Unter and uber den Linden

28 10 2010

In May we took Manhattan. This week, we took Berlin.

When last I was here, I was about 12 years old and more interested in finding Toronto Blue Jays’ baseball games on Armed Forces Radio. Both I and the city are now very very different; I don’t care very much about baseball anymore, and there’s no more Armed Forces Radio, because Berlin is no longer an occupied and divided city.

Although Berlin was founded in 1689, much of what defines the city has happened in the past 70 years, through the rise of Adolf Hitler, to the destruction of much of the city during WWII, to its division by the Allies after the war that rendered half of the city a democratic island in the middle of communist East Germany, and then the destruction of that wall in 1989, leading to Germany’s reunification in 1990.

The Brandenburg Gate is all lit up for the last night of the Festival of Lights.

The wall may be gone, and the country whole again, but walking around the city and riding the U and S-bahns, it’s possible to see the scars of division.

There are many new buildings, gleaming office towers at Potzdamer Platz as corporations returned to the unified city and government buildings at the Reichstag when the city was restored as Germany’s capital. And the U-bahn and S-bahn lines are ever changing (the map in our guidebook, less than two years old, was woefully innacurate) as work continues to patch the gaps and inefficiencies wrought by division.

There is lots of new in Berlin.

As our apartment is only a block from the Ku-damn, Berlin’s busiest and most fashionable shopping street, we walked it alot, up and back towards the Zoo station area; it’s as busy and vibrant as ever, with designers like Gucci rubbing shoulders with Valentino, Prada, etc. It’s like the Champs Elysée in Paris of Fifth Avenue in New York; if you’re to be taken seriously as a fashionable retailer, you have to have an address on the Ku-damn.

But ride the trains to Berlin’s other fashionable street, the Unter den Linden, which used to stretch into the heart of the East from Brandenberg Gate, and the experience is quite different. There are lots of people on the sidewalk and in the boulevard, but the street is shouldered by massive blocks of big square buildings, the pride of Soviet-era architecture. The designers are there, as is Mercedes and Skoda, but so is Aeroflot. Yet it somehow feels soulless, stark, cold.

It’s the same at Alexanderplatz, which used to be another gathering place for East Berliners. There’s hardly any greenery to be seen anywhere, a few scattered trees, no planters or shrubbery. The buidlings that surround the vast expanse of concrete are big, square edifices. It’s odd, or ironic, that they now house fashionable, bustling department stores like C&A and Galeria Kaufhof.

Our first stop as tourists this week was the Checkpoint Charlie museum, located at the small border crossing point from West to East Berlin that could be used by Americans and became a kind of symbol for the Cold War.

A relic of divided Berlin frames a symbol of the new Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie.

When I visited Berlin as a kid, we went there to look at it from afar, watched the soldiers pace back and forth, the gate occasionally rising to let a vehicle through to the expansive wasteland beyond, rippled with barbed wire, watchtowers and then, just beyond the wall, desolate, forlorn, drab buildings and shells of buildings. Today, the street leading up to Checkpoint Charlie is lined with street vendors hawking Soviet Union flags, Soviet army caps and rat hats. A couple of entrepeneurs dressed as US soldiers will pose for photos with tourists for a few Euros. And just beyond the old wooden sign that warned westerners they were now leaving the comfort of their world for the untold mysteries and horrors of the East, a giant billboard for the latest model of BMW sports car is plastered on the side of a building from top to bottom.

The museum itself is a bit of a relic, a cluttered warren of little rooms filled with photos, trinkets and stories about the construction of the wall, and the many attempts by brave and desperate individuals to breach it to find freedom, reunite families, even just get to their job. It’s moving to read about the steely determination of Berliners to keep their city whole as best they could despite the divisive wall.

Just down the street from the museum, along what used to be the actual wall, is a section of that wall, preserved so that future generations will never again allow such a structure to be built. It’s hacked through in places, exposing rebar and more fencing beyond, as the road on the other side is repaved to withstand all the traffice. The top is lined with smooth piping, which made it impossible for possible escapees to fasten anything to the wall, or grab a handhold. Above it from the eastern side loom more of those big concrete block edifices that Soviet architects so loved to build. Across the street, more hucksters selling rat hats. More than 20 years since it fell, the wall has become a bit of a circus sideshow.

Soviet-era edifices loom over a preserved section of the wall.