildering tale of life before and after the Wall. It’s well worth reading Stasiland for her story alone.