German soldiers set up tents and beds for migrants in a hangar of the former Tempelhof Airport in Berlin on October 25, 2015. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Once the site of an epic postwar international aid mission for Germans, the former Tempelhof Airport will now return the favor.

When Germany’s Nazi government built Tempelhof Airport in 1930s Berlin, it probably didn’t expect that the site would one day become a refugee camp. Since this Monday, however, European migrants have been slowly moving into the former airport to sleep in tents pitched under the hangar roof. Up to 1,000 people (mainly escapees from the war in Syria) will move into the new camp within the coming weeks, a small portion of the 800,000 displaced people expected to arrive in Germany this year.

There’s sweet poetic justice in a monument created by modern history’s most loathsome regime being turned to humanitarian use. There’s nonetheless far more to the Tempelhof site than its Nazi origins alone. The old airport remains one of contemporary Berlin’s most contested sites, a place where just last year a citywide referendum saw Berliners reject plans to redevelop the airport grounds with housing. The temporary refugee accommodation adds a sharp twist to this story. At Tempelhof, Berliners have effectively said no to real estate developers—and yes to refugees.

To be fair, the site rejected for development doesn’t cover exactly the same spot as the new camp. The airport building itself has long been a white elephant in the making. When completed in 1941 it was one of the largest buildings in the world, a sweeping structure covering 300,000 square meters (well over 3 million square feet) designed to look from above like an eagle in flight. Improbably close to the densely populated neighborhoods of central Berlin, the airport had a short runway, and after the war commercial use steadily dwindled toward a trickle of short-hop flights. It finally closed in 2008.

The Tempelhof Airport shortly before it closed in 2008. (AP Photo/Herbert Knosowski)

Since then, exhibitions and events have squatted in the abandoned hangars, but it’s outside on the airfield that the real transformation has taken place. The airport grounds are now a park—a singularly popular one at that. Kite surfers and winter cross-country skiers now glide down the runways, and community gardens squat on a wide prairie-like meadow. Unsurprisingly, the streets surrounding the park have seen their rents shoot up.

So far, so good—but Berlin needs housing. Faced with a new source of vacant land, developers came up with a plan to build a narrow ring of streets around the park, providing new homes while maintaining a sense of the field’s broad sweep. The plans emphasized density and promised some affordable housing, and most people (including me) thought they would go through.

They didn’t. In 2014, Berliners voted against the plans in a city referendum. The problem was that not enough people believed the reassurances of responsible development from Berlin’s ruling Senate, whose rhetoric about building affordable housing has lagged far behind its actual achievements. The balance tipped against development when an average rent of 6 to 8 euros per square meter per month for the affordable apartments was floated shortly before the vote. This was above the average rent for the area, meaning that locals would lose parkland without actually getting cheaper housing. People collectively smelled a rat and voted “no.”

Meanwhile, no permanent use has been found for the terminal. There’s talk of covering the hangar roof with a garden and a viewing platform, while Berlin’s Greens say they want it to become a cultural center. The New National Gallery and Volksbühne Theater have been mentioned as possible tenants, though both already inhabit impressive buildings in central Berlin. In the meantime, the temporary camp seems like a sensible idea. People fleeing violence and fear are going to get a safe, if makeshift place to live.

Germans await a U.S. cargo plan delivering coal as part of the Berlin airlift on July 9, 1948. (AP Photo/Henry Burroughs)

In one way, the chosen location could not be more fitting. Tempelhof Airport is the place where, in 1948, West Berlin was kept alive thanks to a huge injection of international aid. When the Soviets blocked supply routes to the city, Allied air forces kept residents fed and working by landing huge quantities of supplies day and night at Tempelhof. This epic rescue mission, the Berlin Airlift, meant delivering almost 9,000 tons of supplies to the airport daily, brought by more than 200,000 flight in a single year.

West Berlin could not have survived as part of the Federal Republic of Germany without this huge injection of aid. It feels right, then, that this is the site where the city has decided to give something back to others in need.

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