Uptown Dessau and the Mason-Dixon Line

Bauhausstrasse 1I visited Dessau for the second time last week and got a starkly different impression of the place. On my first visit I got as far as 100 meters outside of the train station before starting to feel uneasy; in fact, I had to keep reminding myself that the journey was a crucial part of my research in order to keep from bolting back to the station and hopping on the next train back to Berlin. The place struck me as desolate, very depressed and vaguely menacing. I was reminded of the stories my father used to tell me about crossing the so-called ‘Mason-Dixon Line’ — the unofficial boundary separating the North from the South — in the United States during the 1960s. One such story involved a train ride from Chicago to Mississippi; upon crossing into West Virginia from Ohio, a white passenger came to my father and warned him: ‘You’ve crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. You watch yourself.’ This sort of warning was characteristic of the schizophrenic nature of southern American apartheid. It was both a threat and a piece of neighborly good advice: Don’t make me have to hurt you by stepping out of line. Have a nice day.

In Dessau, the proverbial boundary — as in many small towns, I imagine — is the train station. On one side of the station is a lonely tram stop, a boarded-up façade, and a grassy area where youths gather to sip beer and ask for change. On the other side of the station there is a covered walkway with clean benches, trimmed greenery, and wood paneling. It is modern, inviting, and much too cosmopolitan for such a small town. This is the exit I took today, and, if it hadn’t been for the huge ‘Dessau Hauptbahnhof’ sign behind me, I would’ve sworn I had gotten off at the wrong stop.

Bauhausstrasse 2

I was in Dessau to visit a filmmaker and tour an asylum hostel (located not in Dessau, but in Marke, a remote village about 15 kilometers away), so had only a few minutes to wander through what I now refer to as ‘Uptown Dessau’. In those few minutes, the town I had longed to escape a week before became a place I would happily live in. The old buildings in this part of the town had been remodeled and carefully preserved; on the way toward Bauhausstrasse, I had to maneuver around a team of workers busily laying cobblestone in a freshly renovated square. Bauhausstrasse itself reminded me of Monterey Aquarium in California, only the gigantic tanks were outdoors, and full of people and iMacs instead of fish. And the people, with their laptop bags, designer skirts, and black wool jackets, did not resemble anyone I had seen on the other side of the tracks, where local trends leaned more in the direction of faded jeans, trainers, and puff jackets. As I walked, there were moments when I imagined how it would be to live on this side of the train tracks. Do the inhabitants of Uptown Dessau ever bother going to Downtown Dessau? And vice versa? And what do they think of each other, if anything? Does that woman with the burgundy tights and leather satchel actually live here, or did she just get off the train from Berlin? And how aware are the residents of Uptown Dessau of past incidents that have marked their futuristic environment as a ‘no-go zone’ for many would-be visitors?

More to come ….

Bauhausstrasse 3