Berlin HistoryBlog Posts on The Needle

The Story of Berlin’s Sidewalks

Below Berlin’s facades––an architectural pastiche––there is a surprisingly consistent urban feature: the design of the sidewalks. Today, I pay more attention than usual because the autumn leaves draw my eyes down to the mosaics of small stones. Each rock, five-by-five centimetres, is fitted tight with others. The fallen foliage is a colourful patchwork cast over.

Berlin Sidewalks

All over Berlin, you find ribbons of these grey paving stones. They separate the bike paths from the road or the walkways. From Bernburg, a mining town in Sachsen-Anhalt, they are made of limestone. Sometimes, I see road pavers in Berlin fixing the sidewalks, hammers in hand. They tap the stones into a sand bed, cast more sand around them, before moving to the next. Sometimes, different coloured blocks make designs.

The Stolpersteine, invented in Berlin, are easy to install in the capital. All you need to do is remove a few of the Bernburger Rogenkalk and fit the memorial between.

The small paving stones border muscular granite blocks. In Berlin, these are known as Schweinebäuche, or pig-bellies.

They are unique to Berlin, and we have the restaurant Lutter & Wegner on Gendarmenmarkt to thank. In 1825, they wanted a solid sidewalk in front of their establishment, so they built one privately. Friedrich Wilhelm III was so impressed that he had their design extended to the rest of his capital.

CC Commons usage. Berlin: Charlottenburger Platten (ursprünglicher Typ). By Marbot.

The pig-bellies have a set width, but their length varies, with the longest in Hardenbergstraße in Charlottenburg. Why they are called this is not immediately obvious. Their hidden undersides are rounded, like the hanging belly of the animal, so they don’t sink in the sand.

It is autumn. The city is growing darker. Days are shortening. But if you look low, like the light does these afternoons, you will see something subtle. Not just the fallen leaves, but the granite, 600 million years old, that contains impurities such as quartz or mica or feldspar. When it rains, the colours ripple.

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

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