Once a borderline...
Even after all these years, the Berlin Wall is still much more than a border between East and West. It’s a symbol of encirclement, acrimonious isolation and seclusion. Between August 1961 and November 1989, West Berlin was mercilessly cut off from the rest of West Germany by 156 kilometres of fencing and concrete. 43.1 kilometres of concrete carved through the city from north to south to form an insurmountable boundary, sometimes in the middle of the road, creating an East and West that could scarcely have been more disparate.
From one day to the next, on 13 August 1961 at 1 o’clock in the morn-ing, everyday life changed for the city of Berlin and its inhabitants. Tens of thousands of families were ruthlessly ripped apart by a wall. Friendships were shattered, neighbourhoods dismantled. For 28 years, two months and 28 days, the wall slashed Berlin into two opposing international hemispheres, like a scream from the Cold War immortalised in masonry. Then came 9 November 1989, by which time at least 138 people who had tried to get over the wall had already lost their lives in the attempt.
Just a street, but ne'er the twain shall meet
Running along the border – between the Berlin districts of Wedding (pronounced ‘Vedding’), Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte (Berlin Central) – was a street called Bernauer Strasse. This was the dividing line between the French Sector and the Soviet Sector and it became one of the Berlin flashpoints of divided post-war Germany. Watching the wall go up and witnessing its consequences was a harrowing experience for Berliners. The border in Bernauer Strasse was actually drawn along the façade of the houses stand-ing in the East. Within weeks of the Wall going up, the occupants of these houses were forcibly evicted to be resettled in a different area and the windows and doors were bricked up. Later, the houses were razed to the ground or the explosives experts came in and the GDR regime built border installations, fixtures that reflected the absolute ruthlessness of a border system that didn’t even spare a cemetery belonging to the Protestant Parish of Sophia.
The tranche of borderland in Bernauer Strasse measured 40 metres, but it felt infinite. The barbed wire fence traipsed over the concrete walls stood 3.5 metres high, complete with separation devices, patrol routes, control towers, sensors on fences, and a posterior wall. But the wall towered endlessly. The discomforting impact of all of this on the neighbourhood in the East and the West – in this case to the north and south of Bernauer Strasse – was also never-ending. The anguish could not have been more acute for homeowners and people living in the East, in the Soviet Sector. They had been robbed of their properties and chased from their homes, with little hope of ever ‘coming home’ again. Unfortunately, this is still the case today because even after the Wall came down and the German Wende (The Change, or turning point) in 1989/1990, the land that had once belonged to the GDR was returned to the Federal Republic of Germany. The government refused to hand back 750 of these plots of land to their former owners. Then in November 2013, the European Court of Justice finally dismissed any right of the desperate claimants to have their homes and properties back. Yes, they can buy their land back for 20 per cent of the current market value. But no: no restitution. Just an entitlement to a pay out of 75 per cent of the market value. Some of the compulsorily expropriated owners did reluctantly buy back their properties, but this was more out of concession, in memory of the families.
No mercy for trade and commerce
The Berlin Wall also sounded a death knell for a vibrant community to the north of Bernauer Strasse in the French Sector. Important arteries of commerce were severed and the entire district of Wedding, still such a lively neighbourhood, was suddenly out on a limb. Travelling to Prenzlauer Berg or Berlin Mitte was simply impossible now – everything was sectioned off. Trade and commerce simply stood still, without any customers. Manufacturing companies like AEG, Siemens, Schwarzkopf or major retailers like Hertie and co. gradually gave up their business premises and wandered off to West Germany.
And the people? They had been building a housing estate in the West near Bernauer Strasse even before the Berlin Wall was erected. A 1950s settlement called the Ernst Reuter Siedlung, this was going to become a totally new kind of urban district to reflect the spirit of reconstruction and of course the rivalry between two systems. It was also a symbol of an unflinching belief in the ‘reality of a divided city’. The estate and the Hansa district near the zoo (Tiergarten) were considered exemplary projects of West Berlin. The aim of both was to provide a contrast to the East Berlin Redevelopment Programme on Stalinallee.
Woes in Wedding
But the erection of the Berlin Wall changed everything. Trade, commerce and industry turned their back on the district and it was clear that at some point the people would also follow. A spectre returned of the destitute and decrepit Wedding of the 1920s. Without further ado, the West Berlin Sen-ate declared the trapped area between Bernauer Strasse and the suburban railway (S-Bahn) a redevelopment area and it soon became the biggest of its kind in the whole of Europe. Between 1963 and 1966, academics and scientists from 11 German technical colleges and universities reflected on, planned and debated specifically how Wedding should be redeveloped. Then in 1966, it was finally agreed what the area along the northern edge of Bernauer Strasse should look like, and that is how things stand today. In tangible terms, this meant tearing down up to 95% of the buildings. The redevelopment plan was based on principles of ‘reduced density’, a ‘reduction in buildings’, ‘open areas’ and ‘green areas’. The implication of this was that the population density would have to go down. As a result, many of locals simply walked away from their familiar surroundings and went northwards to a new district called Märkisches Viertel.
Still intact, just less uniform
Many parts of Wedding and the Gesundbrunnen district are still intact as a neighbourhood, but uniformity has suffered more and more over the years, especially after reunification. Both districts were tantamount to an inseparable entity until administrative reforms were passed in 2001. The proportion of foreign nationals now living in Wedding stands at 30 per cent and 48.3 per cent of residents are from a migratory background. Most migrants are from Turkey, the former Soviet Union, Poland or the Balkan states.
The much reviled wall in Bernauer Strasse was torn down in 1990 in less than four months but it was not until 2005 that the senate finally brought itself to draft a reconstruction plan for the area. And it was not until 2010, with the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Wall looming large and public pressure mounting, that it was agreed to keep the area clear for a memorial to the Berlin Wall. It was also agreed what constituted ‘suitable use of the memorial’: the inner section should have two areas for building properties for residential use. And again, everything revolved around land rights: “If the government wishes to put land to important public use...”, it could reject a sell-back to the former owners of the land in Bernauer Strasse. That was in the Berlin Wall statutes. So that’s what happened.
Memorial permitted, housing not?
At one point it looked like any ‘interesting’ forms of public life would be banished once again from the former borderland and everything would return to drabness. The Berlin War memorial should take priority – providing that the land where the border installations had been removed not be used to build housing. The talk was of ‘cautiously constructed supplements to the neighbouring areas’ so a ‘memorial landscape’ could be created without the involvement of owners, because the senate was only basically interested in the land. The Berlin Wall Foundation acquired dozens of plots of land for €12 million with backing from public and private donors to ensure that the area would remain accessible to the general public and could form part of the Berlin Wall exhibition. Only three owners refused to comply.
Residents return to Bernauer Straße
It is almost a miracle that housing is back again to the east of Bernauer Strasse. A chapel has been rebuilt for the Church of Reconciliation (the old church was also dynamited by the GDR in January 1985), and looking at the so-called Ostseeviertel, which extends towards Schönhauser Allee and now features new houses and refurbished buildings from the late 19th century, this is almost an idyllic urban setting. A stroke of luck, indeed a godsend for Bernauer Strasse, is a project affecting the land down the back of 53 Strelitzer Strasse and 5-8 Bernauer Strasse. This is where border soldiers used to exercise their guard dogs.
The developers had the courage to draft a concept for this area to the south of Postenweg to develop 16 terraced houses, on heritable leasehold, in keeping with tight building regulations. The development stands directly next to the memorial and the Chapel of Reconciliation, taking into account footpaths along Postenweg and the general character and feel of the area. In 2009 it was awarded the Berlin Prize for Architecture.
The renovated houses are beautiful. Many of them are expensive and many of them are now occupied by the well-heeled, who know little of the times when the wall was built or even the GDR, and in many other respects are a different breed of people compared to the residents on the ‘other’ side of Bernauer Strasse. On one side there is Wedding and Gesundbrunnen with migrants on low incomes, on the other in the East there are academics with university degrees, people who have moved in from West Germany or other parts of the EU. So even today, the Wall is a reflection of the trials and tribulations of a street. And: the long-term residents still tend to talk about ‘drüben’ – over there – when referring to the other side of the street.
Nonetheless, there’s something new about Bernauer Strasse; life is completely different now, on both sides. Fittingly, symbolically, there is simple soil along the border to the East next to the Chapel of Reconciliation. A field of rye has been growing there since 2010. And every September after harvesting, the seeds are shipped off to other states of Germany. As ingredients, for bread of peace.