There are two walls in Berlin. The first, the historic and notorious Berlin Wall of Honecker and Kennedy that bisected a nation, dividing families, constructing prejudices and casting an XL cloak of doubt and shame on a people. This, the much loathed and bemoaned geographical scar, was observed on television sets worldwide with elation and danced upon as it came crashing down in 1989. A city’s demons seemingly exorcised. A new frontier rolling out the red carpet.
And then there is the 1.3-kilometer stretch of concrete that snakes along the Spree on Mühlenstraße on the border of the Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg districts of Berlin today. Although made of the same material and constructed for the same purpose, it no longer stands as quite the same structure, having been renovated and revitalized for a very different cause. Repurposed with more than paint, this stretch has become a shrine to remembrance and a canvas for the free speech it once stood as a symbol against. In 1990, artists from across the world, including Siegfried Santoni, Thierry Noir, Bobo Sperly, Dimitri Vrubeland, and many others, were invited to paint on the wall, to create murals and, simultaneously, a historical document that would testify to the politics and emotions that were imbued in that iconic structure for so many decades.
Today what is known as the East Side Gallery—one part satire, three parts historical artifact—is the largest and longest-lasting outdoor gallery in the world (as well as the longest surviving section of the Berlin Wall), challenging both the elements and the concept of what a gallery woulda-coulda-shoulda. Founded by the two municipal artist associations of the city, the BBK (Bundesverband Bildender Künstlerinnen und Künstler) and the VBK (Verein Berliner Künstler), the oldest association of artists in Germany, the East Side Gallery is less a division as it is punctuation, an ending and a forewarning of an inevitable new beginning.
This is Berlin’s second wall, the one that boasts caricatures and slogans like “Many small people, who in many small places, do many small things, can alter the face of the world,” and is what Berliners are now protesting the destruction of today. As the city’s hearts and sidewalks begin to thaw with the first sunny days after one of those infamously dreary Berlin winters, thousands are flocking to East Side Gallery to protest the removal of some sections of the wall. The scheduled replacement to the historic monument? Luxury apartments.
On Sunday, March 3rd, approximately 6,000 people stood vigil with protest signs and heavy hearts in the attempt to ward off the powers that be. Above the crowd, bobbing in and out of busy heads was a poster with the slogan “Welche Mauer?” (“Which wall?”). A profoundly deep statement I find myself steeped in. It’s true that there is some stranger-than-fiction irony in Berliners gathering to try saving the very concrete they had once died trying to escape over. But the question holds. Is this the same wall? Like a scar that becomes some inextricable marker of experience, the East Side Gallery and other stretches of the Mauer ring true as a sobering reminder of the past, but also as a marker of all that has been accomplished. Its destruction would mean the loss of a symbol of collective consciousness, a document of the sense of freedom and opportunity that now permeate the city’s now famous spirit and social fabric.
Welche Mauer do they think they’re removing?
(All images: Courtesy of East Side Gallery.)