The East Side Gallery and Berlin’s Benign Neglect

Berlin is often its own worst enemy. And this time we’re not even talking about the long-delayed opening of the BER airport. Now the controversy is over creating new gaps in the historic East Side Gallery, one of the last vestiges of the Berlin Wall. There is also an online petition to block further damage to the Gallery. All, typically for Berlin, too little too late.

As February became March 2013, suddenly Berlin – and the world – were paying close attention to the East Side Gallery, a little over 23 years after most of the Wall disappeared. Running along the banks of the Spree River, this 0.8-mile stretch of Hintermauer (“inside, ‘hinterland’ Wall”) blocks the river view from Mühlenstraße, the street that parallels the East Side Gallery. At least it did block the view until Berlin began punching holes in it. This piecemeal destruction of the Gallery took place despite so-called landmark protection granted in 1991.

The only reason this rare remaining stretch of the Wall is still standing at all is the artwork that first appeared on it back in 1990 – before the Berlin city fathers and mothers had time to tear down most of the Berlin Wall. (If you want to read about the history of the East Side Gallery in detail, from 1990 to the present, see my illustrated article.) But over time even the Wall art created by an international group of 118 artists has been subjected to not-so-artistic graffiti, the elements and, most importantly, the benign neglect of the Berlin Senate. Although most Berliners ignore the East Side Gallery, they like that it serves as a tourist attraction. But if asked to help pay for its preservation, they become less enthusiastic.

East Side Gallery 2007

The East Side Gallery in 2007 (before the 2009 restoration), showing the difference between the restored and unrestored sections, and one of the gaps already cut into the Gallery. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

From all the current fuss, you’d think this was the first time anyone had dared to remove part of the Gallery. But no! There are already four gaps in the Gallery. (See photo above.) The longest is a 45-meter section, almost twice as long as the 22 meters proposed for removal now, that was totally removed (not relocated nearby, as is the plan today) to create river access for the new O2 World events center in 2006. Although there were some complaints when the 45 meters (148 feet) were removed, it was nothing compared to the 6,000 peaceful demonstrators (according to Berlin newspapers) who packed Mühlenstraße for a protest on Saturday, March 2. Where were all these people when twice as much of the East Side Gallery was carted off in 2006? Three other smaller openings have been punched into the Gallery over the years for riverbank access or other reasons.

Although the current Wall removal is slightly different, it is not really as black and white as it may seem at first glance. Some would have us believe this headline: “Art-loving protestors prevent evil developer from tearing down part of the Wall for luxury flats” – or something to that effect. Yes, an investor by the name of Maik Uwe Hinkel is building a 36-unit condo building between the Gallery and the river, but the Wall removal that began on Thursday and sparked protest was not for his project. The city of Berlin wants a pedestrian bridge across the river, and a small section of the Wall is being removed and relocated for that, not the condos.

Not only that, this project has been in the works for years. The approvals from the district and city were done long ago, and Berlin does need more living units. But only now, at the last minute, come the protests, partly because the city was not eager to publicize the project. It isn’t the first time Berlin’s governing members have been less than forthcoming about something they have already done.

The mayor of Friedrichshain (the Berlin district in which the Gallery is located), Franz Schulz (Green Party), must share some, if not most, of the blame. Although he has opposed the condo project, his fellow district council members approved it long ago, and even asked Hinkel’s company to carry out (and pay for) the removal of the Wall section for the proposed bridge. Now Schulz is trying to turn Hinkel into the bad guy. His words during the Saturday protests: “Ich bin erfreut über den Widerstand, der sich hier zeigt.” (“I’m thrilled about the resistance shown here.”) That drew some scornful whistles from the crowd. (In the US it would have been boos.) It is rather reminiscent of Berlin’s mayor Klaus Wowereit acting like he wasn’t responsible for the BER catastrophe. Berlin’s politicians never want to accept responsibility for the messes they create!

The greatest irony in all this is the fact that a major restoration of the East Side Gallery, including the very section now being removed, was completed just a little over three years ago, in November 2009. It was intended for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. Even though it was one of the better-funded restoration projects in recent years, it only restored about a third of the original East Side Gallery. Earlier restorations have also been underfunded and inadequate, leaving most of the original Gallery in a sad, shabby state. But the art, no matter how badly neglected, is the only reason this part of the infamous Berlin Wall still exists. Without the art, Berlin would long ago have been rid of this historic nuisance!

At this stage, if it wants to halt the project, the city would no doubt have to pay damages to the developer, who has already sold most of the condos in the building that is already under construction next to the Wall – with building permits approved by the district of Friedrichshain and the Berlin Senate! The protestors probably don’t realize how expensive rejecting the condo project could be for Berlin taxpayers at this late stage. Mr. Hinkel says there are alternatives for access to his project, if the city wants to discuss that. Now the two issues of (1) the hole in the Wall (for a bridge) and (2) the condo structure itself are getting conflated and confused.

Some people want it that way. There has long been a protest movement known as “Mediaspree versenken” (“sink Media Spree”) – objecting to any building along the banks of the Spree in Friedrichshain. The name comes from a plan dating back to the 1990s that encourages media firms to locate in Berlin, with their office buildings on the river bank, along with public access to the river. Whether you agree with that or not, the current protests really have nothing to do with that issue. The developer is building much-need condos, not offices. Opponents keep calling them “luxury condos,” but while they aren’t low-income housing, they aren’t really that expensive by Berlin standards. As usual, people are communicating via the media, rather than talking to each other. Now there is also a lot of blame-shifting between the district and the city-state governing body, each claiming this latest debacle is the other’s fault. Investor Hinkel has also been subjected to a lot of abuse, including a “Heil Hinkel” posting on the Web. Berlin can be very anti-capitalist at times.

Behind the Wall, 1996

The other side of the East Side Gallery in 1996, the side most tourists never see. This side faces the former death strip between the Spree River and the Wall. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

In any case, Berlin has been rather blockheaded about the East Side Gallery over the years. The city has a poor record when it comes to protecting this section (or any section) of the Wall. I first wrote about Berlin’s “Gallery problem” in 1996, when the area between the Wall and the river had turned into an ugly junk yard, and the city’s plans for a park there were still only on paper (and still are today!). Berlin has always had budget problems, but has never seriously demanded that developers spending millions of euros on their Wall-side projects share a percentage of the costs to help support the maintenance and restoration of the East Side Gallery. In exchange for permission to build next to the Wall, shouldn’t they be expected to help support a historic art project that is literally a piece of history?

Yet again Berlin is trying to blame a disaster of its own making on someone else – anyone but the city government that approved all the actions now sparking protests. Mayor Wowereit and his cohorts have been accused of a lack of transparency before. Now we have yet another classic example. And today the “landmark protected” East Side Gallery is no safer from destruction than it was yesterday.