Berlin is not one city, but two – divided into day and night. After dark it is possessed by an indescribable heaviness that lifts with the morning only to suddenly descend again by evening. However, this does not in itself constitute Berlin’s mystery. It is the city’s ambiguous relationship with the past that creates the enigma of Berlin; the weight of experiences and memories is what makes Berlin so substantial at night. The city does not tell its past, but instead bears it like the lines of a hand; the graffiti scored on the Soviet flats records the passage of years, the urban equivalent of the rings inside a tree. The best of this graffiti can be seen in the wide, concrete district of Kreuzberg.
While walking through its colourful, mid-afternoon streets, someone relayed to me a recent contribution to this weight of experience. A murder had taken place three weeks ago at around midnight on The Beach. The Beach was spontaneously created in 2011, a makeshift community built on imported river-sand adorned with Persian rugs, bicycles, armchairs, small tents, and a white tepee.
To give any single classification of The Beach’s inhabitants is impossible; I recall slightly haggard thirty-something year old women shuffling around on the sand in heels and fishnet tights while a group of old Caribbean men sat staring wistfully across the river smoking pipes. Younger people with skateboards and dreadlocks were sitting in close circles, cross-legged as if conspiring, and a couple was leaning over the edge of the river, their feet hanging down beside a rope that attached a small raft to the shore. An extension of The Beach stretched around the corner behind an overgrown hedge. Much larger than the riverside section, it contained more permanent-looking residences housing refugees and an area called Roma with patterned doors and washing draped over thin string.
The Beach is so entirely modern that it feels like somewhere the past would have no place, but – as with everywhere else in Berlin – it has a story.
The murder was a family affair, he told me. The family, although living on The Beach, were not from the city. Therefore there was only moderate interest in the case and ultimately the whole thing silently blew away. In short: an argument had arisen, escalated and culminated in two bodies, which were then burnt somewhere on the sand.
Seeing the place bathed in sunlight made this story almost impossible to believe. An almond-eyed child with sallow skin had spoken to me earlier that day, asking for water I didn’t have. She lived in the Roma section of The Beach, one of about 150 others. During our brief conversation in broken German, she used the informal ‘du’ and kept giggling at something I must have missed before quickly dissolving into a Kreutzberg alley. It seemed for a second that she could have been some tiny mural momentarily detached from the wall before being pulled back in. The disorientating effect of the heat and city almost made things like that believable.
The same person who brought up the murder also revealed the existence of tiny windmills hidden in the trees. Each was attached to a radio; when the windmills began to turn, they generated energy that set off the radios, filling the side streets with random, intermittent music. Apparently this happened frequently throughout the day and night, tentatively uniting them and creating a bridge between the two different versions of Berlin.