When I tell people I live in Lichtenberg, the response is generally unfavourable. From a smug “so that’s basically Poland” to the more apologetic “well…at least IKEA’s nearby!”, opinions on our decision to live in the eastern district tend to veer towards the negative.
But after six months of defensiveness when somebody questions our choice of district, it’s a decision I still stick by.
Lichtenberg was never on our radar when my boyfriend and I began the search for a permanent base. But when the notorious Berlin flat hunt became more urgent, we decided to look beyond the Ringbahn - the suburban rail line which encircles the inner city. In a city so well connected, we were happy to forget about our preferred districts and just focus on finding a flat with a reasonable enough commute to the centre.
Our new game plan worked. Just two weeks later, we were signing the lease for a Wohnung to call our own. Only two stops outside of the Ring, clean and modern with a balcony and even a pre-installed kitchen, our new flat was the final step in settling into Berlin life. We were delighted, spending the run up to the move bickering about mattresses, as any self-respecting couple should.
But the sweet success of finding new digs was short-lived, as friends and colleagues were baffled by our choice of location. Wasn’t Lichtenberg miles away? Wasn’t it still quite… communist? What was there even to do there?
The anti-climatic concerns weren’t quite enough to dampen our glory entirely, but still led us to second guess our decision. We were intent on enjoying our neighbourhood though, both out of sheer stubbornness, and, well, just how bad could it really be?
As it turns out, not so bad at all.
Yes, it’s definitely less trendy than neighbouring Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg. We’ll typically travel to get dinner and go to bars. But the beauty of Berlin’s round-the-clock transport system means that what we need is never that far away. And what we do have suits us and our lifestyles: quiet, safe streets, parks aplenty, and an Edeka in the train station which is, to our joy, open on Sundays.
Living here has also done wonders for our German. In our previous neighbourhood of Prenzlauerberg - a fairly anglicized, international district - it was easy to fall into lazy habits of speaking half-hearted “Denglish”, with little incentive to progress further.
Moving to an area less accustomed to English speakers was just the right motivation needed to improve our language skills. Even if this just means better polite chat with neighbours and ordering a McDonalds without stumbling, all of this does contribute toward a sense of genuine improvement with the language.
What Lichtenberg might be lacking in terms of any kind of culinary or nightlife scene, it makes up for with other, less obvious attractions.
The banks of Rummelsburger See are lively and fun, not unlike the inimitable atmosphere found in most Berlin parks on every sunny day. Landschaftspark Hertzberger, once a site for the GDR’s youth camp, is one of the few parks in Berlin which feels convincingly rural enough for somebody with limited tolerance for the fast pace of big-city life. Tierpark and the Stasi Museum - both also based outside of the Ring - also make for interesting days out.
Plattenbauten in Lichtenberg. Photo: DPA
My experiences are a far cry from what others had warned of. But “Lichtenphobia”, as we have begun to call it, had to come from somewhere. Once the home of the Stasi headquarters, then the site of a neo-Nazi problem in the early noughties, the district has something of a chequered past. The Soviet-style high rises in the area are stark reminders of more austere times, suggesting Lichtenberg hasn’t quite caught up with the rest of the city yet.
But writing off a district on the basis of its past misses an opportunity. Life in Berlin certainly doesn’t end outside of its centre – nor will it in most major cities attracting internationals. Exploring and living in a district less frequented by tourists and expats was an opportunity to come to know and appreciate all my new city has to offer outside of the obvious hangouts.