Sundays quickly became bike days, days for exploring streets I hadn’t noticed before, discovering playgrounds, empty buildings, useful trash. Dresden is full of beautiful, crumbling secrets.
Outside of Dresden, if you manage to pedal out of the valley, are others. On the bike ride to Radeberg, all up hill, all cool forest and empty Sunday roads, a familiarly eerie feeling came over me.
The German landscape looks like home to me. Maples, birches, sections of pine forest, ferns, nettles—so many of the plants I remember from walks in the woods as a child, here too. There are train rides when, looking out the window, a strange feeling comes over me. As if there has been a dimensional shift. As if I have gone back in time.
Where the hell am I? I ask myself. Am I in Pennsylvania? Upstate New York? Have I slept? Was it all a dream? Then the conductor announces the next stop over the loudspeaker, and I remember. On the road to Radeberg, I pulled to the side of the empty road and took a picture, a nostalgic tourist, home.
Dresden’s valley dissuades the fearful bicyclist from leaving. It rewards the daring with pairs of bulky calves. I had picked the destination at random. I had been dumpster diving the night before, and I had never been to Radeberg, though I drank its beer often.
The brewery itself turned out to be sterile and awful, a geometric insect balancing on sharp square columned legs and fronted by two gigantic copper breasts meant to invoke images of brewing equipment. Before Radeberg were ruins where I had stopped to rest. There were no signs to tell me what the building once had been, but the light was magical. Though my camera was not I took a few pictures to remind me. Close your eyes and fill them with late-afternoon twilight and you might catch a glimpse of it too.
sneakin’: along the elbe
If abandoned buildings were food, East Germany would be the all-you-can-eat buffet, and Sundays would be the half-price special. See, despite restoration fees (people living in the west still send part of their tax money east to help fix shit up) and economic stimulus what- evers, East Germany still hasn’t transformed into the hyper-developed over- civilized beast that is the West. What this means is that there are abandoned buildings a plenty. And Sundays in Germany mean that everything is closed, leaving very few people out on the street to see you crawling under the fence outside of the empty building at the end of the block.
Sundays in Dresden were Empty Building, Full Dumpster Exploration Days. Dumpster scouting missions were executed by tandem mountain bike and led us to the usual vegetables and trinkets. Still the best booty was not edible, not dumpstered, but in the city’s crumbling edges, fenced off and forgotten. Abandoned buildings, but not empty; filled not with tangible treasure, but with goosebumps, whispered secrets, and half-forgotten stories.
One late-winter afternoon I choose the bike path along the Elbe as my guide and followed it until it disappeared into a small industrial suburb. I pedaled through town hoping to find my way back to the path. But I never did make it back to the river.
Instead I rounded a corner and saw a complex of about fifteen buildings with windows broken, paint chipping down to cracked doors, and carpets of leaves leading into horror-film-set innards. I locked my bike on a fence to walk between the fading facades. It was a crisply chill day in 2008.
With windows set too high to peer into, I eventually found myself standing hesitantly before a door. I often explore buildings alone, but this place was the stuff that horror film sets are made of. I imagined a couple sitting at home, yelling tensely at the screen—”Don’t do it you fucking idiot! Just walk away! The monster is in there! How could you be so stupid?”—warned by dramatically swelling music that I could not hear as they watched me peer into the building that would become my tomb.
You are not in a freakin’ horror film, I told myself, took a deep breath, and stepped inside. The first door led into a foyer. On the right a wide hallway led between rows of red doors on the one side and windows on the other. On the left a large stairwell led up to other hallways lined with more doors, leaves, and broken windows.
I went right, following the hallway past doors either locked or bricked over. The occasional graffiti tag told of other visitors, but there were no signs of current tenants. At the end of the hallway was a bathroom with peeling wood stalls. I tried every door in the hall and even- tually found several that opened into small bare rooms, each no bigger than a small wagon (approx. 3 meters by 2 meters).
Had this place been a school, or a prison? The hallways and stairwell said school, but the cell-like rooms said otherwise, and looking back remind me of the Sedel in Switzerland. (The Sedel is a concert venue that was formerly a prison. Today the cells serve as practice rooms for local musicians.) The rooms said prison, but the large unbarred windows said school. Then again, what’s the big difference between the two anyway?
Upstairs I found more of the same. The rows of locked doors were unsettling. What was behind them? Why had some of the doors been bricked over? The walls guarded the building’s secrets tightly, leaving no clues for the casual observer. I was somewhere on the third floor when the wind began to blow, opening and slamming a series of doors that drove me down the stairs and out the door in a rush of adrenaline and fright no late-night horror film could match.
I stood outside for a second, grinning stupidly at myself for being so easily frightened and at the house and the wind for the rush of adrenaline pumping in my throat. I took a quick walk over the rest of the grounds, snapping photos until my camera battery died, as it always seems to do at the first sight of something worth photographing. This place wasn’t far from the city, I thought, but might be far enough from the village that squatters might have a chance here if they remained quiet, under radar. Hundreds of people could have lived in those buildings, another few dozen in wagons in the sparsely tree-ed square between yellow facades.
I still wish I had gone back to explore on a less blustery day, or that I had written down the address and asked the almighty Internet what the place had once been. I’m sure she’s still there though, nestled quiet among the leaves and weeds, quietly chuckling to herself about the time she scared the small human who came on a bike.
sneakin’: the old henninger factory, frankfurt am main
For his birthday I showed up at his apartment and told him I had a surprise. We hadn’t been broken up long, and it was probably too soon for friendship, but what the hell. We’d made enough mistakes already and what did one more matter?
We biked over the river and up the steep hill on the ass end of Sachsenhausen. Past a Vietnamese restaurant and almost to the top of the steep incline stood the old Henninger Brewery, empty now, on its way to being torn down, surrounded by a fence with a wide-open gate. It was 2006.
I wish I had gone back to take pictures of the facade. I remember a large empty square wreathed with red-brick, black-shuddered two story buildings: the offices. Nothing moved, nothing except the two people quiety creeping across the square and toward the brick buildings and a handful of crows whose presence solidified the feeling that we were about to enter the mad lair of a brilliant eccentric like Willy Wonka.
The back end of the square opened out into bigger buildings, and off to the left somewhere stood the infamous Henninger Tower, built in 1960 to store grain and topped with a rotating restaurant that travel websites still refer to as a city emblem.
We entered the offices through an open door. The second floor appeared to have been someone’s apartment. Old wallpaper peeled from walls where a calendar from another decade still hung. We held our breath as drunk voices floated up from the street, but they passed on. The bathroom was still intact; he laughed and decided to give it a try. “I wonder if it still works,” he said, pulling the metal chain. It did, and it felt louder than Niagra in that empty silence. But the drunks were gone, and only the crows remained to caw their derision from black-shudder perches.
There wasn’t a lot to see, so we crossed the square and entered the bigger buildings. It was dark, and we had one head lamp, one candle, and the flash of the camera. Stalactites covered the low ceilings of underground tunnels that led us under the street and then up, up, up a long, steep stair and to a locked grate on the other side of the road. We fantasized about the underground parties that would never happen, about how the guests would be told to arrive in small groups and slip quietly through that door and follow the tunnel into the brewing rooms where they’d dance for days without realizing that above them, the world plodded on.
What we assumed were once brewing rooms were rotting underground cathedrals: not ornate, but with huge arching ceilings two or three stories high. A metal stairwell led down and down, two cathedrals deep, then three, then four. I lost count at (I foggily think) six, and we didn’t go any further. My imagination filled each cavernous space with the elephantine vats that probably once filled them. So this is where they brew industrial quantities of beer…
There are things you will find in almost every abandoned industrial building: rubble, single shoes, and ancient pictures taped to the walls by long-gone squatters. Usually you find porn. This row of Bravo celebrity stickers lined a short dead-end passageway near the brewing rooms.
Further on in the other direction was a small room covered in celebrity posters. I took home a dusty picture of a freight train that I later lost in a move. Usually it is bad form to take anything from the abandoned buildings you explore. For the building’s future urban explorers and for the case that you happen to be found out by the police. But in the case of buildings in the process of being demolished, I feel a small souvenir is a nice way to let the building’s ghosts live on.
The small room had probably been squatted by several people sometime in the eighties, given the bands and celebrities featured on the posters. What had they done there? How long had they stayed? What was their story? My skin prickled, imagining the lives that had taken place in this damp, dark room beneath the earth. It felt as if they’d just left, but they must have been gone for at least a decade. Places unfrequented by tourists retain an imprint of everything that has happened there long after the last echo has faded away.
Lungs tired of the stale, damp air, we went up. The Henninger Tower was locked up tight, but the factory attic was not, and the empty A-framed room was littered with more debris than we had found anywhere else in the building.
I love abandoned buildings because they are filled with stories, and with ghosts. They have absorbed pieces of the hundreds of lives that have touched them, and their walls are full of whispers. But the whispers are only half-stories, beginnings and middles and ends, pieces, ruins. Never enough to complete the story and always enough to keep you coming back again and again and again.
In the attic I found Josef Schäfer’s 2nd grade report card from 1948, about the year that the factory was just getting back in full swing for the first time since the damage done during an air raid during October of 1943.
How the hell does a 2nd grader’s report card end up in the attic of an abandoned beer factory 58 years after it was printed? The question fills me with the good kind of chill. I don’t know if you noticed, but I like stories, and an object like that is like a portal into thousands of stories. Rabid though my imagination might be, I’d bet you that I still haven’t managed to imagine the truth, so beautifully improbably as it always is.
The factory has since been completely demolished. But did they fill in every story of the brewing cathedrals? Or do they lie sleeping and sighing beneath the earth, waiting for the next explorer whose ear they can fill with whispered secrets.
This report card—as well as many, many other finds from both abandoned buildings and the trash—is featured in issue one of my zine Gefunden. You can purchase copies from me at 2 euros a piece (plus postage) if abandoned places and objects tickle your fancy as they do mine. Until next time.