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Save Berlin: Dead cows walking

Something for the historians and vegetarians/vegans (yes, the meat-eaters, too). Dan Borden follows in the footsteps of the animals killed in Prenzlauer Berg’s old slaughterhouse district.

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The slaughterhouse district’s former sheep hall lives on as a skeleton in Blankenstein Park. Photo by Karolina Spolniewski

Dan Borden follows in the footsteps of the animals killed in Prenzlauer Berg’s old slaughterhouse district.

Berlin’s Zoological Gardens and Tierpark offer a double dose of heartwarming human-animal interaction, but we’ve also got another, more honest monument to modern man’s relationship with his four-legged brothers: the former slaughterhouse district. Between 1881 and 1991, up to 15,000 beasts a day came to meet their maker at Prenzlauer Berg’s Central Vieh- und Schlachthof. If meat is murder, then this sprawling complex of mechanised death was Berlin’s biggest crime scene.

All those efficiently-butchered cows, pigs and sheep can thank 19th-century doctor Rudolf Virchow, who envisioned the Schlachthof as a hygienic alternative to the backyard animal massacres occurring daily across the city. The result: meat-related diseases plummeted. As the city grew, so did the slaughterhouse, covering 50 hectares (1.5 times the size of our western Zoo) and employing 3000 workers in its East German heyday. But post-Wall privatisation failed, and the stockyards closed in 1991. Thanks to an urban redevelopment plan, the blood, chains and mournful mooing have been replaced by upscale flats and discount stores. Still, enough monuments remain to let us follow in the hoof-prints of the doomed.

Welcome to misery

Berlin’s slaughterhouse district had its own train station, with enough platforms to unload five animal-packed trains at once. Today, it’s the Storkower Straße S-Bahn station, and the only reminder of its dark past is an elevated walkway once known as the Langer Jammer, or “long misery”. Built in 1937, the 505m-long bridge carried pedestrians over the dirty, stinky animal stockyards to nearby residential areas. Most of the Jammer is gone, demolished in 2002, but it lives on in the title credits of the 1970s East German police TV series Polizeiruf 110.

Cow purgatory

East of the walkway were the stalls where cattle awaited their fate. Ten years ago, over half of the century-old brick halls were torn down to make way for big-box stores and parking. Most others have been preserved only as facades, their innards ripped out and replaced with 21st-century garden apartments.

Halls of judgment

Of the four iron-framed sheds where farmers auctioned their animals to butchers, only the cattle hall, or Rinderverkaufshalle, remains. Converted in 2011 to a massive Zweirad Stadler bicycle shop, it’s one of Berlin’s finest examples of 19th-century industrial architecture. Its equally beautiful neighbour, the sheep hall, was tragically demolished, stripped to a ghostly skeleton and left as the centrepiece of the sad, windswept Blankenstein Park (photo).

Death and reuse

West of the auction halls lay the slaughter houses where cows, pigs and sheep were killed and dissected. The stockyards expanded further west in 1898, with landmarks like the Victorian-style 1900 administration building – today a kindergarten – and the octagonal water tower, now converted into a cafe with a penthouse apartment. Along the train tracks, factories turned skin into boots, hooves into glue, and everything else into sausage. Fifteen years ago, when Berlin’s Senate offered those derelict halls and factories to developers for reuse, they found few takers and resorted to massive tax incentives. In 2007, the former Steinlein leather factory reopened as loft apartments in a slow real estate market. Today, their value has skyrocketed.

Broken dreams

When post-Wall Berlin built the Velodrom and Europasportpark swimming pools in a bid to win the 2000 Olympics, the stockyards, just to the south, were slated to become the Olympic Village. That bid failed and the city’s planners rushed through a master plan with the then-ambitious goal of turning the ex-slaughterhouses into a residential district for 4500 residents. In today’s housing crisis, that same master plan would likely aim for a density three times as high. Too late. Over the last decade, the area has morphed into a sterile, suburban-style, car-focussed townhouse district, disconnected from surrounding neighbourhoods. The low-rise stucco buildings look so cheap they seem temporary. Let’s hope they are.