Berlin Now: The City After the Wall

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9780374254841: Berlin Now: The City After the Wall

A smartly guided romp, entertaining and enlightening, through Europe's most charismatic and enigmatic city

It isn't Europe's most beautiful city, or its oldest. Its architecture is not more impressive than that of Rome or Paris; its museums do not hold more treasures than those in Barcelona or London. And yet, when citizens of "New York, Tel Aviv, or Rome ask me where I'm from and I mention the name Berlin," writes Peter Schneider, "their eyes instantly light up."
Berlin Now is a longtime Berliner's bright, bold, and digressive exploration of the heterogeneous allure of this vibrant city. Delving beneath the obvious answers―Berlin's club scene, bolstered by the lack of a mandatory closing time; the artistic communities that thrive due to the relatively low (for now) cost of living―Schneider takes us on an insider's tour of this rapidly metamorphosing metropolis, where high-class soirees are held at construction sites and enterprising individuals often accomplish more without public funding―assembling a makeshift club on the banks of the Spree River―than Berlin's officials do.
Schneider's perceptive, witty investigations on everything from the insidious legacy of suspicion instilled by the East German secret police to the clashing attitudes toward work, food, and love held by former East and West Berliners have been sharply translated by Sophie Schlondorff. The result is a book so lively that readers will want to jump on a plane―just as soon as they've finished their adventures on the page.

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About the Author:

Peter Schneider was born in Lübeck, Germany, and has lived in Berlin on and off since the 1960s. He has taught at many American universities―including Stanford, Princeton, and Harvard―and is the author of more than twenty books, including The Wall Jumper and Eduard's Homecoming (FSG, 2001). He has also written for newspapers, including Der Spiegel, The New York Times, Le Monde, and La Repubblica. Sophie Schlondorff is a translator, editor, and writer. Originally from New York, she grew up bilingual in English and German, and is fluent in French and Italian. She is a graduate of Yale University and has been living abroad for more than a decade in Paris, Rome, and Berlin.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CINDERELLA BERLIN

 

It isn’t all that easy to answer the question of why, for some time now, Berlin has been one of the most popular cities in the world. It’s not on account of its beauty, for Berlin is not beautiful; Berlin is the Cinderella of European capitals.

Gazing out from a roof deck here, you won’t see anything like the domes of Rome, the zinc roofs of Paris, or the architectural canyons of New York. There is nothing spectacular, in any way exciting—or even atrocious—about the view. No pool on the seventy-second floor, no palm garden at a dizzying height, no penthouse casino high above the rooftops promising an exhilarating plunge from the terrace to the gambler who has just suffered an unbearable loss. What unfolds before the viewer is a homogenous cityscape of four-to-six-story buildings whose red pitched roofs didn’t originally come equipped with penthouses or sumptuous roof decks. It was only thirty years ago, not long before the fall of the Wall, that West Berliners discovered that life above the city’s chestnut and linden trees was significantly better than life in their shadow. Tentatively, they began to carve windows and terraces into the roofs. This is where they now dwell, at a modest height, between the occasional hotel and office high-rise, whose architecture on the whole seems to have been inspired by a shoe box stood on its end. To the west, the Eiffel Tower’s little brother, known as the Funkturm (Radio Tower), rises above the sea of buildings; to the east, the 1,207-foot-tall Fernsehturm (TV Tower) glimmers on the horizon, the afternoon sunlight etching a gleaming cross into its steel sphere—much to the ire of its communist builders, who erected the tower to prove the “victoriousness of socialism.” Quick-witted Berliners christened the luminous cross “the Pope’s revenge.” The apparition proved as intractable as it was inexplicable—nothing could be done to get rid of it. It presaged the future: the end of the German Democratic Republic.

Those living in the new city center, Mitte, had to wait for Berlin’s two halves to be reunified before converting their attics. Admittedly, they have the better view. They look out onto several metropolitan icons: the gilded dome of the reconstructed synagogue near Hackescher Markt and, beyond that, the Reichstag, its historical weight lightened by Sir Norman Foster’s addition of a glass dome, and the restored horse-drawn chariot of the Brandenburg Gate, swept clean of the dust of the East German era. Even farther in the distance, Helmut Jahn’s circus tent and the towers of Renzo Piano and Hans Kollhoff rise from what used to be Berlin’s most prominent vacant lot, Potsdamer Platz.

Yet, to date, no urban climber has deemed any of these new high-rises worthy of scaling. No Philippe Petit has thought to stretch a cable between the office towers at Potsdamer Platz and to balance back and forth across it. A city in which a new, 389.8-foot-tall hotel (the Waldorf Astoria) sets a record for height is not exactly a magnet for extreme athletes. Compared to the skylines of Manhattan, Chicago, or even Frankfurt, Berlin’s newly populated horizon still comes across as the silhouette of a provincial capital. In every other way as well, seen from above, Berlin lacks everything that makes a big city. It has no financial district like Manhattan or London, no venerable, centuries-old cathedral like Cologne or Paris, no notorious nightlife district like Hamburg. Even Berlin’s “Eiffel Tower”—the aforementioned Radio Tower—is merely a modest copy of the Paris original.

A friend of mine from Rome, the writer Edoardo Albinati, told me about his first time in Berlin. In the 1990s, he got off a train at the Zoo station in former West Berlin and took a look around. What he saw was the bleak station square with its currency-exchange offices and snack bars, the war-damaged steeple of the Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church), the Bilka department store with its decorative façade—once considered bold—of crisscrossing diagonal parallel lines, the Zoo Palast movie house emblazoned with a painted poster of an American action film. Yet, no matter where he turned, no soothing arch, dome, steeple, or façade presented itself for his spoiled Italian eyes to rest on. The way the square turned his gaze back on himself was the only thing that struck him as noteworthy. A few walks around the city tempered his opinion somewhat, but it never gave way to a sense of well-being. Berlin, he confessed to me with a polite smile, was by far the ugliest capital he had ever seen.

Now, however, tens of thousands of Italians flock to Berlin every year, filling the streets of the northern metropolis with the melodious sounds of their language. On New Year’s Eve, when temperatures are in the teens outside and the locals prefer to stay at home in front of the TV, hordes of Italian tourists swarm to the Brandenburg Gate to usher in the New Year with Berlin’s famous fireworks—forbidden in Rome! And when natives of New York, Tel Aviv, or Rome ask me where I’m from and I allude to Berlin, their eyes instantly light up with curiosity, not to say enthusiasm. Without the slightest hesitation, they’ll go on to tell me about their most recent or upcoming trip to Berlin—yet won’t be able to tell me why they have fallen in love with this city of all places. They may bring up the ritual word “beautiful,” but it doesn’t really capture what it is that attracts them to the city. Mention the name of any other, far more beautiful European city and you won’t get the same reaction.

If beauty isn’t the point, then what is? When I ask any twentysomething, irrespective of nationality, the answer is obvious. Berlin is the only major city without a mandatory closing time, where you can eat and/or get wasted for ten to twenty euros, and where the S-Bahn will get you to any club, even at four in the morning. Is that it? Not entirely. Part of Berlin’s appeal also seems to be its history—both the good and the atrocious: Berlin, “the world metropolis of the 1920s,” home to an international bohemian crowd; Berlin, the “capital of the Third Reich,” where the most egregious crimes of the last century were hatched; Berlin, “the Wall city,” divided for twenty-eight years before finally being reunified. Hardly any other city has experienced such extreme transformation in the last hundred years.

It is a truly astounding oversight that city officials failed to ensure that a thirty-yard section of the border area—including the watchtowers, dog runs, and mine-strewn “death strip” secured on the East Berlin side by a rear wall known as the Hinterlandmauer—was preserved for posterity. After all, the average tourist doesn’t come to hear the Berlin Philharmonic play or to go to the Pergamon Museum—he wants to see the Wall. The Wall is quite simply Berlin’s most famous monument—the German counterpart to the Statue of Liberty!

On the other hand, to be fair to the authorities, protecting even the tiniest section of the Wall in the wild days after November 9, 1989, would have been impossible. For weeks, tens of thousands of Berlin natives and visitors from around the world laid into the monstrosity with hammers and chisels. What would they have said if police had cordoned off a section of the Wall, under orders to protect it as a designated landmark? With what images and headlines would the international media have met such an attempt? Something along the lines of: EAST GERMAN BORDER TROOPS GIVE UP—WALL NOW GUARDED BY WEST BERLIN POLICE!

By now, Berlin’s tourism managers have realized that monuments commemorating crimes are not the least of the city’s attractions. Year after year, the Holocaust Memorial registers well over a million visitors; in 2011, 650,000 people gaped at the newly completed Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Straße; that same year, 340,000 tourists chose to visit the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial (the special prison complex of the East German secret service), where they listened to former inmates describe what they had been forced to endure in Stasi prison cells and interrogations. Today, half of Berlin’s tourists come from abroad, and their numbers continue to grow every year. Forecasts already predict that the city, which currently counts 25 million overnight visitors, could soon catch up with Paris (37 million overnight visitors), thus making it second only to London. Whether Berlin’s tourism professionals like it or not, the dark episodes of the city’s past are part of its appeal. We should consider ourselves lucky that the Führerbunker is no longer accessible, because if it were, rest assured it would have joined the ranks of Berlin’s “tourist attractions”—certainly no later than after the release of Downfall, the film about Hitler’s final days. Fortunately, the entrances to the 29,000-square-foot complex, which the Red Army tried in vain to demolish, were built over. Today, the site is identified by an inconspicuous information plaque, installed by the Berliner Unterwelten (Berlin Underworlds) association on June 8, 2006, the day before the start of the soccer World Cup.

To this day, the destruction of the old cityscape in the wake of two dictatorships still marks the architecture of Berlin—despite and because of so many fresh starts. Yet this defect does nothing to detract from the curiosity of visitors from around the world. What attracts them to Berlin seems to be precisely what they feel is missing in more beautiful cities: the weirdness, perpetual incompleteness, and outlandishness of Berlin—and the liveliness inherent in these qualities. Berlin was “condemned forever to becoming and never to being,” the writer Karl Scheffler wrote in his 1910 polemic Berlin, ein Stadtschicksal (Berlin: Fate of a City). Scheffler described Berlin as an urban landscape “defined by a fundamental lack of organically developed structure.”

While Scheffler may have identified Berlin’s genetic code, he vastly underestimated its advantages. Imperfection, incompleteness—not to say ugliness—afford a sense of freedom that compact beauty never can. Young visitors to a beautiful, expensive, and perfectly restored city feel excluded. Looking around, it is clear to them: every space here is already occupied. Cinderella Berlin offers an inestimable advantage over these princess cities: it gives all newcomers the feeling that there is still room for them, that they can still make something of themselves here. It is this peculiarity that makes Berlin the capital of creative people from around the world today.

Twenty years ago, right after the fall of the Wall, I wrote a small series of articles for the German weekly Der Spiegel about Berlin and its impending reconstruction. I wanted to find out what city planners and architects had in mind for “my city.” One of my most important sources at the time was a leading expert on Berlin: the publisher and journalist Wolf Jobst Siedler. I remember a walk we took together along the Kurfürstendamm in former West Berlin. At Lehniner Platz we turned onto Cicerostraße, a quiet side street off the Kurfürstendamm. The housing complex there, with its wavelike curved façades, had been built by the great architect Erich Mendelsohn in the 1920s. “There’s no doubt,” Siedler remarked, “that this is one of the most beautiful housing complexes in Berlin. But take a closer look. The entire complex is dead, a paradise for retirees, no matter how many young people may live here. There are no stores, no bars, no place for life outside the apartments. Only the tennis courts inside the complex provide any room to breathe.”

As it happened, I knew exactly what Siedler was taking about. I had spent a good part of my Berlin life on those nine tennis courts, surrounded by tall poplar trees, just a five-minute walk from my apartment. In the extreme quiet of Mendelsohn’s complex, the tennis players’ serves rang out like shots fired in a civil war, provoking regular complaints from the residents. Not to mention the stridently performed arguments between players over whether a ball was out or had just managed to touch the line.

“In Berlin, you’ll find you often have to choose between the beauty of a place and its liveliness,” remarked Siedler, whose books conjure Berlin’s forgotten and mistreated treasures with virtually unparalleled eloquence.

It’s probably because of Berlin that this statement has stayed with me more than any other I heard during the course of my research. For beauty and liveliness rarely go hand in hand in this city.

But enough with the speculation and reminiscing. Instead, let me tell a story I just heard. My son and two of his friends recently moved into a cheap apartment on the top floor of a building in the Berlin-Neukölln district. Until recently, Neukölln, with the highest unemployment rate in Berlin (17 percent) and its predominantly Muslim population, was considered a doomed neighborhood. But my son and his friends put their money on Neukölln—because, in the meantime, young people from neighboring districts, who had inadvertently found themselves at the center of the city after the fall of the Wall and could no longer afford the rents, had moved there and opened Internet start-ups, fledgling galleries, even a few gourmet restaurants.

The uncle of one of my son’s friends gave them a three-seater leather sofa for their new apartment. They were dead set on transporting the massive thing home that same day. But night had already fallen, and the moving-van rental places were all closed. So the three young men heaved the sofa out of the uncle’s apartment and onto the street, carrying it three blocks on their heads to the nearest S-Bahn station. On the way, they paused by a fountain on a square, plopped down onto the sofa, returned the greetings of passersby, and indulged in a few swigs of schnapps from the bottle they’d brought along. Nobody stopped them when they carried the sofa up the stairs to the tracks of the turnstile-free S-Bahn station. When the train arrived and the automatic doors opened, they shoved the couch into the car. Miraculously, it fit perfectly. The three young men sat down in their comfortable seats to enjoy the ride. Several passengers laughed, others offered to trade places with them, finally the entire car broke into applause: “Das ist Berlin!”—“That’s Berlin!”—one of them shouted and everyone followed suit. “Das ist Berlin!” resounded throughout the car.

The hardest part of the operation came after the S-Bahn ride: the three friends had to carry the couch several blocks and up five flights of stairs to their apartment. They succeeded because they had to succeed. They almost broke down trying to navigate the mammoth sofa past the narrow landings, but they never once doubted that their endeavor would end in triumph. When they finally made it to the top, they set the behemoth down in their apartment, helped themselves to their well-stocked liquor cabinet, and toasted first to themselves, then to Berlin, before falling asleep on the couch.

 

Copyright © 2014 by Peter Schneider

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Descrizione libro Condizione libro: New. Over the last five decades, no other city has changed more than Berlin. Divided in 1961, reunited in 1989, it has morphed over the last twenty-five years into Europe's most vibrant melting-pot of artists, immigrants and entrepreneurs. Pieces of the wall are collected around the world. Blending memoir, history, anecdote and reportage, this legendary Berliner takes us behind the scenes -- from wrenching stories of life under the Stasi, to the difference between East and West Berliners' sex-lives, to a present-day investigation of its arts scene, night-life, tumultuous politics and hidden quirks. Codice libro della libreria 3300

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