Diary of an Expat, Part 12
A city divided, 20 years on...
You may or may not know this, but for a couple of years in the 20th century Berlin was not actually one city, it was several. So you'd have East Berlin, and West Berlin, and they were separated eventually by a barricade (the so-called "Berlin Fence").

These days, Checkpoint Charlie is a tourist attraction and the signs of the Wall are relatively few and far between — if you're looking, you can find bits and pieces preserved here and there, but for the most part, in the twenty years since the Wall came down, Berlin has been hard at work pretending that it no longer really existed in the first place.

As it happens, I live, work, and run my errands entirely in what was old East Berlin; the redevelopment that marks a city so singlemindedly focused on its own urban renewal has meant that the same hip shops, same supermarkets, same sorts of restaurants can be found on both sides of the city. It would be easy enough to conclude that the people who wanted to erase the history of Cold War Berlin have largely succeeded.

This is not to say that there aren't geographical differences — neighborhood divisions predominate, and for example my neck of the woods has absolutely atrocious food. But for the most part, unless you knew exactly what you were looking for, a tourist is inclined to think the city, these days, is completely unified.

This is, I think, because we'd expect the trappings of communism — banks and government building still adorned with the hammer and sickle, for example, or statues of Lenin on every corner. These, of course, were purged almost immediately — simply because they were so visible. Most of the streets have given back the new names they adopted under the thumb of the DDR, the statues are gone, and... what remains?

Sometimes, it's relatively obvious. Either because they didn't have the money for such a grand reenvisioning or because they simply can't figure out what they'd do with it, Berliners have left alone the street known as Karl-Marx-Allee, which runs east from Alexanderplatz (near the famous television tower that makes every day in Berlin look like a cheap sci-fi movie).

The street is huge, a broad, grand, tree-lined avenue that was clearly intended to be a monumental piece of architecture for one of the crown jewels in a nascent European communist sphere. It was down this long, straight street that the DDR used to have their May Day parades, and even today the road is flanked by the stark lines of the demi-Bauhaus buildings widely erected as part of postwar reconstruction.

Earlier this week, I went looking for an Asian grocery store that came recommended by a coworker. This left us walking up along the liminal boundary between old East and West, and you come to realize that — along with all the modernist and Stalinist architecture, what still marks East Berlin is how much remains. West Berlin was much more aggressive about consuming its history, during the 40 years of division.

East Berlin, by contrast, still has large numbers of very old buildings — some, still, with scorch marks and fragments knocked off columns and facades. My apartment building, indeed, dates from the turn of the century — not this last one, but the one before that, when Germany was still an empire and stately courtyards were the order of the day.

Leaving the grocery store, we walked along a quiet street, lined with parks and older buildings, until we found our way back in a neon mess of bright lights and glowing storefronts — Friedrichstrasse, south of the old checkpoint and therefore in West Berlin. GDR authorities during the Cold War used the curious position of West Berlin — capitalist enclave in the middle of East Germany — to create a dazzling facade of consumption and commerce. This is what remains — not just at the Ku'damm, but all along what used to be the border.

Today Berlin exists in a state of curious tension. For obvious reasons, many of the people who lived in a divided city have no desire to dwell on the past — so the communist buildings have been coming down, replaced by the architectural visions of a western, capitalist perspective. These people have shed no tears for the old trappings of the DDR; more than a few, even, are willing to sneer at the aforementioned television tower, viewing it as a garish symbol of a defeated regime.

Younger folks, though, don't have these preconceptions. As I think I have mentioned before, there's a growing trend of what almost passes for nostalgia for old East Germany — much of the negativity has fallen away, and we are left with the quaint. Trabants, for example, or the cheery pedestrian crosswalk symbol, so unlike the stark silhouette favored by the Westerners. It is, almost, as though the DDR is being used as a stand-in for a humanistic, organic view of the world, opposed by the clinical, technophilic, relentless drive for progress and consumption exemplified by the west.

As for me, I don't know. I exert, of course, no claim on the city's history. But I do suspect that the separation runs deeper than the past; we will, in a few short years, have reached the point where more time has passed since the fall of the Wall than was spent with it up in the first place. But Berlin will still be subtly divided, I think, and a visitor leaving Schillingstrasse, looking east down Karl-Marx-Allee on a foggy fall morning, might be forgiven for misremembering the decade, and thinking himself in a time when East and West meant more than simple geography...
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