In the middle of February, the view past the metal chain-link fence was of a haphazard stretch of barren ground and pavement, hardly the center of a post-modern, sprawling city. Yellowed grass and ashy green weeds pushed up from flattened patches of dirt, every colour evoking the quality of being suffocated by winter. Beyond it all was the overarching shadow of the Friedrichsstadtpassagen building, its cement and stone façade showing a face with the words HOW LONG IS NOW being the only thing vibrant in a landscape that would strike one as devoid of any illusions.
In Berlin, in the strange thrall of a city that Hitler wanted to rename Germania, a city that was split by a wall for nearly 30 years, there is a constant confrontation with history. Instead of being trapped in the throes of the skyscrapers of New York or the medinas of Marrakech, the sprawl of Berlin seems to belie the existence of everything it’s been through, as if every monument and street corner is whispering, Yes, I’ve survived, and it’s not that big a deal. More than any other place I’ve been to, it has mightily taken its wounds, wearing the scars that may never heal completely – and perhaps, more importantly, don’t need to – like the eternal proofs of battle.
There is hardly a street or even a corner that doesn’t show some relic of history. The 1.3 km East Side Gallery, the longest piece of the Berlin Wall that still stands, may very well be one of the most popular and significant sights in the city, but there are pieces of the wall everywhere, those that tell of its history, hold a product advertisement or are used to display a restaurant menu. It’s the perfect means of appropriating an object of oppression and using it like it’s over and done with – it was just a wall, something that was and won’t be again.
At the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, it is easy for anyone walking down the street to suddenly be overcome with a visual of what it means to live with such ever-present history, to continue to walk through it and survive. The view from any vantage point is oppressive – a 4.7-acre site in the middle of a city block covered with rows of 2711 concrete slabs that are meant to represent an ordered system that has lost touch with reality. While the memorial has been met with a lot of criticism, from its necessity to its final form, it’s another relic in a city filled with them.
I’m grateful for all of the things I saw in the 10 days I spent in Berlin, but I regret not seeing the inside of the Friedrichsstadtpassagen building I glanced at through the metal chain-link fence. Established as a place for alternative art in 1990, Tacheles (Yiddish for “straight talking”) served as a Nazi prison for a time but was taken over by artists in its partially demolished state after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the early days, the building was used for studio space and housing, and was painted in bright colours with a large courtyard in the back featuring sculptures made out of found objects and debris. With a café, a cinema and a performance space, it was a mecca in Mitte, and an important focal point for art and activism in Berlin.
Unfortunately, in 2012, the building’s history as an art squat came to an end after the remaining artists left due to pressure from the building’s owner. Since then, it has been purchased by the New York financial services company Parella Weinberg Partners for a mixed-use development. Similarly, a 23-meter section of the East Side Gallery was removed in 2013 in order to provide access to Living Levels, a luxury apartment building.
As Berlin continues to evolve like any post-modern city, one wonders how it will turn – if it will continue to show its wounds, displaying them like undusted trophies on a shelf, or will torpedo them like so many places do, bulldozing the past out of existence and letting it subside to words on a page, not even a barren flat of land to allude to a history.