Berlin – a city, a wall, a lifestyle
There is good reason why I am a Berliner by choice. Berlin to me is the one city in all of Germany characterized most by 20th century history, modern life, conflict, paradoxes and extremes – characteristics I associate with my home country, the United States.
Only during my first visit to Berlin in January 1989, did it became fully clear to me what the city of Berlin and the stigma of the wall really manifested.
I had flown into Berlin from Moscow shortly before the climax of the cold war. Until then, the Berlin wall had been for me something completely intangible -
something as equally and completely abstract as the “iron curtain” – which really didn’t hang anywhere.
But this wall did stand somewhere;and I stood in front of it and touched it, looked over it from the one side and “experienced” the verbal and visual petition visitors from the West side made the wall into; from the other side, I could merely gaze from afar at speechless gray concrete.
Perhaps for this reason I consider the Berlin wall still to be a perfect metaphor for the city itself. It symbolized not only so much of what has moved the world politically in the past century, but what still makes Berlin the most interesting city in Europe.
If you understand more about the Berlin wall and the special status the two Berlins had, you understand better what Berlin is today. From the very onset, the Berlin wall created a crucible of conflict which the Berliners and the many visitors to the city turned into a mission and a lifestyle.
The building of the wall created an unusual situation on both sides. In the East, there was nearly an elite selection of privileged inhabitants ranging from diplomats and politicians to “party approved” Joe-Proletariat. Along the wall, complete rows of houses were purged.
In the West, Berlin had become the scene of several youth subcultures: extreme leftists, pacifists and army dodgers, gays, lesbians, punkers, working class and foreigners.
Thus, West Berlin became the stage of many protests against the political separation of the two Germanys but also against the institutions of the West; Kreuzberg had been the scene of conflicts raging and often ending in riots.
After the fall of the wall, Berlin has become a myriad of East meets West, yuppie meets proletariat, Turk meets Serbo-Croatian, leftist youth meets neo-nazi, Russian restaurant owner meets Vietnamese cigarette trafficker.
Berlin is now a metropolis that is experiencing a kind of post-pubescent growth spurt; and I tell you, that means growing pains for all Berliners. Berlin Mitte, is at the time of writing (May 1999), a chaos of construction sites as the historical Potsdamer Square and the area around the Reichstag are being developed and city public transport is frantically trying to keep up with the growth of the infrastructure by laying more street car lines and refurbishing old ones.
In the past 6 months alone, the Berlin Public Transport Services (BVG) have connected the eastern boroughs and Alexander Square with expanded or redirected street car lines (Tram 15, 5). Just last month, the BVG introduced a special express bus service from Unter den Linden to the Airport Tegel (usually the port of entry from outside Germany).
Just a few minutes walk from the Brandenburger Gate and the Reichstag is stage of the largest construction site in Europe – Potsdamer Square. September 1998 saw the christening of the new subway station Mendelssohn-Bartholdy-Park, (U2 – the red line) and the opening of the largest movie theater complex in Berlin, Cinemaxx, with 15 screens (also with English language and French language films) and Imaxx with a spherical screen and a program of nature documentaries.
On April 19, 1999, following extensive restoration work, the German parliament reclaimed the Reichstag as the parliamentary building of a unified Germany.
The building, which had been destroyed in a fire during WWII, has now been completely restored and remodeled. Only the historical outer walls of the Reichstag remained intact and were “restored”. However, the entire interior has been fully remodeled in a, for some, shockingly modern style (or how would the politicians in your home country feel about purple leather seats in parliament?).
A new glass dome crowns the building and provides dramatic lighting. Unfortunately, the complete building after its official “housewarming session” was only open to the public from April 21-25. Only the glass dome will be open to visitors until September due to corrective construction measures.
What the wall gave Berlin on a personal level, the fall of the wall really could not take away completely. Although scenes of protest and rioting have mellowed in the past 10 years, Berlin is still a city of conflict and contrasts. West have “met” and are “mixing” but the heterogeneous character of the two sides remains apparent.
In future travel reports from Berlin, I hope to give readers a picture of the incredibly lively modern and youth – oriented character the city bears as well as good tips on the latest things to see and do.
More than anything, visitors to Berlin should use the opportunity to experience the one thing that motivated me to settle here: the fantastic chance to observe first hand how without an ideological barrier, East and West fuse, mix, collide and curdle.
Berlin Wall Tips
Definitely Do Not Miss:
(S1, S2, S25) /
U Bernauerstr. (U8) .
The Wall Memorial is, in my opinion, more representative and even more
impressive than the so-called “East Side Gallery”, a stretch of the wall left standing on the eastern bank of the river Spree separating Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain.
The latter project was a synthetically created display of artwork sprayed after the fall of the wall. However, it fails to create the same feeling of spontaneous protest and extreme emotion that characterized the wall from the western side.
The Wall Memorial is a cold, serious reminder of the isolation and desparation the wall created.
It consists of a reconstructed piece of wall with the exact dimensions laid between the western wall, no man’s land and the eastern wall.
Other wall tips:
Behind the Reichstag on the eastern bank of the Spree, a piece of the wall remains standing.
On the western side, a series of crosses stand in memory of those shot to death in an attempt to escape to the West.
Follow the red line where the wall ran along from Checkpoint Charlie to Potsdamer Square.
The best collection of Wall links: The House at the Bridge.
You can find a detailed interactive map of Berlin at this site
If you happen to be in Berlin on May 1st, do not be surprised if you are stopped by the police and asked to let them search you and your bags.
May 1st is International Labor Day and is historically marked by violent demonstrations. The main demonstration takes place on Oranienplatz in Kreuzberg.
Copyright Ã¯Â¿Â½ 1999
Kristen M. Reynolds
Press Card No. 036 197