Whenever I cycled through Frankfurt’s Bahnhofsviertel, the part of the city directly opposite the main railway station, I used to find it disturbing and fascinating at the same time. There are junkies shooting up openly on the pavement as well as hipsters sipping espressos at trendy cafes. You see uber-cool restaurants and cheap chain stores, luxury apartments and brassy sex shops. Some houses are really stylish, others rather dilapidated.
Recently, I joined a guided tour of this part of town to see it from another perspective -the one of a homeless person. Thomas Adam, a man in his late 50ies, lived on the streets of Bahnhofviertel for more than ten years when he was an alcoholic.
Now he is a tour guide and he shows Frankfurters as well as tourists parts of Bahnhofsviertel, where he used to sleep rough and beg for money, where he bought booze and cheap food, where he found a rich sponsor who gave him a few hundreds euros – and the place where he finally found help and the strength to overcome his addiction.
There is for example Jurgen Ponto Plaza, a windy square with a silver tower which used to be the tallest building in Germany until the early 90ies and the headquarter of one mighty Dresdner Bank. The square is named after Jurgen Ponto who used to be the CEO of the listed lender. He was murdered in 1977 by members of the Red Army Fraction (RAF).
The square reminds Thomas Adam of a different homicide which was conducted by a serial killer in 1990. The criminal targeted homeless people and killed them with an engineer’s hammer. The police had a hard time finding him and tried to catch him in the act by dressing like homeless people and sleeping rough at Ponto Plaza. The killer was actually caught by chance when he run into a police patrol who discovered his weapon.
There is also an unremarkable pizza place nearby where Thomas Adam used to get left over food shortly before the place closed at night. At a street corner a few hundred metres further down, tramps used to be earn a bit of money by promising motorists to protect parked cars from getting scratched. The telephone boxes which Thomas Adam searched for spare money have long been removed.
He is a jaded man by now but has neither lost his humor nor his frankness. It’s quite brutal how he talks about his time when sleeping rough and being an alcoholic. “I found myself completely disgusting when I wet myself and everybody gave me a wide berth.”
His tales are also entertaining. For example when he talks about an unwritten law among the homeless: how they defend their begging districts and how shop owners try to charm “their” beggar. “There is one in front of an organic store reading stuff by Friedrich Nietzsche. The store does not want to have anybody else begging there except this intellectual and rather neat beggar and urges him to come daily and not make room for somebody else.”
His tour opens up another layer of Frankfurt’s Bahnhofsviertel, but there are many more to explore. Frankfurt is trying hard to gentrify the quarter but there are still many edgy streets and for all of its progress still very seedy. A different world.