Trendy Berlin District Holds Key to German Elections Shape of the Next Government May Hinge on Eastern Berlin Ballots in Sept. 27 Vote

Article excerpt

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 Zuhr, a writer who moved to the district as a student 20 years ago. But, he adds, "Life has become more colorful, diverse, stimulating."

Mr. Zuhr 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, Zuhr 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. …