Friedrichshain’s urban origins are in the rapid industrialisation of Berlin late in the 19th century. Like many parts of the former East Berlin, it is now showing signs of gentrification and its surviving examples of Art Nouveau housing have benefited from the makeover. But the district is also a centre for budget accommodation, including a hostel that plays on ‘Ostalgie’ with its 1980s decor, and has a lively small cafe scene.
Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, separated by the Berlin Wall between 1945 and 1989 and still separated by the Spree, are now one municipal district. They are joined by the curious Oberbaumbrücke, a Spree bridge carrying both road traffic and a U-Bahn line. The bridge was modelled on medieval tower styles, recalling a now disappeared city gate, and opened in 1896.
Volkspark Friedrichshain, the source of the district’s name, was first laid out in the 1840s by the master landscape gardener Peter Joseph Lenné and extended in the 1870s. It provided an example for later developments which, combined, provided relief for working-class Berliners as the city’s development intensified and sprawled. Its wooded areas encompass two hills providing lookout points including Mont Klamott, at just over 70m one of the highest points in Berlin.
Friedrichshain is best known for two features strung parallel to the line of the Spree. Karl-Marx-Allee was the premier boulevard of the GDR when constructed as Stalinallee – emerging from the remains of post-war Berlin in the years 1950-65 and begun at a time when its new apartment blocks were still surrounded by the rubble of ruined Berlin. In a ruined city the area was one of those especially hard-hit.
A stretch of the boulevard almost 2km long was greatly widened and the Strausberger Platz, the areas of the earliest buildings, made into a showpiece. The strip closer to Alexanderplatz is in the 1960s style. The buildings were occupied by party officials and the workers who built them and remain monuments to the architecture of the Stalinist period. A statue of Stalin built as part of the development no longer stands.
The other Friedrichshain attraction, the Kunstmeile or East Side Gallery, comprises more than 100 separate works of art painted 1989-90 along along the longest surviving length of the Berlin Wall on the Mühlenstraße or east bank of the Spree. Political comment is the focus of these works by international artists and photographs added on the river side of the wall observe human rights themes. After controversy over the restoration of some works, four painted sections of wall were removed from their site as part of a real estate development in March 2013. At the time the developers declared their intention to return them, but a lobby of artists called for UNESCO world heritage listing to protect the site, an ambition as yet unrealised.
Beyond Karl-Marx-Allee’s high-rise are the more modest proportions of Boxhagener Platz, a leafy square amid a residential precinct noted for its cafes and regarded as typifying Friedrichshain’s developing social life. This is a place to observe the new Berliner at the scene of the Trödelmarkt am Boxhagener Platz, a flea market that takes place on Sundays.