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An illustration of a woman peering through a hedge to the home hidden behind it.

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The dark side of living in a unique historic home

After a while, you just want to live in a normal building on a normal street, where no one ever tries to take a selfie

When I was 10, I fell in love with a book called Time and Again. In it, a disgruntled ad man walks into the Dakota in 1970, performs a neat Jedi mind trick, and walks out again in the 1880s. He’s there for a reason (to investigate and possibly alter a past event), but what I remember are his itinerant musings about his new life, interspersed with real black-and-white photos of old New York.

It was perhaps my love for this book that sent me out into the city as a teenager, peering through gates, grates, and fences for that other New York. I marched friends off the subway at 96th and Broadway to the row of cottages known as Pomander Walk. I was once reprimanded for photographing that West Village idyll Grove Court from beyond its short fence. I brought boyfriends and wannabe boyfriends uptown to St. Nicholas Avenue and 161st Street to watch them gasp at the sight of Sylvan Terrace. I lived for these moments of discovery, in myself and others. They were as close as I’d get to time travel.

Then, in my early 20s, partly to escape the anxiety of making rent in New York City, I moved to Berlin. Within a year and a half, I found myself a proud tenant of one of the hidden spaces I’d always coveted, alongside a man I’d fallen in love with, who happened to live there already. Our shared home was one floor of a squat, three-story brick building next to a walled park, the Geschichtspark Ehemäliges Zellengefängnis Moabit, or Historic Park at the Former Moabit Prison. Now a green space punctuated by concrete blocks, it was built in the 1840s and torn down in the 1950s. In between, it housed over 500 prisoners at a time, most in solitary confinement.

Our tiny, quaint apartment, with its faded pastel wallpaper and paint-spattered double windows, held few remnants of this sad past. It was in one of the old guards’ houses left standing around the prison’s perimeter. But in a 21st-century Berlin still obsessed with the parts of its history hiding in plain sight, it had all the markings of a great find: a facade riddled with World War II bullet holes, a private garden cultivated with lilac trees and strawberry plants, and an address that didn’t make sense to Google Maps, right near the main train station.

It was historic, it was romantic, and it was also really, really annoying.

If you think New York is an incubator of real estate envy, try spending some time in Berlin. I wowed countless friends with my unusual living quarters, and in return I was invited into converted factories tucked behind residential buildings in Kreuzberg, with their towering brick facades and high-ceilinged rooms that froze even in summer. I saw snug, painted cottages connected by secret garden paths in the Fliegerviertel, or “Airmen’s Quarter,” near the defunct Tempelhof Airport. I was even given a personal tour of the Schöneberg home where Christopher Isherwood once rented a room next to the woman who would become the inspiration for Sally Bowles, where a large writing desk overflowed with autographed photos of former Cabaret stars.

Unlike New York, however, where a house with well-known former tenants could command a small fortune, in Berlin these homes were affordable. There was no need to be quite so envious of historic abodes, because you might end up living in one yourself. All it took was luck, timing, and being bold enough to knock on a stranger’s door to inquire within, since the only way to be first in line was to show up before the current tenants even realized they wanted to leave.

So we fended off hopeful Berliners asking after apartments, camera-wielding tourists, drunk and stoned teenagers from a nearby hostel who had heard about an unusual place to get high, and one unforgettable spring day, a pair of women who simply set up their lounge chairs in our garden as if it were their own backyard. Through it all, my mind kept drifting back to the gray-haired man who had once yelled at me as I photographed Grove Court. At the time, I was taken aback: Didn’t he realize this was the price he paid for living there?

As it turned out, the price we paid was much greater. Within a couple of years, the flowering vacant lots around us were fenced off and slated for development. We watched as one gleaming glass-and-steel hotel after another began to rise. As Berlin’s prices rose with them, I couldn’t shake my fear that the New York curse I had tried to escape would claim me here, too; I wished desperately to go back in time to that moment when it had felt like just the two of us, surrounded by gardens and walls.

There were two last straws: Seemingly within days of each other, the city broke ground for a new subway line within view of our bedroom window, and our landlord encased our building in scaffolding to raise the roof and turn the attic level into a new apartment. Now married, we said goodbye to our prison. We settled into an Altbau, or typical prewar building, in an area our old neighbors would have dismissed as Spiessig—hopelessly bourgeois. I thought back to my first boss in Germany, and how I’d gushed to him about Berlin in those early years: “Just living in a city doesn’t make you cool,” he’d replied dryly. His words had stung at the time, but I finally saw the truth in them: After a while, you just want to live in a normal apartment building on a normal street, where no one ever tries to take a selfie.

I’ve since left Berlin and my marriage behind and, now back in New York, I feel as though returning to that certain place would require not just a plane ticket, but a mind trick of my own. I still think back to the last time I spotted our old guard house as I rode the S-Bahn train toward the incongruous mothership of Hauptbahnhof, Berlin’s ultra-modern station. The red brick walls of the prison park and the windows from which we had observed our changing neighborhood appeared briefly before the train conductor announced our arrival, only to disappear again as we pulled into the station’s shimmering glass shell. It was as if my old home had flashed into being for just a moment, and with it a glimpse of that other life: a small slice of Berlin’s hidden history and a tiny piece of my past, forever linked.

Giulia Pines is a freelance writer, former Berliner, and current Jackson Heights resident. She’s written for the New York Times, the Atlantic, Fodor’s, Edible Queens, and many more. You can follow her on Twitter at @giuliapines or read her writing at