"Berlin is a city with two centers," wrote Christopher Isherwood in his episodic 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin. "The cluster of expensive hotels, bars, cinemas, shops round the Memorial Church ... and the self-conscious civic center of buildings round the Unter den Linden, carefully arranged ... a parliament, a couple of museums, a State bank, a cathedral, an opera, a dozen embassies."
While this still paints a fairly true picture of the prestigious Unter den Linden boulevard, little is left of the glamour that once characterized the area around the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which Isherwood described as "a sparkling nucleus of light." Fast-food chains, cheap clothing stores and sex shops have taken over this part of the city, with only the ruins of the church tower damaged in an air raid in 1943 as a reminder of its former splendor.
Set in the early '30s, Isherwood's novel is the semi-autobiographical account of a young, aspiring writer who leaves behind his sheltered life in England to seek inspiration in the decadent, pleasure-seeking demimonde of pre-Hitler Berlin. Like no other book, Goodbye to Berlin (later adapted into the musical and film Cabaret) formed the image of the German capital for the English-speaking world an image that lingers today. But what's really left of Berlin as Isherwood saw it?
From the Memorial Church it's a 15 minute walk to Nollendorfstrasse 17, the house Isherwood lived in for most of the four years he spent in Berlin. A plaque commemorating him is attached to the wall (although it falsely states that he moved into the house in 1929, when it was one year later), and there is a second-hand bookstore in the basement. Storekeeper Jürgen Wendt who smilingly calls Isherwood "our house spirit" is happy to take visitors up the stairs leading to the apartment the writer used to lodge in. With its ornamented dark brown doors and stained-glass windows, the old stairway doesn't look like it's changed much since Isherwood's time, and you wouldn't be surprised to bump into Sally Bowles, the book's disreputable but fabulous nightclub singer.
Isherwood's literary map of Berlin also includes the exclusive residential Grunewald district, which he mockingly called "a millionaire's slum." But most essential to his depiction of Berlin is the working-class neighborhood around the Hallesches Tor subway station in the western district of Kreuzberg. This is where you can find Wassertorstrasse, where Goodbye's Christopher moves when he finds himself short of money. Were he to revisit today, the author would barely recognize the place. The street is still predominantly working-class, though no longer as rundown as in the book. But Kreuzberg is now dominated by Berlin's Turkish community, giving the area the nickname "Little Istanbul." A short walk away is Oranienstrasse, filled with Turkish shops and fashionable bars.
On Zossenerstrasse 7, about a mile from Wassertorstrasse, stands a gray, dilapidated building that used to house one of Isherwood's favorite hangouts, a gay pick-up joint called the Cosy Corner. It was here he met "Bubi," the young German to whom, as he wrote in his 1976 memoirs, he owed his sexual awakening. Today, its basement windows covered with yellowed newspaper, the building looks abandoned. But while young, creative Berliners once preferred to live and party in the trendy districts of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, in the last few years Kreuzberg has made a comeback. These days the area is increasingly popular with artists and students, gay and straight.
Berlin might now be a very different place from the one Isherwood wrote about, but the myth he helped create lives on. It is a myth the author himself questioned: in his memoirs, he wondered whether "Berlin's famous 'decadence' " was just a marketing tool Berliners developed to compete with Paris. So, does today's Berlin once called "poor but sexy" by its mayor live up to its reputation? The visitors who flock to its steamy clubs and stylishly seedy bars certainly seem to think so. The city may have changed a lot over the years, but when night falls, Isherwood would still feel at home.