Oh, East is East, and West is West,
and never the twain shall meet
There are plenty of cities with dramatic fate. Detroit suffered the half-decay period and was beautifully portrayed by Jim Jarmusch. Dresden was almost totally demolished during WWII. Berlin is also one of those, and its drama is enhanced with its capital status and relative freshness of scars.
Centuries before Western Europeans considered Berlin to be the outskirts of Europe. And even now one from Holland or UK would appreciate international Frankfurt or vigorous Munich, while German capital would be just paid hommage to. But even this is not the core of Berlin’s nowadays drama.
Versatility would be the best word to convey the appeal of contemporary Berlin. When I arrived to Berlin for the first time I was in tender age of reason. I hardly remember that voyage, but some images, pictures are safely kept in memory. Especially the very first impression. My hotel was surrounded by townhouses and thorough blooming gardens. I didn’t know the word yet and decided to call them “datcha cottages”. Somehow I got the idea that this is what should be called “burgherous”. It took next several trips to Europe to understand that Europe mostly consists of this type of disctrict. And it took next several trips to Berlin to discern West Berlin behind these “burgherous blocks”.
29 years ago the Berlin wall was demolished after almost the same period of existence, 28 years. A quarter and something of a century is not certainly enough for the Wall to become a thing of the past. Moreover, its impact, its spirit is still alive in some areas, even though citizens would prefer to forget it forever. The line of the wall is marked on the ground with the double stone line. And this scar both adorns the face of Berlin and makes its soul ugly. It will take a long, long time to skin over.
As an aftereffect, Berlin lacks the Old City. Historical center is essential for almost any European city. Sometime it is a nightmare for citizens, but at the same time it attracts most of the travellers.
Berlin doesn’t have a formal historical center or even any single center. Several central districts are spanned over kilometres, from Charlottenburg through Mitte to Friedrichshain, from Prenzlauer Berg to Tempelhof. After hours of walking or bikeriding you can easily find out that the outskirts haven’t even started yet!
Berlin spent only several years in two-cities-in-one mode, but it was enough to change the development tendencies. Arterial streets and central destinations, meeting points and jumping-off places emerged spontaneously in each half of the city. People beated their habitual paths. East Berlin government stated Alexanderplatz and pompous Karl-Marx-Allee as an undoubtful dominant of Eastern Berlin. West had nothing to do but cluster together around capitalist heaven of Kudamm, nearby Zoo and Tiergarten. Ironically, Eastern propaganda blamed West exactly for this craving for consumerism.
The wall was accompanied by vacuum space. As urbanists always point out, any irresisctable barrier would definitely result in the darkest, dirtiest and deserted zones. Those who live in Russia can easily check it looking through the window; there are fences of all types plunging into the garbage, railways that suddenly slip the district, dead end of the street with the concrete factory wall. Nobody wants to walk there. Nobody would spend nice spring evening strolling along the railway or iron garages. Or along the blind wall.
Walking along the wall from the DDR side was prohibited. From the BDR side, the wall was visited only by brave and crazy people. The line, the border passed along and across the streets and even houses which resulted in numerous blind alleys. Also, nobody was eager to settle in frontier dwelling. Few of them included Axel Springer, well-known German publisher and mediatycoon.
He moved his headquarters from Hamburg to Western Berlin and built a tower right near to the wall, in defiance of all written and unwritten rules. He was brave and witty enough to launch a crawl line on the top of his tower. The line was clearly visible from the East, and Eastern people could read Western news. Of course, DDR government didn’t hail the Springer’s. They even launched a series with Springer as a main character. According to the plot, German publisher together with Israel ambassador secretly developed a secret plan to secretly struggle against communism.
Each part of Berlin got its own center. Most guidebooks mark a conventional zone amidst the geographical point with radiating avenues. It embraces most prominent squares, such as Alexanderplatz and Potsdamer Platz. Yet, the latter is a brilliant example of how the city can heal its old wounds. Sony Center which bursted out on the suffered square looks like the branch of New York. There’s not an inch of room during warm evenings, and it’s hard to believe that not so long ago there was a waste, ruined ground, sawed up with dead wall.
Even for Germans the name of Kurfürstendamm is too long. Kudamm (as Berliners tenderly call the street) starts from the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. From the first sight it looks like being reconstructed. But you come back several years after, and then again, and it is still under reconstruction. Actually it is not. It is just a new look of the church. It has become a symbol of defeat and restoration, old and new. The building itself was destoyed during WWII, and the city had to choose whether to demolish it or make it over. Citizens decided to keep the ruins and complete them with new parts. The result looks strange, outrageous, illogical, inharmonious, even ugly in some sense. But ultimately symbolic.
War echo fades away in the West. Charlottenburg palace and park seem to skip all the cataclysms of the 20th century, they were too busy with their own baroque business. It happened just by chance, and other Western blocks were not so lucky. By the same chance they got an opportunity to recover rapidly, and the Wall had less impact on them.
On the contrary, contemporary appearance of (Eastern) Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg districts was predicted by the war and postwar periods. They illustrate how politics can influence on the city’s fate. The history of Karl-Marx-Allee tells a tale.
Moscow residents would feel on Karl-Marx-Allee like home. Avenue of great width, buildings of dear socialist classicism, Moscow restaurant and its twin International cinema… After huge reconstruction these destination evokes dreams of communism bright future. But before this part of the city had been totally demolished in fights. Thousands of people were found dead, buildings were ruined… It was impossible to leave the place alone. Government decided to build something there, something glorious and Soviet. The result still impresses locals and guests. And to be honest, demand for the apartments in these buildings is huge.
After the WWII Berlin was boyishly divided between the winners. Practically, it means that people from neighbouring streets lived in different countries. In Russian this statement sounds nonsense. The same in English. Maybe it sounds better in German? They might have somehow explained the paradox to themselves!
You leave your home in DDR, visit the local food store, don’t find anything eatable and go to your friend in BDR. It’s crazy! Actually, the Wall appeared as such a natural concept. The wall between the states inside the capital!
According to statistics, about 30 thousands people hadn’t come back from the West before wall was raised. The wall run through friendships, families, businesses. And nobody chose it for his or her conviction. West or East, people just tried to live in their survived haunts.
30 years fast forward, and the wall was demolished. There were a lot of people who remembered old Berlin. There were a lot of people who immediately run for better life. Eastern part of the city became deserted, immediately. People escaped from Eastern districts of the capital to the godforsaken corners if only to be in the West. Nobody knew how long would it take to clear things up in Berlin. Nobody knew if government was going to create a new fence. People just wanted to live, there and then.
Friedrichshain became totally empty. Prenzlauer Berg. And even Kreuzberg (technically it was Western but too close to the Wall).
How long can central districts of the capital remain empty? People arrived from the outskirts, other towns, other countries and continents. They were writers, designers, artists, musicians and actors. They captured former factories and dwellings, established galleries, clubs and senseless drunken feast. Migrants joined them on the quiet. It was a celebration of total freedom.
In a while city management understood that they had to take the process over. They reduced rental prices, made police inspections, and put everything on order. Order – as only German can understand the word.
That is what defines Eastern districts by the moment. Warschauer Straße is still a hub of endless street parties, concerts and feasts. Kastanienallee offers you the most attractive boutiques and stalls of local designers. Mauerpark is a place of the best flea market on Sundays. In Kreuzberg, Turkish diaspora runs the show. From time to time residents of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg fight on the Oberbaumbrucke, but on the 1st of May they stand together against the police. All these are old-time traditions of Eastern Berlin.
As an elder city of Germany, Berlin will be in charge for the bygone offences of the whole country. Young generations didn’t see those two awful wars with their own eyes. God be thanked. They would learn all the stories from the scars and bruises of their city. They will breath the history in together with fresh, mild and freed air of the capital. The capital that is soothed now but remembers its own dramatic fate. They are not the first and won’t be the last.