Zwei Türme am Frankfurter Tor.
3 March 2020

“This is no yuppie shop!”

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A part of Berlin’s history can be retold on Karl-Marx-Allee as if in a burning glass. “Palaces” for workers and farmers were supposed be built here in the 1950s. Later on, it was rather those loyal to the party principles, the nomenklatura, the party cadres and the “normal” people who had been lucky enough to be allocated homes by lot who moved in.


Here, on Karl-Marx-Allee, was where the military parades staged by the GDR government happened. Later on, however, demonstrations for the fall of the Wall and reunification were also held here. And people who witnessed all these upheavals, right up to the beginning of the Allee’s gentrification, still live here today.

Some of the places that survived all the upheavals still exist. You can count them on one hand. Places like “Café Sibylle”. Angelika Zachau took over the insolvent café even before the complete residential block was bought back by Gewobag at the beginning of 2019. We met her and her colleague Karin Baumert for – what else? – coffee and cake to find out what has been happening in the first year since reopening.

Cafe Sybille lettering on Karl-Marx-Allee Berlin.
Opened in 1953 as a milk bar and renamed “Café Sibylle” in the 1960s.

Ms Zachau, Ms Baumert, how did you taking over “Café Sibylle” in October 2018 actually come about?

Zachau: We got the message that a new operator was being sought for the café. The café is a historical place that is worth preserving. A place with strong socio-cultural significance and not only for this neighbourhood. We didn’t have to think about it for long.

Baumert: Yes, “Cafe Sibylle” has cult status. It starts with the name, named after “Sybille”, a women’s magazine from the GDR. A women’s magazine that focused on the working woman, with clothing and fashion she sews herself, etc. We knew that this was for us.

Cafe Sybille lettering on Karl-Marx-Allee Berlin.
Angelika Zachau runs “Café Sibylle” with her colleague Karin Baumert.

What exactly happened when you took over the café?

Zachau: It came with a few problems. We already had a little headwind when we started. There were various conflicts. Some people were afraid it would be turned into a posh restaurant. I’m from the Ruhr area, and lots of people thought another West German poser shop would be opening. But this is no yuppie shop!

Baumert: Our goal was to preserve “Sibylle”. Otherwise, we would have renamed the whole thing. We first had to prove this to those who were against it.

And how do you do that?

Baumert: By allowing clubs that have always organised events here to continue to do so. For example, the Association of Victims of the Nazi Regime holds its fixed meeting here every 3rd Monday for free. We also still hold various exhibitions here, such as the one on the history of Karl-Marx-Allee. We will continue these established activities.

Wooden post boxes on a wall.
Part of the permanent exhibition about the history of Karl-Marx-Allee at “Café Sibylle”.

What was the biggest challenge during reopening?

Zachau: Right from the start, we knew we didn’t just want a gastronomic project. We would have chosen something else! We like the interplay of events on stage, exhibitions, a centre for the neighbourhood, and we will continue to hold on to this because “Café Sibylle” is more than just a café. But we did have to change a little bit. The menu, for example. Without increasing the price too much. Then only tourists would be able to afford it and we still want to reach out to the entire neighbourhood and we still want to reach out to the entire neighbourhood. And, of course, we have renovated and restored some things but at the core the identity remains the same. That is the challenge: to continue to run a café full of history. That sounds easier than you might think.

What exactly do you have to look out for?

Baumert: In the first few days, for example, we invited the those in charge of the protection of historical buildings and monuments and asked them what is special and what must be preserved. A lot is under protection here. That also means that we are not allowed to change much. But you can always make compromises, which is worth it when you consider the beauty of the place. It is important to keep regular customers while attracting new ones. To do this, you have to think of a programme.

Wall painting with two champagne glasses.
Sundaes, milkshakes and tropical fruits: original wall decoration.

What was it like for you when Gewobag took over this building instead of Deutsche Wohnen?

Zachau: Well, we were very pleased. We consequently also see a longer perspective for the café. As a housing company, Gewobag is also closely connected to the city senate.

What do you think of this neighbourhood? Have you noticed any changes?

Baumert: I have because I’m from East Berlin and I know this street very well, from my youth. There used to be more activity here; it was much more of a shopping promenade than is the case today. There is a reason for this: fewer people live here now. That in turn has to do with the fact that today, space consumption per capita is much higher than 50 years ago. In other words: today, many people live in much larger apartments than they did back then. And it’s more mixed. From an urban sociological point of view, an area is most stable when it is very differentiated and there is a diverse population. Homogeneous groups are more likely to harm a district. If only rich people lived here, this place would be boring. Therefore, it is important that affordable housing remains secure. And also places like “Café Sibylle”.

What else do you plan to do with the café?

Zachau: We created internship opportunities in service and in the kitchen here last year for refugees. We want to continue to press ahead with this kind of thing. Originally, we wanted “Sibylle” to be a training restaurant. Next year, we want to start training specialists for the hospitality industry. Everything step by step.

Old iron cash register.
Café Sibylle: a sanctuary of times gone by and new beginnings.

One more question: How did you earn your very first wages?

Zachau: As a student, I worked as an undergraduate assistant and had summer jobs in IT departments…

Baumert: …and I was a lifeguard.

Thank you for talking with us.

Photos © Felix Seyfert


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