Berlin: A City In Flux 25 Years After the Fall of the Wall

Thursday, November 13, 2014
Erik Grell, op-ed for Durham Herald-Sun

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. In that time, Berlin has become a vibrant, cultural and political powerhouse, going through rigorous reconstruction while simultaneously incorporating the city’s dark history.

It’s been a tiresome, costly endeavor, but it makes for one of the most unique cities in the world: a place where the past and future meet in every Platz and subway stop, offering a fascinating narrative of redemption and renewal unlike any place else.

I first experienced Berlin in 1998 during a high school exchange program, almost a full decade after the fall of the Wall. The familiar landmarks of the city -- its iconic Brandenburg gate and futuristic TV Tower at Alexanderplatz -- were on display, but the rest of the city resembled a giant sandbox teeming with construction toys. The U.S. embassy would not open for another 10 years and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe right next to it another eight. It took four years to build the impressive Kanzleramt, Germany’s equivalent of the White House. When Germany hosted the World Cup in 2006, Berlin christened the glass-paned Hauptbahnhof, or Berlin Central Train Station, a remarkable testament to Berlin’s status at the crossroads of Europe.

Perhaps nowhere is Berlin’s desire to reconstruct itself new more evident than in Berlin’s official devotion to preserving art. The stunning Museum Island -- a complex to house five museums -- has been evolving since construction begin in the early 1990s, and it won’t be complete until at least 2017. The beloved Pergamon Altar, housed in its namesake museum on the island’s north end, closed to the public last month for at least half a decade. The massive facelift Athena will receive suggests that even Germany’s time-honored infatuation with Hellenistic culture shares in the Berliner spirit of restoration and revision.

Berlin’s makeover is perhaps most palpable in its burgeoning 3.5 million inhabitants, one million of whom do not check the “German” box when government agencies solicit their ethnicities. The neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, a hip Brooklyn-like Eastern enclave, is known for its stroller-jammed sidewalks and crowded playgrounds. In the South, the Tempelhof Airport, once used by the Nazis and later the site of the Berlin airlift, is now an open park, where kids “fly” on bicycles.

Turkish is heard more than German in neighborhoods such as Kreuzberg and Neukölln, and a trained ear will also hear plenty of Arabic, Vietnamese, Polish, Russian and English. The efforts by civil authorities to integrate all these new Berliners, Germans and non-Germans alike, is impressive. In June of this year, Berlin’s unemployment rate hit a 20-year low of 11 percent and foreigners continue to take advantage of the city’s federally subsidized integration courses.

Berlin, however, is not a dreamy utopia of techno music and multiethnic-identity. Despite all the strollers, the city and country are graying at an alarming rate. The failure of some immigrant groups to assimilate and a disturbing rise in anti-semitism feels precarious in this city, and Berlin is poorer than Hamburg, Düsseldorf and Frankfurt, cities that were privy to Western business investment during the Cold War. Then there’s the case of the Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport, a multi-billion dollar project suffering from a trifecta of incompetence, corruption and bureaucratic red tape. Originally slated to open in 2010, its runways might not see airplanes until 2019. The whole episode corroborates German publicist Karl Scheffler’s observation at the turn of the 20th century, “Berlin is a city condemned forever to becoming and never to being.”

I returned to Berlin this year with my family in tow, and though much has changed since 1989 and 1998, the construction cranes dotting the skyline are still here. My 2-year old daughter, like her German peers, will never experience this city as anything but a whole, sprawling metropolis, filled with parks and petting zoos, beer gardens and graffiti. The Berlin that will appear in our photo albums will be closer to the city Mark Twain described in 1892, when he remarked, “Berlin is the newest city I have come across.” And the city seems destined to remain that way for some time to come.

Note: This op-ed appeared originally in the Durham Herald-Sun on Nov. 13, 2014.

Erik Grell is Ph.D. candidate in the Carolina-Duke Graduate Program for German Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University.