“I feel lost in Berlin.”: The city according to Mark Twain
The creator of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn lived the Berlin expat life for five months between October 1891 and March 1892.
Twain travelled to Berlin with his wife and three daughters, crossing the Atlantic on the steamship ‘Gascogne’ from New York. They first landed in southern France on September 30 and made the overland trip to Berlin through France and Germany within a week. This wasn’t his first trip to Europe – he had spent a lot of time in other parts of Germany, especially in Heidelberg, and made shorter trips to France and Switzerland. Twain was escaping debts but also on the lookout for adventure and inspiration, just like the numerous American writers (think Anglo-Americans Christopher Isherwood, Thomas Wolfe and Patricia Highsmith) to come after him.
“I feel lost in Berlin,” admits Twain in his lengthy letter to the Chicago Daily Tribune, published upon his arrival back home on April 3, 1892. He composed the letter after leaving Berlin, putting most of his impressions of the winter spent in Germany into this one report. Although he expected to see “a dingy city in a marsh, with rough streets, muddy and lantern-lighted”, Twain was pleasantly surprised by the city he described as “the newest I have ever seen.”
His trip coincided with the amazingly fast-paced modernisation of the capital of the new German Empire, established in 1871, which probably had more construction sites than today.
“Berlin [...] is newer to the eye than is any other city, and also blonder of complexion and tidier; no other city has such an air of roominess, freedom from crowding; no other city has so many straight streets; and with Chicago it contests the chromo for flatness of surface and for phenomenal swiftness of growth. Berlin is the European Chicago. The two cities have about the same population – say a million and a half. But now the parallels fail. Only parts of Chicago are stately and beautiful, whereas all of Berlin is stately and substantial, and it is not merely in parts but uniformly beautiful.”
Just like so many foreigners today, Twain was full of adoration for Berlin – but for completely different reasons. Whereas nowadays Americans rave about the bohemia and unruly feel of that famous Berliner Luft, Twain was thoroughly impressed by the Prussian Ordnung:
“Berlin seems to be the most governed city in the world, but one must admit that it also seems to be the best governed. Method and system are observable on every hand – in great things, in little things, in all details, of whatsoever size. And it is not “method and system on paper, and there an end – it is method and system in practice. It has a rule for everything, and puts the rule in force; puts it in force against the poor and powerful alike, without favor or prejudice.”
And, whether it be 1891 or 2020, it seems newcomers to Berlin have always had to prepare themselves for an immediate Anmeldung.
“In one respect the 1,500,000 of Berlin’s population are like a family: the head of this large family knows the names of its several members, and where the said members are located, and when and where they were born, and what they do for a living, and what their religious brand is. Whoever comes to Berlin must furnish these particulars to the police immediately.”
One aspect he enjoyed far less was the German taxes. Twain was particularly taken aback after receiving a Prussian tax bill for 48 Marks – notably made up of church taxes and the hefty income tax placed on foreigners. When a German reporter asked him how long he was planning to stay, Twain answered: “Until your taxes drive me out again.”
While the Steuer might have been a pain, it seems he was impressed with the services it provided.
“The calm, quiet, courteous, cussed persistence of the police is the most admirable thing I have encountered on this side [...] If there were an earthquake in Berlin the police would take charge of it and conduct it in that sort of orderly way that would make you think it was a prayer meeting.”
Twain’s first home in Berlin was at Körnerstraße 7, now in the district of Tiergarten. It was here that he translated the legendary German children’s book Struwwelpeter for his own children (it was eventually published as Slovenly Peter in 1935). Twain’s favourite character was Kaspar, the boy who hated soup – sharing the writer’s own dislike for the German winter staple.
However, unimpressed with the damp living conditions in these digs, Twain moved out of this “rag-pickers paradise” and into the Hotel Royal on Unter den Linden. From there, he had a rosy view of Berlin, removed from misery of the time, even praising what he saw as the high-quality living conditions throughout the city.
“One is not allowed to cram poor folk into cramped and dirty tenement houses. Each individual must have just so many cubic feet of room-space, and sanitary inspections are systematic and frequent.”
In reality, Berlin had a much harsher housing crisis back then than now, only that Twain didn’t notice it in the Hotel Royal. It was common that families shared not only a flat, but a room full of beds and piles of clothes. From his view at the Royal, Twain also praised the “very clean” state of Berlin’s streets and, in particular, the work of street sweepers, whose “scrapers and brooms”, he noted, were far more effective than the “prayers and talk” used by those in New York. However, Twain being Twain, he did have one pet peeve when it came to the streets, which is something that even newcomers in 2020 will understand only too well.
“But the numbering of the houses – there has never been anything like it since original chaos. It is not possible that it was done by this wise city government. At first one thinks it was done by an idiot; but there is too much variety about it for that; an idiot could not think of so many different ways of making confusion and propagating blasphemy.”
“Brains are of no value when you are trying to navigate Berlin”
Strangely enough Twain doesn’t mention the S-Bahn that had opened nine years earlier, with his transportation adventures seemingly stuck to horse- cars.
“There is a multiplicity of clean and comfortable horse-cars, but when- ever you think you know where a car is going to, you would better stop ashore, because that car is not going to that place at all. The car routes are marvelously intricate, and often the drivers get lost and are not heard of for years. The signs on the cars furnish no details as to the course of the journey; they name the end of it, and then experiment around to see how much territory they can cover before they get there [...] Brains are of no value when you are trying to navigate Berlin in a horse-car.”
While there are few remaining traces of Twain’s Berlin life still with us today – both of his temporary residences have since been demolished – he has certainly left behind a legacy in the city. There is a Mark-Twain-Straße in Hellersdorf, while the nearby state library of Marzahn-Hellersdorf also bears his name. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, not far from former Tegel Airport, there is a Mark Twain elementary school – where the school paper is called the Mississippi Online.
All quotations taken from “The Chicago of Europe” (Chicago Daily Tribune, April 3, 1892).
Source: “I feel lost in Berlin.”: The city according to Mark Twain
Source: MARK TWAIN'S TRAVEL LETTERS FROM 1891-92
Source: The Chicago of Europe by Mark Twain
Large Housing Estates in post-socialist cities: challenges and perspectives
Cities across Europe are looking for solutions to develop fairer housing models. In 2020, URBACT and Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) developed a common ‘Right2Housing’ platform to exchange ‘housing as a right’ practices among cities. Although the debate on affordable housing in Europe has recently sent out important messages for policy-makers, the housing context of the formerly socialist countries in the Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries seems to be largely missing from these discussions.
It is estimated that about 40% of the urban population in European post-socialist countries live in socialist-era large housing estates, built between the 1950s and 1980s (Dekker et al., 2005). In some cities, this is even the case for the majority of the population.
Understanding the development of these settlements is therefore vital for the future of cities in the CEE region. Also, at the European level, we need to understand how post-socialist large housing estates (LHEs) differ from their Western counterparts, and what is the context of affordable housing in these European cities.
A consortium of scholars from Estonia, Germany and Russia studied the governance issues of the post-socialist LHEs in their countries from 2019 to 2021. Here are their key findings.
I. Fragmented privatisation and the problem of coordination
Since the fall of the ‘Iron Curtain’, the privatisation of state and collective properties has been the single most important public policy applied to housing throughout Central and Eastern Europe. In most countries, it has left a wide gap between the state – setting only very general frameworks for the development of LHEs – and the millions of apartment owners who hold property titles on the ground and are responsible for the upkeep of the housing. In many cases, this gap leads to a stalemate in which important issues (like segregation, the development of green spaces, energy retrofitting) fall through the cracks.
For example, in many cities, it is not clear who should take responsibility for the maintenance of large vacant areas outside the immediate vicinity of blocks of flats. The outcome is unfortunate neglect which affects negatively the surrounding housing stock and hampers the development of the neighbourhoods in general.
Overcoming fragmentation in ownership structure, empowering actors and developing new forms of cooperation is therefore a crucial challenge which needs to be addressed in the future.
Photo: Marzahn-Hellersdorf (10th borough of Berlin), © Felix-Böhmer
II. Limited government capacities and poor management
In many CEE estates, the public hand only plays a negligible role in steering urban development. The major reason for this is the withdrawal of state responsibilities, the privatisation of properties and the dire budgetary situation of many municipalities. The outcome is often a form of ‘opportunity planning’, where only those issues are addressed for which collaborations with the private sector can be found, while other issues are left behind. This results in a fragmentation of planning in which difficult-to-achieve issues are not taken care of.
Therefore, it is necessary to give more attention to the issue of the estate management and supervision. The funding programmes applied to LHE-areas should not only focus on modernisation of the built environment, but also on reforming inefficient management models and facilitating resident participation in ‘care’ for the estates.
III. Affordable housing and concentration of poverty
After a long period of retrenchment, many CEE countries have started to provide new social housing. However, the volume of social housing programmes often lags behind the growing need for affordable accommodation, especially in the context of inflation of property prices in major cities.
Moreover, where new social housing is built, it is often located at the peripheries of the cities, in or at the fringes of the LHEs built in socialist decades. This may lead to new problems, including spatial mismatch (lack of access to job opportunities), stigmatisation of residents (both in social housing and former LHEs), and growing segregation in the long run.
Against this background, it is vital: a) to accept that the full homeownership model is in contradiction with the growing need for affordable housing, and there indeed is a need to make social housing accessible for wider parts of the population (thus avoiding a stigmatisation and “residualisation” of social housing, see Forrest and Murie, 1983); b) to make sure that social housing is spread more evenly throughout the city; and c) to invest in connectivities, so that access to opportunities and amenities outside the area is enabled.
IV. The growing importance of private renting
In many post-socialist countries (East Germany and the Czech Republic being noticeable exceptions), individual homeownership is the norm around which housing policies are designed. However, most cities have experienced a growing share of private rentals in subsequent years. LHEs are typically the districts where the proportion of private renters is increasing, for example due to the selective outmigration of more affluent residents who keep their properties as rental assets.
Yet, the regulation of the private rental market is rather underdeveloped and poorly regulated in CEE cities. In many cities, private tenants form a ‘forgotten minority’ (Shomina, 2010) which is very vulnerable and often lives under precarious legal conditions. By and large, policies have yet failed to address the housing needs of residents in the private rental market. And in the contemporary context of international migration, e.g., from Ukraine, the risk of unfair position of private tenants living in the estate neighbourhoods increases.
V. Energy efficiency and multi-apartment buildings
A significant part of multi-apartment buildings built in the 1970s or 1980s are in need of significant renovation today. However, the renovation of prefabricated multi-apartment buildings presents multiple challenges here.
Where the tenure structure is dominated by owner-occupation, in Estonia for example, the homeowners’ associations actually depend on the commercial mortgage market in receiving funding for renovation, even when renovation of buildings has been partly subsidised with public money. The research shows that the readiness of homeowners to undertake major refurbishment works tends to be lower in urban districts and regions where less affluent population lives and where renovations do not directly affect the property prices (see Lihtmaa et al., 2018).
Where the tenure structure is dominated by rentals, the opportunity of passing renovation costs to the residents can cause social hardship and lead to the displacement of low-income residents.
An overarching problem, in addition, is the coordination of energy-efficient renovations beyond the level of individual buildings, or apartments. Fragmented ownership structures complicate efficient solutions, such as block heat and power plants, and even make them impossible in many cases. Supporting participatory, neighbourhood-based community approaches towards energy-efficient renovations could offer a way forward here.
In sum, Large Housing Estates face considerable challenges across Central and Eastern Europe. If these are to be overcome, new planning approaches are needed that go beyond physical renovations and set the governance and management of these neighbourhoods into the centre. These approaches can, however, only be developed in context-sensitive ways which take seriously the reality of fragmented property structures, weak state capacities and poor management schemes, underdeveloped legislations on private renting and a weak social housing sector. European policies can play an important role in motivating political and economic actors to pick up on these themes and supporting capacity building for more adequate governance models.
Matthias Bernt (Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space, Germany),
Kadri Leetmaa (Centre for Migration and Urban Studies, Department of Geography, University of Tartu, Estonia)
Oleg Pachenkov (European University at St. Petersburg, Russia)
A more extended version of this article and other materials on housing estates in Central and Eastern Europe can be assessed at https://www.estatestransition.org/
The research project “Estates After Transition” was collaboratively funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education (Funding No. 01DJ18002), the Estonian Research Council (Funding No. MOBERA14) and the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (RFBR contract No. 18-511-76001) within the funding ERA.NET Plus with Russia – strengthening STI links between Russia and the European Research Area.
Dekker, K., Hall, St., van Kempen, R. and I. Tosics (2005): Restructuring large housing estates in European cities: an introduction. In: van Kempen, R., Dekker, K., Hall, St. and Tosics, I. (eds.) Restructuring large housing estates in Europe, 1-17, Bristol: The Policy Press.
Forrest, R., & Murie, A. (1983): Residualization and Council Housing: Aspects of the Changing Social Relations of Housing Tenure. Journal of Social Policy, 12(4), 453-468.
Lihtmaa, L., Hess, D., Leetmaa, K. (2018): Intersection of the global climate agenda with regional development: Unequal distribution of energy efficiency-based renovation subsidies for apartment buildings, Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 119(C), pages 327-338.
Shomina, E. S. (2010) Tenants – our “housing minority”: Russian and foreign experiences in the development of rental housing [Квартиросъемщики — наше «жилищное меньшинство»: российский и зарубежный опыт развития арендного жилья], Moscow: State University-Higher School of Economics Publishers
Cover photo: Tallinn Lasnamäe, © Johanna Holvandus
Union-Fan und Linken-Schreck Das ist Merz' Generalsekretär Mario Czaja 23.01.2022, 11:49 Uhr Der neue CDU-Parteichef Friedrich Merz stellt auch die Führungsriege der Partei neu auf. Der CDU-Generalsekretär heißt jetzt Mario Czaja. Wer ist der Mann, mit dem Merz auch wieder Wahlen gewinnen will? Seinen größten Coup erwähnte Mario Czaja gleich am Anfang seiner Bewerbungsrede als CDU-Generalsekretär: Bei der Bundestagswahl hatte er im ersten Anlauf mit deutlichem Vorsprung das Direktmandat im Berliner Bezirk Marzahn-Hellersdorf errungen und damit die Linke-Abgeordnete Petra Pau besiegt, die den Wahlkreis seit 2002 stets gewonnen hatte. Nun soll er als neuer Generalsekretär seiner Partei und dem frisch gekürten Vorsitzenden Friedrich Merz ebenfalls zu Höhenflügen verhelfen. Er bitte "um einen Vorschuss von Vertrauen", sagte Czaja auf dem Parteitag am Samstag. Den Vorschuss bekam er - mehr als 90 Prozent Zustimmung ergab die digitale Abstimmung. In seiner etwas hölzern vorgetragenen Bewerbungsrede versprach Czaja eine enge Einbindung der Basis bei künftigen Weichenstellungen. Er wünsche sich "eine CDU, die mitmischt", "eine Partei mit Zugkraft" und mit "jugendlichem Esprit". Für letzteres sorgt wohl auch Czaja selbst, der mit seinen 46 Jahren zu den Jüngeren in der CDU gehört. Der gelernte Versicherungskaufmann und Betriebswirt ist seiner Heimat Marzahn-Hellersdorf eng verbunden. In einem Wahlkampfspot für die Bundestagswahl nannte er die Gegend am Ostrand Berlins, in der er aufgewachsen ist und bis heute lebt, seine "Jugendliebe". Hier unternahm Czaja in den 90er-Jahren auch seine ersten Schritte als Kommunalpolitiker. Bereits 1999, mit 24 Jahren, zog er ins Berliner Abgeordnetenhaus ein. Mehrmals gewann der Christdemokrat, der eine gute Beziehung zu Linken-Ikone Gregor Gysi pflegt, das Direktmandat. Unangenehm war für ihn die Enthüllung, dass er einen Titel führte, der ihm von einer in Deutschland nicht anerkannten Schweizer Bildungseinrichtung verliehen wurde. Czaja ließ den Titel sein und entschuldigte sich. Versagen in der Flüchtlingskrise Im Abgeordnetenhaus konzentrierte sich Czaja insbesondere auf die Gesundheitspolitik und war zeitweise stellvertretender Chef der CDU-Fraktion. Im Dezember 2011 schließlich wurde der damals 36-jährige Senator für Gesundheit und Soziales in der rot-schwarzen Koalition unter Klaus Wowereit (SPD). Hier konnte er einige Erfolge verbuchen, etwa Verbesserungen in der Obdachlosenhilfe. Als jedoch im Jahr 2015 eine große Zahl von Flüchtlingen nach Berlin kam, schlug eine dunkle Stunde für Czaja. Die Bilder von zahlreichen Neuankömmlingen, die am Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales (LAGeSo) in eisiger Kälte Schlange stehen mussten, sorgten weit über Berlin hinaus für Empörung. Selbst der neue Regierende Bürgermeister Michael Müller (SPD) äußerte deutliche Kritik an seinem Senator. Das Stadtmagazin "Tip" kürte Czaja 2015 zum "peinlichsten Berliner" - er sei "das Gesicht des Behördenversagens". Vater und Union-Fan Ein Jahr später war Schluss mit Schwarz-Rot in Berlin und daher auch mit Czajas Regierungsamt. Er blieb Mitglied des Abgeordnetenhauses und wurde Geschäftsführer bei dem Unternehmen Brückenköpfe, einer "Konzept- und Beteiligungsagentur im Gesundheitswesen", wie es in der Selbstbeschreibung heißt. Laut einem "Spiegel" -Bericht betrieb Czaja in dieser Funktion für eine üppige Bezahlung unter anderem Lobbyarbeit beim Bundesgesundheitsministerium. Im November 2020 gab er den Geschäftsführerposten auf. Mehr zum Thema Nach dem herausragenden Abschneiden Czajas bei der Bundestagswahl nominierte Merz als CDU-Vorsitzkandidat den Vater einer Tochter im vergangenen November als Generalsekretär. Auf dem Posten wird Czaja nicht nur Schlagfertigkeit beweisen müssen, sondern auch Organisationstalent. Eine zentrale Aufgabe wird die Arbeit am neuen CDU-Grundsatzprogramm. Nebenbei ist Czaja ehrenamtlicher Präsident des Berliner Landesverbands des Deutschen Roten Kreuzes. Beim Fußball fiebert er beim Ostberliner Verein 1. FC Union mit. Czajas jüngerer Bruder Sebastian ist ebenfalls in der Politik aktiv: Das einstige CDU-Mitglied ist Fraktionsvorsitzender und Vize-Parteichef der Berliner FDP.