In the traces of the Berlin Wall
From memories to makeover
The Berlin Wall came down on 9 November 1989. Now, thirty years on, only a few sections of the Wall are left, much of which, especially what’s known as the East Side Gallery and Mauerpark, is now used by graffiti sprayers and street artists for flamboyant self-expression. The former partition between East and West Berlin may not be physically present anymore, but the city is still divided by an invisible wall.
In November 2014, September 2015 and May 2018 we followed the traces of the Berlin Wall to discover various facets of the city. For it is precisely here, where the Wall once stood, that the city has undergone a sea change. The ultra-modern Potsdamer Platz business quarter was built on this no-man's-land, and development along the East Side Gallery and Mauerpark is destroying hotspots of counterculture that sprouted up here after the fall of the Wall, whilst new squats and public gardens are emerging on the deserted patches of land. What little is left of the Wall itself is jeopardized by investors, who have already demolished part of the East Side Gallery in March 2013 to make way for luxury housing. These property development projects have sparked a number of protests, which testify to the Wall’s enduring symbolic power and the divide between those who want to erase the past, the "Wall of Shame", to make way for modern highrises, and those who want to preserve it as a reminder – embellished by street artists – of a painful past and testimony to the alternative Berlin of the past thirty years.
A "Wall of Memory" to remember the past by
Place of 9 November 1989, Bornholmer Strasse
Photos on display at the “Square of 9 November 1989”, in front of a surviving segment of the Wall, show the first encounters between East and West Berliners on that fateful date. This is where the first East Berliners crossed over into West Berlin. On the evening of November 9, Günter Schabowski, a member of the SED Central Committee, announced on television that it was now possible to leave the country legally. Shortly afterwards, thousands of East Berliners thronged to the various border crossings. The Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint was the first to raise its barrier at 10.30pm that night.
Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall Memorial)
In 2014 Eva Söderman, spokeswoman for the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall Memorial), said the people of Berlin were eager to tear down the "Wall of Shame" as quickly as possible. Even creating the memorial took nearly fifteen years. To this day, many would still prefer no traces were left at all, let alone embellishing them as at the East Side Gallery. “The 25-year commemoration showed how much it’s still on people’s minds," explains Eva. "It's important to preserve what's left of the Wall so future generations can understand what happened."
Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall Memorial)
Not forgetting the Wall also means not forgetting all the people who died trying to get across it. They are commemorated by the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer as well as by white crosses in the ground at various sites along the former border.
Only a single section of the Wall is left here to suggest what the area looked like before it became a business centre. Potsdamer Platz was the largest no-man’s-land in the divided city.
The "Wall of Scars" has left its mark on the city
Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate)
The Wall has left plenty of traces, whether discreet or conspicuous, visible or invisible, in Berlin’s cityscape and the hearts of its inhabitants. One such visible trace is the famous little East Berlin traffic-light man, who eventually came to grace some West Berlin pedestrian crossings in the 2000s. But many people here feel that differences in mentality still exist between East and West Berliners. As one passer-by puts it, "The walls in many of our heads have yet to fall."
Park auf dem Nordbahnhof
The Wall was over 155 km long. The former “hinterland”, a wide, empty no-man’s-land between the two parallel walls, is still visible along its entire length, now fitted out with walking paths and lawns.
Abandoned train tracks, Nordbahnhof Park
An old railway bridge testifies to the former division. Nordbahnhof, a few hundred meters further on, was one of the ghost stations between East and West Berlin.
This no-man’s-land by a shipping canal is still visible.
The "Wall of Profit" is a tourist magnet
The Wall attracts mass tourism and, consequently, plenty of profiteers: hordes of tourists have their pictures taken with a fake American soldier for a couple of euros, especially at Checkpoint Charlie. This checkpoint has become iconic: it’s where the two superpowers, the Americans and the Soviets, faced off during the Cold War.
Buy a “piece of the Wall”
You can buy chunks of concrete touted as "pieces of the Wall" – but often as not, they’re forgeries – at many a souvenir shop in Berlin.
East Side Gallery, Mühlenstrasse
A souvenir shop at East Side Gallery, an over 1.3km section of the Wall embellished by street artists and now a Berlin tourist magnet.
The "Demolished Wall" attracts investors
Luxury housing complex, East Side Gallery
Various tracts of the former no-man’s-land that belonged to the city were sold to investors for the construction of offices and luxury housing. Other parts of the “Hinterland”, as the death strip is also called, are now fenced off and still unused, much to the delight of the local flora and fauna. And other construction projects have been started, but not completed, owing to neighbourhood disputes.The largest project of all, called Mediaspree, was built along the banks of Berlin’s Spree River. Big companies like Daimler-Benz and a shopping arcade are now sprawled out where the city’s counterculture once thrived. In 2014, part of the East Side Gallery was demolished to make way for a luxury apartment building between the Wall and the Spree.
Mediaspree Project, East Side Gallery
The cityscape has undergone a sea change, despite protests from residents: one building site after another has sprung up here since 2018. The luxury apartment building in back on the left-hand side is now completed.
EnergyForum, East Side Gallery
This office building allows for access to the river, which was a proviso for approval of the Mediaspree project. Unfortunately, however, some buildings did not abide by this requirement and have completely blocked public access to the Spree.
Building projects at Mauerpark
Mauerpark used to be part of the “hinterland” that divided the Prenzlauer Berg district in two. After residents turned it into a park, it became a symbol of reunification between East and West. Parts of it were sold off to build luxury housing.
The "Berliners’ Wall" repurposed for residents to use
A weekend in Mauerpark
After the fall of the Wall, Berliners promptly made use of the vacant land to develop neighbourhood life and bring residents from both sides of the city together. With an childlike creativity that may well be characteristic of Berliners, they built kindergartens, parks, educational farms, cultural exhibition sites cafés and facilities that look like something straight out of a fairy tale. Mauerpark has become a landmark, especially on account of its flea market and Sunday concerts.
A section of the Wall at Mauerpark
Line, a Swiss graffiti artist, 2014. This section of the Wall, used by local street artists, testifies to the residents’ ability to reappropriate their city and their history.
Osman Kalin’s house, Mariannenplatz
Osman Kalin, a Turkish gardener, built a hut here shortly before the Wall was torn down. He planted a vegetable garden at the foot of the Wall and later built his house here.
Teepeeland on the banks of the Spree
In spite of the Mediaspree project, some pre-existing loci of counterculture have endured and new ones have emerged. In 2014, a tent camp was pitched on a site by the river owned by the municipal authorities. Pigeon breeder Hussein welcomed us into his home in 2018.