Trendy Berlin District Holds Key to German Elections

Shape of the next government may hinge on eastern Berlin ballots in Sept. 27 vote.

Beautifully restored buildings from the turn of the century line the cobblestone streets of Prenzlauer Berg, and a young crowd frequents the outdoor cafes that have made the district a trendy destination in the German capital.

Only a few gray buildings with missing balconies hint at the condition of the neighborhood 10 years ago, when Prenzlauer Berg was hidden behind the Berlin Wall. Now the only thing that will remind anyone it was once in the East is if Prenzlauer Berg voters tip the balance in favor of the ex-Communists on Sunday, a move that could decide the makeup of Germany's future government.

Nowhere in the reunified German capital has the character of a neighborhood changed as fundamentally as in this district, Berlin's central voting precinct.

"Prenzlauer Berg has become the workshop of unification," says the district's mayor, Reinhard Kraetzer. "Here is the least problematic coming together of East and West."

Since unification in 1990, young people from across Germany and Europe have flocked here, attracted by the cheap rents, central location, and vibrant nightlife. Real-estate developers followed, renovating the magnificent old apartment buildings and opening upscale restaurants.

"The provinciality of Prenzlauer Berg has disappeared with the large number of foreigners and West Berliners that moved in," says Friedhelm Zhr, a writer who moved to the district as a student 20 years ago. But, he adds, "Life has become more colorful, diverse, stimulating."

Mr. Zhr remembers the winters when he had to haul heating coal into his apartment. Now he lives in a newly renovated building that houses a Gold's Gym and a shop that specializes in restoring old artworks.

More important than his material well-being, Zhr says, is his freedom from "the mental regimentation" of the East German regime. "I know a lot of people my age who mentally are still rooted in the ancient regime," he says.

Many of these people will vote for the successor party to the East German Communists, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), on Sunday. All the party needs to enter parliament is to win three constituencies. With two other east Berlin PDS bastions secure, the ex-Communists are concentrating efforts on voting precinct 249, which encompasses the two central districts of Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte.

The Social Democratic Party (SPD), which presents the greatest threat to Chancellor Helmut Kohl's reelection, is likewise homing in on the precinct, since a PDS presence in the new parliament could siphon off just enough votes to wreck their plans to form a coalition government with the Green Party. As a result, the Social Democrats could be compelled to form a "grand coalition" with their archrivals, Mr. Kohl's Christian Democrats.

"The people in the district are sick and tired of all this election calculus," says Daniel Kchenmeister, a historian in Prenzlauer Berg. "The constant attacks on the PDS don't work in the East. The SPD has compromised itself a lot."

The neck-and-neck running between the Social Democrats and ex-Communists here has created curious voting preferences. Natalia Smith, a German-American who came to the neighborhood three years ago, says she is supporting the PDS. "Before I moved here, I would have voted for the Greens," Ms. Smith says. "But in this particular situation, the PDS is the alternative that can stir up politics a bit."

The PDS has remained a strong force in Prenzlauer Berg by focusing on unemployment and affordable housing, says Petra Pau, the party's candidate in the crucial precinct. Angry graffiti on the gleaming new facades suggest that there is an underlying resentment of the neighborhood's gentrification.

Originally a working-class district, Prenzlauer Berg was home to East Berlin's church-based opposition that finally helped topple the Communist regime in 1989. Today there are only few reminders of the way things used to be. Bornholmer Bridge, the first border crossing that opened to West Berlin, is now part of a busy thoroughfare. The former customs area is now a used car lot.

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