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The Wall is Not Flat: deconstructing the East Side Gallery debate

Posted by Natalie in Society - 13 March 2013

Photo via The Local

It all started with a picture. A bright white building soaring countless storeys from the drab riverside below, its sides aglow like a spacecraft coming into land. The hypnotic structure, with its inexplicable incandescence set in stark contrast to the darkness of the surrounding city, was nothing if not daring. At this stage, it’s only an architects’ impression, but the headline below foretold every neophobe’s nightmare: Berlin Wall to be torn down for luxury flats.

Though the plans had been public for some time, a canny editor somewhere reignited the story with impeccable timing, “breaking” the news on a grey Wednesday in late February, as the city’s arduous winter continued its oppressive regime. Berlin’s blogosphere immediately set the well-rehearsed wheels of petition and protest in motion, but construction work started the very next day, causing an already exasperated opposition to balk in horror.

Berlin means something different to each and every one of its three and a half million residents. To some, it’s an affordable playground of hedonism. To others, it’s the setting for a bitter battle of split cultural identities and torn loyalties. To many, it is simply home. To me, and probably countless others, Berlin continues to uphold the illusion that some things really do last forever. Ironically, it is because the city is changing so quickly that time appears to stand still. It’s as if the fact that we’re all moving together somehow negates the passage of time; like a jet hurtling towards earth, its passengers floating weightless in zero gravity.

“I can’t understand how destroying something so integral to the city can be justified. It almost seems like a work of evil,” tweeted one angry resident in response to the news. “It’s the best place for me to come and have any sort of an inkling of what it must have been like to live in a divided city. If this goes, then that opportunity goes too,” a Spanish tourist told the Guardian.

And it was not just a crumbling piece of the Wall under threat, it was Berlin’s longest remaining stretch, named the East Side Gallery for its colourful murals by international artists. The juggernaut of disapproval continued to gain seemingly unstoppable momentum, with around 600 protesters turning up at 9am on the Friday to form a human chain, which–although predicted and intercepted by Police, who arrived hours before–succeeded in disrupting the Wall’s removal. By the Sunday, thousands of impassioned demonstrators descended on the site, forcing the developers to call a temporary hiatus until mid-March.

Though the fiasco attracted attention from local, national and international media, the underlying narrative is already old news to the city’s long- and medium-term residents. Since the first time the Wall fell at the end of 1989, those mysterious, complex forces of globalisation and gentrification have been attempting to drag Berlin, kicking and screaming, up to speed with its contemporaries.

During the early 90s, expensive cars were routinely set alight by anarchist groups in a violent socio-political struggle whose symbolism retains its potency to this day. In 2011, the problem of car torching flared up again, with around 400 cases over the course of the year, proving that opposition to gentrification still burns strong. Indeed, for those neighbourhoods currently going through the painful metamorphosis, the writing is on the wall. Between self-consciously shabby bars and calculatedly cool cafes, the streets of southeastern districts Kreuzberg and Neukölln are ridden with rough graffiti inciting residents to “kill your landlord,” and “yuppies” and “tourists” to “fuck off.”

Every time an old building is destroyed or a new one erected; for every venue that is forced to close to make way for whatever is to replace it, there is a protest–online, in person, and usually both. Although demonstrations are predominantly peaceful, these confrontations represent a deep ideological divide between those implementing changes and those opposed to them.

“Emotions were running high, facts were scarce” reported Berlin podcasters Maedels with a Microphone in their coverage of the East Side Gallery protests. “It’s not as if they’re moving it for for us, the citizens. It just shows that they’re selling out Berlin, no matter what,” one protester told them. “Messing with history makes it inauthentic,” said another.

In this factual vacuum, exacerbated by many media reports, most demonstrators remained unaware that a 22 metre section of the (already gappy) 1300 metre stretch of the Wall is planned to be removed, and that the piece is going to be moved, intact, only a few feet from its current location; that the work is mainly to make way for a foot and cycle bridge, and that this bridge, the Brommybrücke, actually predates the Wall, the original having been destroyed in WWII. Few thought to cast their mind back a couple of years and consider that the East Side Gallery, adorned with art and scrawls in those blissful early days of freedom, had its “authentic” history effectively wiped out when local authorities decided to paint it white and start from scratch in 2009.

By the time work started, it was far too late for constructive discussions and reasoning. Protesters felt, and openly said, that they believed this was a trick; that “they”–some obscure but omnipotent forces–had kept it quiet until the last minute to prevent protests. Basically, people acted exactly as humans tend to when faced with shock: emotionally.

Berlin is clearly anomalous, having taken lessons not only from its own heart-wrenching history but also from that of its European neighbours, to whose generic modern narratives it refuses to conform. Sometimes protests fail, sometimes they succeed, and compromises are often reached, yet what remains constant is this emotion and ideological violence that ends up reducing a complex set of interrelated issues and agendas into an irrational and one-dimensional story.

Maik Uwe Hinkel, CEO and owner of Living Bauhaus, the company behind the planned high-rise, called Living Levels, stated that “contrary to what has appeared in the media, our project does not interrupt the East Side Gallery.” The company has held planning permission since 2008 and made no attempt to keep their plans for the site secret. The removal of the Wall “has nothing to do with to do our building, but is a requirement of the district,” said Hinkel. Living Bauhaus is quick to point out that Mr. Hinkel had already been involved in roundtable talks earlier in the year to consult with various groups about his project’s impact.

This much is true. The roundtable they refer to is an initiative called Forum StadtSpree, and is organised by the Stiftung Zukunft Berlin (Berlin Future Foundation), an independent platform for civic responsibility. Starting out as an association in 1993 and operating as a foundation since 2008, the Stiftung Zukunft has, for the past year or so, been working to address the city’s problems of urban regeneration by ensuring that conversations between all stakeholders–politicians, developers, local businesses and citizens–happen, and that decisions about Berlin’s future are made jointly.

“Our main question is where the city should be in 20 to 30 years. What are the strengths we can depend on, what are the challenges, and how can we turn them into assets?” explained Anett Szabó, a project manager at Stiftung Zukunft Berlin. We meet in a serene office near upscale Tiergarten, the walls crowded with the art collection of one of the founders. “Berlin, as any other urban society, is made up of people with a variety of interests. What hardly ever happens, is that these people sit together in the same room and talk about not only what is good for them as individuals but also for Berlin as a city.”

The area between Jannowitzbrücke and Schillingbrücke has long been earmarked for development, with the instigation of the MediaSpree investment project dating back to the 1990s. As plans start becoming a reality, with the closure of institutions like Bar 25 in 2010 and the threatened closure of other long-standing venues such as Yaam, Forum StadtSpree held its first meeting on 30th January this year, and not a moment too soon.

The series of three roundtable events involves Berlin’s senator for urban development Michael Müller, Mitte mayor franz Schulz and Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg mayor Christian Hanke, Mr Hinkel of Living Bauhaus, along with around 40 other interested parties from a cross section of society, including ecologists, waste authorities and organisations and companies such as the Deutsches Architektur Zentrum, the University of Art, and former Bar 25 owners Katerholzig–who also have popular plans to develop another Spreeside plot into a cultural venue called Holzmarkt.

“During the first discussion, we tried to work out how to bring this all together,” said Szabó. She admits that for the East Side Gallery debate the conversation may have begun too late. Yet the date in mid-March everyone is holding their breath for is actually the 18th, and refers to the second installment of the Forum StadtSpree. “The events of the past few days are proof that this process is necessary and helpful.” Though initially time consuming, the procedure could save time and money in the long run if it helps prevent protests and delays that currently characterise Berlin’s development discourse.

While the Stiftung Zukunft represents the people of Berlin, and brings together interested parties, the discussions are independently moderated. On the 18th March, the plan is to hammer out over several hours questions like “What are the main aims of the area? Is it predominantly industrial, cultural, residential…? Everything will be put on the table and we will work out, plot by plot, what is important for Berlin.” Keeping the big picture in sight is no mean feat when you have over 40 separate, and often opposing, opinions.

Recognising the importance of structures such as the East Side Gallery and what it means to generations of locals and tourists as a moving memorial to significant historical events, whilst looking to the future and embracing change, is an incredibly fine balancing act. And while the Stiftung Zukunft’s initiative is still in its infancy and may stumble along the way, it is still leaps beyond anything that’s existed in Berlin before.

Whether Forum StadtSpree can affect what happens to the East Side Gallery remains to be seen, but as Szabó points out, “it’s the process that is most important. Even someone who is against the final decision might find peace with it if he has been consulted, listened to and informed, rather than merely appeased and talked at. If people have to gather and shout and confront the police, that’s a sure sign that the discussion has gone wrong, whatever the result. Berlin belongs to all of us, and we should all be able to decide what its future looks like.”

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