Berlin rushing in where a wall has been
Story, art and photos by
(Note: In 2013, we celebrated this article's 20th anniversary with a Michael LaFond interview in Berlin.)
Berliners removed the Wall about three years ago, and in its place a striking variety of creative, small-scale projects have sprung up. The reclaiming of the "death strip" began directly after the opening of the border, led by artists, ecologists, teachers and other community activists. They call their efforts the Wall Park, and already this includes walking and bicycling paths, gardens, playgrounds, art festivals and other innovations.
The strip of land that divided the city was defortified, and is now mostly a free and open space 48 km. long and between 30 and 300m. wide. The strip runs across water, roads, train tracks and open fields. I rode my bike along the border area to see what was new.
While the Wall stood, Oberbaum Bridge was a controlled crossing for West Berliners wanting to get into East Berlin. One of the oldest bridges in the city, it is now open to pedestrians and bicycles and closed to everything else. Nearly 50 citizen groups intend to keep it that way. They defy certain politicians and planners who want to open the bridge to cars, completing an auto ring in the city's core. Neighborhood groups hold weekly protests, and sometimes occupy the bridge until removed by police. With the help of thousands of concerned people throughout the city, the neighborhood is continuing to fight auto development interests.
The now public Oberbaum bridge is auto-free, and the surrounding neighborhoods ensure it stays that way.
Across the Bridge, on the east bank, a one kilometer stretch of wall, covered with paint and graffiti and known as the East Side Gallery, runs along the river. Most of the space between the wall and the river is abandoned, except for close to one hundred trailers, buses, and tents. Many of these surround communal firepits, grills, tables and chairs. One camp keeps a small barnyard of animals, and flies a black pirate skull-and-bones flag. An older man came out to make sure that I wasn't taking any pictures. Many of these squatter communities prefer anonymity because of their unending fight with police and neo-Nazi skinheads.
A squatter community at Heinrich-Heine Square.
Berlin will again be the capital of Germany soon, and it is competing to host the Olympics, so the 100-odd squatter areas are causing some concern about how tourists see the city. After the wall fell, with increasing harassment in West Berlin, squatter activity shifted to vacant buildings and lots in the politically disorganized east. Many are still fighting for the right to stay, while others secured support from the city for self-help renovation projects.
Wall fragment at the Parliament of Trees (across from the National Parliament) reads:
"One can't make culture with politics, but perhaps politics with culture."
I rode past Checkpoint Charlie, the famous former border crossing. The market has exploited this scene for decades, and with cafés, souvenir stands, a border museum and guard tower, most tour buses eventually find their way here.
A few minutes down the bike-lane another stretch of wall borders the site of the Nazi-era Gestapo and S.S. headquarters. Today a museum and information center stand here, serving to remind visitors of the terror of fascism.
Workers modify pieces of the Berlin Wall for resale. Blocks of wall are spray-painted to look like graffiti, and then small pieces are hammered out.
I came across the remains of Potsdamer square, at one time the center of Berlin and the busiest downtown in Europe. Over the last couple of years a trailer community has squatted here. On weekends, the southern parts of these huge fields are occupied by the largest open air market in Berlin. Circuses and festivals that pass through the city often set up here.
Directly on the historic Potsdamer Square is a Bungee Jump. For 100 marks you can "jump for joy" from a crane 60 meters in the air. Near the bungee jump is the Wall Café. While your friends are jumping, you can enjoy a beer at a table surrounded by pieces of the Berlin Wall, and from one of these, for a nominal fee, you can hammer off your own small chunk.
"Project Wall Park, the green strip through Berlin", a project supported by the city's green league.
The city plans to replace all this with a large housing development. In this same area sits an odd mound: the remains of Hitler's war command bunker. Soon a "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe" will be built here, documenting the painful history of the Jewish populations of Berlin and the rest of Europe. The need for such a memorial is clear since violence and terror against immigrants and refugees is once again daily news in Germany.
A few hundred meters away, and also on the border, is the famous Brandenburger Gate, another major tourist attraction. Closed to all traffic for the last 30 years, it was opened to bicyclists and pedestrians after the removal of the wall. Despite protests, politicians recently opened the gate to buses and taxis, creating new traffic problems here.
After riding through the gate, avoiding collisions with tourists and taxis, I see the Reichstag, home to Germany's past and future parliaments. Still showing scars from the war, it sits in a government district preparing for heavy construction as the capital moves from Bonn to Berlin.
I follow the former wall to the Parliament of Trees, directly across the river from this national parliament building. Organized by the artist Ben Wargin, this powerful design combines hundreds of newly planted trees with tree stumps, earth mounds, and stone memorials.
Last month I visited Ben in his huge factory studio. A fit, bald, older man, he came riding up on his bicycle wearing blue overalls and a leather cap. I shared coffee and plums with his assistants while listening to their discussions. Ben shared how he envisions the planting of these trees as part of a larger Peace Forest -- millions of trees are being planted now in other projects between Berlin and Moscow. Ben and his friends plan to convert a nearby open-pit coal mine into a museum demonstrating how water, trees and human life are interconnected.
I asked Ben if he considered trees symbols of the relationships between the elements. Ben responded excitedly that trees aren't mere symbols, they are "even more important than you". Ben summed up, "We can't live without trees, while they can live without us. At the same time we can live without a Reichstag and most of our so-called progress and culture, but not without trees and water".
Near the Tree Parliament is a former border guard tower. German artists occupied this small concrete structure after the opening of the wall. For the last few weeks the tower and adjacent fields have been home to Mutoid Airport 92, a powerful program of anti-war political art using transformed military equipment. This is a publicly supported exhibition organized by the Mutoid Waste Company and the Spiral Tribe traveling art groups. I would later return for the evening show.
Leaving the guard tower and riding for 20 minutes along the border, I found the Wall Park in Prenzlauer Berg. East-side Berliners created this 20-acre park despite a battle with the Olympic planning committee. They succeeded through planting trees and flowers, organizing community festivals on the site, and camping in tents, wagons and temporary play structures.
I rode into Pankow to the Pinke-Panke Children's Farm, one of the happier spots along the border. I had been to Pinke-Panke before, on an icy, smoggy Sunday afternoon in January. A colorful gate welcomed me as I went inside to look around. I found probably 20 children, chickens clucking, a pig snorting and cats nosing about. The gardens were frozen over and covered with hay.
Pinke-panke, on the former border, is one of five innovative children-run farms in Berlin.
The main trailer, an old construction wagon, has a lively porch with rabbits and chickens underneath. I was invited in and offered tea and cookies. This central wagon serves as a kitchen, meeting room and storeroom. Two of the main organizers of the farm, Anett Rose Sorge,
"Rosie", and Christene told me about the history of the community, while children, visitors and animals wandered in and out. Besides the work she does with the farm, Rosie is also a council representative for the Bundis 90, an alternative, eastern German political party.
During the 80's, using their own resources, Rosie and others organized the "Playwagon Culture", playwagons on wheels, providing alternative play events and clay festivals for various housing projects. At that time they tried to organize a children's farm, but had no success until the wall came down. At that point the now legendary "Round Table" discussions took place. These discussions brought many different interests and parties together in a non-hierarchical way. The children's farm group won support for their project at the round table, but only after an intensive bureaucratic struggle in 1990 were they given use of some land. It was a small plot in almost hopeless condition; the organizers nearly did not accept it. But two years later the land is being restored using permaculture principles.
The Pinke-Panke organizers believe that a return to nature must begin with children. They want kids to have the opportunity for self-initiative, play, improvisation, adventure and hands-on learning. Children run the farm; adults are just partners and advisors.
The farm gets some support from the city, but Rosie still spends a lot of her time selling the idea to foundations and politicians. The farm has a small staff but relies on volunteers for its success. It even attracts foreign volunteers through workcamp exchange programs.
During my bikeride I joined a barnbuilding project for a couple of hours. There were nearly 50 people there, mostly children, including a group with disabilities. All were happy at work, using many natural materials in the construction of the small, traditional half-timber barn.
Pinke-panke Children's Farm is organized as one project of Play Area Pankow. Other projects include a neighborhood center, a permaculture program and brightly-covered playwagons. This is the only children's farm in former East Berlin, but one of five in the city. In their struggle to survive, a support network has developed among the various farms and playgrounds.
All alternative projects in the city are faced with rising costs and dwindling support, but on the East Side the people also have to deal with land ownership questions, some of which date back to the 1930's. The Pinke-Panke sits on land owned by an agency that is not ready to give it up. Nonetheless, the project proceeds.
Above, a festival at the Wall Park, Prenzlauer Berg. In the background is a mobile bicycle workshop for kids.
Below, Lydia's Wall Oasis, a snack stand run by a struggling east Berliner. Many living on the east side use nearby land in the former wall area to grow food. Former east Germans have not fared well in the unification.
I boarded the train with my bike to travel north. There were many others with bikes going out to the edges of Berlin to ride in the country. After getting off the train, I continued along the border. I saw small garden colonies, which are associations of people who rent or own small garden plots to work, relax, and sometimes live in. I found a small tent, some tables and a sign: Lydia's Wall Oasis. I stopped to take a closer look. Lydia looked at me suspiciously as I took photos of her business, but after ordering a beer and sitting at one of her two tables she seemed more comfortable with me.
Lydia went back to working in her garden, which is only a few feet away, but on what used to be the other side of the wall. I am left alone for a few moments with my beer, sitting in the shade of Lydia's awning, which on such a hot day really was something of an oasis in this border wasteland. She owns a cooler, an electric burner for boiling sausages, and a radio. On the tables are small, handmade cardboard signs asking visitors to please call if Lydia is in her garden. While I was there, a few others stopped to enjoy a drink and sausage.
Lydia is one of millions of individuals struggling to adapt to a competitive western culture. Some find success, a lot more experience frustration and failure, but many are extremely resourceful and creative. Most find the rapid changes more destabilizing than exciting; unemployment and explosive anger are on the rise. The West is increasingly indifferent to the plight of the East, burdened by its own problems.
Amidst these challenges, creative expression such as Pinke-Panke, the Parliament of Trees and that of the artists who took over the guard tower seems ever more precious. Later in the evening, I went back to the tower and the Mutoid Waste Airport 92 show.
A scrapped MIG fighter plane is positioned as if diving into the base of the tower. There are reworked tanks, planes, rockets and other unrecognizable but threatening structures scattered everywhere. There is music, food and drink. There are bonfires, costumed people juggling, eating and breathing fire. Some of the animalistic machines too are breathing or throwing fire, threatening the crowds. A few machines travel through the crowd, moving slowly, while others move quickly as if they might maim or kill.
A MIG fighter plane is suspended from a former wall guard tower as part of a wild art festival with an anti-war theme.
After a few hours, a fighter plane is towed slowly through the crowd. It is wildly painted, with wings on fire, and flames shooting out of its tail. Some are riding the plane, some flogging it with chains, while hundreds of others walk alongside or behind it in a large procession. Drummers beat out some frantic rhythms to accompany the hoard. The fighter plane comes to rest in front of a stage, to face the music.
Would these be the rituals of a post-militaristic culture? Can we work through the accumulated angst and horror of fighter planes, nuclear rockets, and military madness? The rituals are premature. Some are apparently not ready to retire the war machines, overlook national boundaries, and move on. But all the wars and walls have made the rest of us ready, and anxious, to rebuild our communities.