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The area around Heliosstrasse / Vogelsanger Strasse was the heart of Ehrenfeld’s nightlife scene

Change as a constant

created by Christian Werthschulte | |   tours

A stroll through Ehrenfeld, where past and present live side by side

The district of Ehrenfeld gets talked about a lot in Cologne. Mostly when people reminisce about the ‘good old days’. But when were they exactly? It’s hard to say. Ehrenfeld is changing and although many places have disappeared, new things are springing up in their place. A case in point is Colonius, the starting point of our stroll. The former television tower is regarded as a city landmark, but barely anyone has ever set foot inside since the revolving restaurant and viewing platform closed in the 90s. A citizens’ initiative campaigned for the TV tower to be reopened and it was placed under a conservation order in summer 2022 – the first step towards making this happen.

After that we head down Innere Kanalstrasse to Ehrenfeld, grabbing a cold drink from the kiosk and weaving our way through the district’s streets. Many of the residents here have planted flowerbeds with wildflowers or put out self-built seats or benches. As we stroll through the narrow streets, it’s easy to see how the past and the present of Ehrenfeld ­coexist happily here. Because for every café or coworking space hidden behind one of the many retro-look craftsman signs, there is a family-run business that has been passed down through the ­generations.

But this is also clear as we move away from the cosily narrow streets. From the 1950s, 4711 Echt Kölnisch Wasser – the original Eau de Cologne perfume – was made at the Barthonia Forum between Venloer Strasse and Vogelsanger Strasse for four whole decades. And the building’s brick façade is still resplendent in turquoise, white and gold to this day. Film and TV production companies have since moved into the premises, with a university for ecological design to follow.

We head north, zig-zagging our way through Ehrenfeld’s streets and its mix of older, turn-of-the-century houses and new, modern buildings squeezed into any available gaps – which brings us to the corner of Subbelrather Strasse/Hüttenstrasse. This is where you’ll find the characteristic railway arches, which housed tradespeople and small shops for a long time. But these days they are empty and that’s not about to change any time soon. Every two years, the City Leaks Festival uses some of them for readings, discussions and performances and has also created a small, raised garden. When you get to number 24, it’s worth looking up at the house that architect Wolfgang Zeh built here, in a gap the size of a garage.

We follow the railway arches all the way past the next crossroads to Bartholomäus-Schlink-Strasse. And this is where you can see the full potential of the arches: since 2010, Club Bahnhof Ehrenfeld has been using two of them for its ambitious concert line-ups, which cover everything from jazz to global pop and hip-hop. In 2015, these were joined by the third arch: the Yuca Club. On the other side of the street, Bumann & Sohn opened its doors five years ago in the premises of an old workshop. Since then, it has hosted indie, punk and songwriter concerts against an industrial design backdrop and also happens to have a great beer garden. Both clubs are turning the street into a new hub of Ehrenfeld’s nightlife.

But the beating heart of Ehrenfeld nights used to be on the corner of Vogelsanger Strasse/Heliosstrasse. For 29 years, this area was home to the Underground club on the grounds of a former factory. The words ‘We deliver rock’n’roll’ could be read above the entrance and many bands would perform here before they hit the big time. Since a citizens’ initiative prevented the construction of a shopping centre on the grounds, a school is now being built there that aims to be a role model for inclusive teaching.

The area is also something of a memorial site for the electronic music scene: on the other side was Heinz Gaul and Sensor, while Werkstatt and Papierfabrik were both on Werkstattstrasse. We carry on walking to Lichtstrasse, still home to Live Music Hall, one of the city’s oldest concert clubs. And on the next corner you will see quotes from residents on a window, describing the transformation of Lichtstrasse from a workers’ street into a cultural site. ‘This used to be the Wild West’ is one example. But it’s mainly creative agencies that rule the roost here today. We leave Lichtstrasse at Sonic Ballroom, Cologne’s best punk rock dive, and make our way down Oskar-Jäger-Strasse. After the railway bridge, you can catch a glimpse of the ­latest new-build complex on the left, the old freight depot. This used to be home to sociocultural project Jack in the Box which, following a successful campaign, will be popping back up somewhere between the new builds. We walk down Helmholtzstrasse where, on the right-hand side of the street, a group of artists has turned an old factory building into their studio. On the corner of Hospeltstrasse, we turn right to head north. As you stroll along the street, be sure to take a close look at the buildings and architecture. Worthy of particular mention is the Malzfabrik (house number 32), which was converted into apartments and offices in 1995. We then cross over Venloer Strasse, heading first onto Leyendeckerstrasse and then right onto Marienstrasse. After a few hundred metres, we find ourselves standing in front of old buildings with banners and slogans. The houses were occupied by squatters in 1977 to save them from being renovated, which would have doubled the rent. But the tenancy agreement is now legal and the buildings are merely relics of a time when Ehrenfeld was known as a hub of the squatter’s movement. What has stayed the same is the appetite among the locals to keep rediscovering their neighbourhood. And with that we make our way to our last stop on this tour, Alpener Platz, an unassuming gravelled area on the busy Venloer Strasse. During the coronavirus pandemic it established itself as a new terrace for the neighbourhood and is the best place to get to know the locals.

Our route on Google Maps:

(by Christian Werthschulte)