Tales of the (still) divided city

The building of the Berlin Wall began 50 years ago this month and there is almost as many events commemorating that event as there were for the anniversary of the fall of the Wall.

I know that many books have been written about Berlin and I certainly don’t claim to be an expert but having lived here now for almost three years, I definitely have an opinion about this strange yet wonderful city!

I left Germany in 1988 to live in London and so missed the fall of the wall as well as the subsequent unification of my home country. My home city of Düsseldorf is anyway so far west that I never really felt the division of Germany as keenly as those living further east. We had no relatives in East Germany either and so it all seemed fairly abstract to me. I only ever visited Berlin once on a school trip while it was still divided but at 15 or 16 we didn’t care much for the politics but more for the shops on the Kudamm, West Berlin’s major shopping street. A day trip to East Berlin was duly organised but apart from the fear of the border guards at Friedrichstrasse, my overwhelming memory of that day is one of boredom. There seemed to be no people about, everything looked grey, the museums were so cheap that they didn’t make a dent in the amount of money we had been forced to exchange and there was nowhere to eat or shop.

How different East Berlin is now, more than 20 years after the fall of the wall, and yet…there is definitely still a sense of two very different halves of the city and as in many other metropolitan centres, people do tend to stick to the neighbourhoods that they live in. I moved to the southern border of Pankow, close to Prenzlauer Berg, an area most visitors are pretty familiar with and the one most quickly developed in the early 1990s. The turn of the century houses have been lovingly restored and although there is much resentment about rising rents and “Wessies” moving in, the area has a cosmopolitan feel and its many restaurants and cafes invite you to stay.

My daily commute takes me to the far southwest of Berlin and so I travel through the former West every day but I rarely get off and explore, I’m ashamed to say. Whenever I do, I feel hassled and rushed – the western centre around the Zoo feels like any other big city in Western Europe, loud, dirty and full of cars and buses. The East on the other hand has trams which make the wide city streets seem smaller than they actually are and somehow it just seems quieter and easier to manoeuvre, at least to me. Most of the eastern streets are still lined with decorative turn of the century apartment blocks, fewer 60s architectural atrocities at least in the central districts, in the outlying eastern districts one can find huge swathes of council estates built by the East German state.

Recently I walked around the area of Schönhauser Allee with a local photography teacher who has lived in the area all his life and he pointed out many historic markers that are slowly disappearing such as the WWII bullet holes in house, walls and pavements – the front was fiercely fought over between the remnants of the Wehrmacht and the approaching Red Army. He also showed us the former line of the wall which was so close to residential areas that these were closed off and only accessible with special passes, something I can barely imagine!

I thought long and hard about how to illustrate this blog and have decided on the photographs by Udo Hesse and Hans W. Mende, both represented by akg-images and both photographing in Berlin in the 1980s, East and West respectively.

At work, my colleagues from the former east also live in the east part of the city and vice versa, even friends who moved to Berlin from West Germany fall into those categories. One older lady I had met, sighed as we crossed one of the bridges east (incidentally the one Chancellor Merkel crossed to go west) that used to form part of the border: “finally we are back home”, a sentiment that really says it all!

P.S. I recently had a friend over from London and we happened to be on a bus from Schöneberg in West Berlin back to Alexanderplatz on a Friday night. Crossing the invisible border between East and West it seemed as if someone had switched off the lights, the east part of the city was so much darker than its western counterpart, it was quite eerie!