Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Protesters have halted construction for now, but for many Berliners, it’s as if their worst nightmares are coming true.
It’s all happening so fast that locals can hardly believe it. In a move first announced publicly only on Thursday afternoon, Berlin developers attempted this morning to tear up and remove one of the last still-standing pieces of the Berlin Wall.
Part of an intact 1400-yard stretch flanking the eastern bank of Berlin’s River Spree, a 25-yard chunk has been abruptly slated for removal, despite being protected by national monument status. It’s being demolished primarily to create space for a Jenga-like 14-story luxury apartment block, going by the rather absurd name of Living Levels, as well as to provide better site access for the construction of a new footbridge. Taken by surprise by the short notice of the wall demolition, 400 protesters tried this morning to form a human chain preventing cranes getting near the threatened section, whose upper rim was already ripped off last night. The crew were successful in removing two slabs, but at 11:15 a.m. the demolition was called to a halt — it’s unsure for how long.
For outsiders, the demolition of one of Berlin history’s central shaping forces is perplexing, not least because this stretch of the old dividing rampart between East and West has found a new life since reunification. Known as the East Side Gallery, the wall has been transformed into a popular open-air street art exhibition that is now a major tourist attraction.
For many Berliners, it’s as if their worst nightmares are coming true. Following a wave of unpopular demolitions and evictions, there's a growing sense in the city that nothing, not even preserving one of 20th century Europe’s most historically significant structures, will be allowed to stand in the way of Berlin’s repurposing as a showcase for the wealthy. Protest has been vocal. Shocked by this cavalier attitude to the city’s history a commentator in the Berliner Zeitung asked this week: "Athenians also need money, but would they convert the Acropolis into a shopping mall and rip out a few ancient columns for truck access?"
This last section of wall, it should be admitted, is no Acropolis. It’s a low-ish, cheap-looking fence made out of concrete slabs (albeit one now covered with lively images), its former deadly purpose not cancelling out its visual banality. In a city that has largely swept away mementos of its period of division, however, it’s a vital reminder of the past, especially given how much of Berlin’s history has already been effaced by bombing.
It’s also become a flashpoint in a wider battle for the future of Berlin’s riverside. Snaking through the city from East to West, the River Spree’s banks have become a shabby but unique kind of playground since reunification. Initially packed with small businesses, bars and makeshift summer beach clubs nestled among old warehouses, the river’s banks are now being redeveloped with monumental office buildings and luxury apartments, as part of a mammoth project dubbed Mediaspree. The project has already met fierce resistance from activists, who believe the developments, dominated by a clutch of large investors, will exclude ordinary people from the riverside.
So far the Mediaspree project has gone on regardless, but partially demolishing the Wall may be a step too far. Destroying a historic landmark to build condos so encapsulates many Berliners' fears for their city in general that it can only galvanize resistance to redevelopment. Twenty-six years after President Reagan commanded Gorbachev to "tear down this wall" it might seem ironic that people are now fighting to preserve the last vestige of a once hated division. But perhaps more than any other nation, Germans are exceptionally conscious of the perils of effacing history, even if its memories are painful.