The forest opens to reveal decrepit picnic pavilions and graffiti-pocked buildings with broken windows. The rundown structures sit behind a newer, well-maintained green metal fence, with signs posted along it reading “Betreten verboten!” and then below in English, “Do Not Enter! Guarding with dogs! Danger to life and limb!”
At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if a craggy baba yaga emerges to warn me to turn back. Instead, I keep going until I see the sun-bleached 130-foot-tall Ferris wheel in the distance and know I’m in the right place.
I have arrived at the entrance of Spreepark, an abandoned amusement park tucked between the Plänterwald forest and Spree river on the outer reaches of Berlin, Germany. The site, located next to a sleepy suburban neighborhood dotted with weeping willows, stands in contrast to the bright, cosmopolitan downtown nearby.
The 60-acre site first opened in 1969 as the only amusement park in Soviet-controlled East Germany. It shut down in 2001 amid plunging attendance and was fenced off a year later. Spreepark fell into severe disrepair over the next decade, left open to the elements and to thrill-seeking trespassers. The rusted rides, overgrown weeds and dead quiet now give the place the feel of a sprawling, open-air Halloween haunted house mixed with an elaborate, interactive art installation.
Spreepark has survived bankruptcy, decay and a former park operator who tried smuggling 76 pounds of pure cocaine into Germany from Peru in the steel mast of a carousel ride. Since Berlin purchased the property in 2014, the grounds have started to enjoy an improbable revival. A local public-private partnership is now working to preserve Spreepark and turn it into an art and cultural center so a new generation can experience its spooky beauty.
The new attention to the faded park speaks to its uniqueness in the world, its postwar history and the nostalgia one experiences when seeing decaying amusement rides. Or maybe visitors just get a thrill pretending they’re in a real-life zombie apocalypse.
I visited the site last month with two of my Techhnews colleagues to experience a Performative Kunstführung — an art tour that included whimsical musical interludes — hosted by the Urban Culture Institute and was meant to celebrate “the interplay of nature, culture and performance.”
About 20 of us — some local German youths, some tourists — start to congregate outside the entrance at dusk, cracking jokes about being in the opening scene of a horror movie, in which each of us will be murdered by the park’s aging rides. A squat security guard opens the gate and invites us all in.
Our guide, a short woman wearing chunky glasses and speaking rapid-fire German, stands in front of a rundown English village with worn green and yellow paint, shattered windows and white-and-red barricades at its entrance. Jumping between English and German, she welcomes us to Spreepark, “an incredibly magical place.” A trumpeter in a fedora plays a mournful tune as he walks through the crowd, and a percussionist with wispy white hair pounds on a steel drum.
Because abandoned amusement parks are hard to come by, Spreepark has been the backdrop for quite a few movies and TV shows. Scenes from the 2011 thriller Hanna, for instance, about a girl who’s trained as an assassin and hunted by the CIA, were filmed here. Later during our tour, we see a toppled-over Tyrannosaurus rex statue that’s been tattooed with graffiti, lost a leg and has holes punched into its body.
“At this particular dinosaur, a cop was shot,” the guide says, in reference to a popular German police procedural TV show called Tatort that’s been running since 1970.
Just before then, our playful trumpeter, with a blank gaze, stands at the center of a circular stage surrounded by brick pavers and overgrown brush. Like an animatronic robot, he raises his trumpet to his mouth, as if ready to play, then puts his arms back down again. He does this four or five times, then walks away.
We see the creaky remains of a rollercoaster ride, which includes the face of a giant blue cat with yellow eye, its mouth wide open and ready to swallow an oncoming group of riders that never arrives. The eerie quiet is broken occasionally by the trumpeter and percussionist playing from an unseen distance.
Our guide points out an empty overgrown field, which she says was once the location of a UFO-shaped equipment building that doubled as the park’s lost-and-found for kids. A woman who lives nearby bought the spaceship, hauled it out of there and plopped it on her property.
Close to the end of our tour, we come up to a rounded-dome circus tent made of faded yellow and red striped fabric held together by a series of U-shaped poles that look like a ribcage. Under the tent’s blue and yellow striped roof is a tall, imposing metal blue box affixed with floodlights on top that looks like an oversized cathode ray tube TV.
There the percussionist doles out all manner of impromptu instruments — rocks, blocks of wood, cymbals — to the crowd and we amble about the sandy floor sounding out a primitive and wordless ditty. For good measure, one of us starts banging on the metal TV thing.
We start to make our way out of the park, passing the still-colorful Quik Cup teacup ride with its tent being swallowed by vines, a sad-looking rocket ship statue stationed under a pavilion and surrounded by a metal fence, and a small blue structure by the Ferris wheel with the words “in love” spray-painted on its side.
We go into the Berlin night where, with fresh eyes, I notice that buildings around me aren’t falling apart and vegetation isn’t trying to snatch me into the darkness. I’m left wondering how the preservationists would maintain the park for the future, especially because now the graffiti and weeds and rot are part of the park’s story.
Ironically, it now seems that restoring the park to its former glory — slapping on a fresh coat of paint, mowing back the plants and scaring away the ghosts — would ruin what remains of Spreepark.
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