The Back Page

BERLIN: BOLD AND BROKE

The German city has been rebuilt—and many of the buildings are empty

PAUL WELLS October 4 2004
The Back Page

BERLIN: BOLD AND BROKE

The German city has been rebuilt—and many of the buildings are empty

PAUL WELLS October 4 2004

BERLIN: BOLD AND BROKE

The Back Page

The German city has been rebuilt—and many of the buildings are empty

PAUL WELLS

WHAT’S BERLIN the capital of? Surprise, maybe. In 1991, backpacking through Europe with a rail pass and only half a clue, I picked a major intersection at random from a Berlin transit map and descended into the U-Bahn to find it. Surely here was where the action would be. I climbed from the subway into the middle of a great big open field. For hundreds of yards in every direction there was little to see but weeds and dirt. Like Dorothy in reverse, I had gone looking for Oz and wound up in Kansas. This was Potsdamer Platz in 1991.

A traveller on the same spot 70 years earlier would have had to watch his step because

he would have been standing in a booming capital’s epicentre, a web of streets so clotted with traffic the Berlin city fathers fell back on high tech to maintain order: they installed the world’s first traffic light.

Before very long the Nazis had done their worst and the Allies their best. The sum of their efforts left much of Berlin in rubble. Before it could really recover, in 1961, the Communists put their obscene wall right through Potsdamer Platz, separating cousin from cousin, consecrating Berlin’s division in concrete and razor wire. Suddenly the street map made no more sense than anything else did. The centre of Germany’s greatest city sank from damage into decay.

Of course it was already on its way back by the time I arrived in 1991. The Berlin Wall had vanished suddenly, like a bad dream. The empty fields at Potsdamer Platz became a prize for businesses and architects competing to put a new face on the reborn city.

By 1995 the city’s skyline was a riot of construction cranes. By 1999 metal skeletons were climbing skyward. In 2001, I saw a movie at the Sony Center and didn’t realize, until I was leaving, that this dazzling corporate headquarters—with its courtyard capped by a tent roof high overhead—stood at Potsdamer Platz, the once-empty field I’d seen a decade earlier.

These days there’s no point trying to guess, as you walk through Berlin, whether you are in what used to be called the West or the East. Change has so rebuilt the city’s

landmarks that it has become almost impossible for an outsider to tell.

So how’s this bold, brand new Berlin doing? I put the question, over lunch by the Spree River, to some Canadians who live in Berlin.

“Broke,” one said.

“Bankrupt,” his colleague added.

Indeed. For more than 40 years, Berlin, or half of it anyway, was a western enclave in East Germany. Everybody celebrated when it stopped being an enclave. What almost nobody noticed was that it was no longer in the West either. Unemployment is stuck near 18 per cent. East Berlin lost 80 per cent of its manufacturing jobs in the 1990s, which you might have expected. But West Berlin lost 43 per cent, too.

What’s most striking is that Berlin is looking emptier. Its population hasn’t grown since 1989—partly, it’s true, because affluent Berliners are moving into tony suburbs just

outside of town, but partly because young Berliners are heading west to find work they can’t find here. Which makes Berlin more like a shinier version of East German hardluck towns like Rostock than like a dream city.

Around Potsdamer Platz I saw forests of newly built luxury condominiums, all quite empty. In the U-Bahn at mid-morning on a weekday, my car held five passengers. The city hauls around a 40-billion euro debt, or $68.8 billion, far bigger than New York City’s.

Berlin’s population rattles around, sometimes quite agreeably, inside an oversized urban landscape. An immense new railway station is nearing completion. The chancellery building, conceived by Helmut Kohl as the official headquarters of Germany’s head of government, is as outsized as the man who built it. The chancellery is five times the size of the White House. Tony Blair’s residence, 10 Downing St., could fit in its lobby. Locals call it the Kohlosseum.

“It’s become somebody’s top-down idea of a great city,” Alexandra Richie, the Canadian author of Faust’s Metropolis: A History of Berlin, told me. “Great cities are never made that way. The government can’t turn a city into a capital just by wishing for it.”

In 1995 Paul Goldberger wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine about the debate among architects and planners over Berlin’s future. The question, he implied, was how to capture the boundless potential of a city where “the prosperity of the West” would “meet the potential of the East” and “music, art and architecture” would “reign supreme.” But he had to admit that five years after the Wall came down, “it has not quite happened.”

Ten years further along, it still hasn’t. Bringing in that forest of construction cranes seemed a tremendously forward-looking gesture. Today’s it’s looking like an act of nostalgia. Berlin will surprise you that way. 171

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