The rise and fall of Berlin’s East Side Gallery
Considering just how historical this Berlin landmark is, it’s amazing how much it has been neglected. Past efforts to preserve and renovate the East Side Gallery section of the Berlin Wall often ran into a brick wall of property rights litigation, pollution clean-up, and a lack of funding.
Thanks only to an artistic accident of history, the East Side Gallery is one of the few surviving pieces of the Wall still standing and relatively intact. (Technically, it is only a former inside section of the Wall, “hinterland wall,” not an actual Grenzmauer, or border wall, which in this case was the river itself.) Located along the banks of the Spree (pron. SHPRAY) River in Friedrichshain near the Ostbahnhof (east train station), the best-known Wall remnant and its artwork have often suffered from neglect. Despite several partial restorations, vandals, time, and the elements combined to make the eastern Berlin landmark a somewhat depressing sight until recently. Created in 1990 in celebration of the Wall’s collapse, the Gallery features works by an international group of artists who expressed their reactions to the November 9, 1989 event in paintings that cover the 0.8-mile long section of the Wall that has come to be known as the East Side Gallery. A well-funded 2009 restoration restored much of the Gallery – in time for the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall.
More Holes in the East Side Gallery
In late February 2013 came the news that the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining portion of the Berlin Wall, would lose a few more meters in order to build a planned pedestrian bridge (die Brommybrücke) across the Spree. (The original street bridge was built in 1907 and destroyed in 1945.) News accounts also mentioned ongoing plans to build apartment buildings on what was once the “death strip” between the Wall and the river. Although the removed sections will be placed parallel to the Wall some distance away, yet another chunk will be cut out of the East Side Gallery. But as of late 2017, in typical Berlin style, the bridge project is still on hold.
One of the most bizarre and ubiquitous images (once seeming to adorn half the souvenir T-shirts sold in Berlin) depicted fellow communists Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev kissing each other on the mouth (see photo above). That original work and the many other East Side Gallery efforts are in danger of disappearing beneath far less artistic graffiti or fading from years of exposure to Berlin’s weather. The strip of land facing the other, graffiti-strewn, side of the Wall was until recently a home to derelicts and drug addicts. Even a murder victim was literally uncovered during a clean-up project a few years back.
The hopes that were raised back in 1996 when a heap of old cars and junk was removed from the area between the Wall and the Spree sank into a bureaucratic and legal quagmire. Although the East Side Gallery property now belongs to the German government, once it is released for development, any former land owners would then have the legal right to come forward with their claims. This is not encouraging to any prospective investor.
The grand plans for a park and a residential complex at this site date back to a 1993 architectural contest for its design, which was won by the German-American architect Helmut Jahn. His plan called for the East Side Gallery to be integrated into the park’s design. Now, a much more modest version of that park plan can be seen along the banks of the Spree. (See photo below.)
The 2008/2009 Restoration
The East Side Gallery Project
Past Gallery restorations have been underfunded and only partial. The most recent, better-funded project to restore the entire East Side Gallery began on October 15, 2008 and was completed in time for the 20th anniversary observance in November 2009.
In October 2008 over 20 of the original artists from 1990 began a second restoration of the East Side Gallery in Berlin. The Artists’ Association for the Gallery contacted about 80 percent of the 118 artists who created the original Wall art. The 2.2-million-euro project was funded by the EU, state lottery money, and German local and federal agencies. The cost was almost evenly divided between paying for the artwork and repairs to the Wall itself. Unlike the partial 2000 restoration, this one aimed to restore all 105 artworks along the full length of the 1.3 km (0.8 mi) long section of the Berlin Wall. Organizers completed the project in 2009 for the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Wall (on November 9, 1989) – with only a few gaps remaining.
With the 2013 pedestrian bridge project and more gaps being inflicted on the East Side Gallery (see update above), one has to question how much longer this last large – and artistic – remnant of the Wall can remain standing.
The 2000 Restoration
The 2000 project only restored about one-third of the East Side Gallery. It was completed in the summer of 2000. The remaining two-thirds of this Wall section continued to deteriorate.
Next | East Side Gallery Timeline
AT THE GERMAN WAY
- East Side Gallery Timeline – Part 2 of the Berlin Wall Timeline
- Berlin Wall Timeline (1945-1989)
- Book Review: The Berlin Wall Today – GW Expat Blog
- Berlin Airlift – Die Luftbrücke 1948-1949
- Berlin – City Guide – Sightseeing and history in Berlin
- The Reichstag in Berlin has a fascinating history and its dome is now Berlin’s top tourist attraction.
- Our Living in Germany page features resources for those now living or planning to live in the German-speaking world.
ON THE WEB
- The Berlin Wall by Heiko Burkhardt. A good site with information and links concerning the vanishing Wall and its history.
- The Wall Today – Places where the Wall can still be found… so far.
- Chris DeWitt’s Berlin Wall Home Page – Photos and essays
- The House at the Bridge: A Story of Modern Germany is a Web site and a book by Katie Hafner. “A 19th-century villa stands mere meters from the Berlin Wall and the Glienicke Bridge – the ‘Bridge of Spies’.”
- Wikipedia – The Berlin Wall
- Wikipedia – East Side Gallery – The English version
- Wikipedia – East Side Gallery – This German version is more thorough than the English version.
- Wikipedia – Brommybrücke – in German
BERLIN NEWSPAPERS (in German)
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