We love distilling cities down to a few words or perhaps a catchy phrase. New York is the Big Apple, Paris the City of Lights, and LA the City of Angels. And while these nicknames might not seem to mean much at first, their existence signifies an identity that’s solid. When you visit these places, their descriptions create expectations for what you’ll find.

But what do we expect from Berlin? How do you distill a city that’s constantly changing? For the past few years, Berlin’s nickname has been “poor but sexy,” but as the next era of changes hit the city – mostly due to increasing wealth and gentrification – “poor but sexy” might no longer fit. We can see some of these changes and the controversies that surround them in places travelers already know, like the East Side Gallery and Museum Island.

East Side Gallery | Photo by Rick, Flickr

East Side Gallery | Photo by Rick, Flickr


The East Side Gallery

The East Side Gallery is one of the longest open air-galleries in the world, featuring murals from 118 artists on the former eastern side of the Berlin Wall. According to some, the East Side Gallery attracts over 800,000 tourists a year, but the Gallery’s existence is in danger. Developers are moving in on the land beside the Spree River, and as the most recent luxury construction project proved, that means destroying sections of the historic site. When construction started on a now infamous apartment building almost two years ago, 6,000 protesters showed up, including actor David Hasselhof. In a sign of solidarity, Hasselhof reportedly married the section of the East Side Gallery in danger, but to no avail. A 6-meter portion of the wall was removed. Additionally, the Mercedes-Benz Arena located across the street from the luxury apartment complex had a section of the wall removed (albeit relocated) to ensure better views of the water. And despite massive public opposition, permits are still being granted for new high-rises along the Spree, jeopardizing the East Side Gallery as both a site of cultural heritage and as a waterfront public space. When you walk along the East Side Gallery, the newly completed project feels like an intrusion and divides the walkway next to the river, forcing you to go around the building, therefore functioning like a wall itself.

Museum Island

Another area of controversy is Museum Island, the premier cultural center of Berlin, but for two different reasons. For one, the German government has sponsored the reconstruction of the Prussian-era Berlin Palace, or the newly christened “Humboldt Forum.” After World War II, the Palace was damaged, and though it could have been salvaged, it was destroyed – a casualty of the split between East and West. The Palace was seen as a symbol of imperial Prussia by the East German authorities, and in its place the regime created a new parliament building. Recently, the federal government approved the demolition of the East German parliament building due to a supposed asbestos problem. In its place, a reconstruction of the Berlin Palace was proposed, and construction began in 2012. This move is controversial for a variety of reasons, but the main reason stems back to the question of identity.

We’re still a city where crazy ideas can become reality.

Why would a city like Berlin reconstruct a baroque palace at its supposed heart? The new building will house the non-Western art collections currently housed in museums on the Western outskirts of the city, which leaves some wondering why Germany wouldn’t create a new, modern building for this historic relocation. What does it mean to place non-Western art within a 19th century imperial castle, the former home of Prussia’s colonial rulers? Why does the government feel a need to put this face on the new German capital where elsewhere modern projects are being introduced? What is the role of Germany’s past in Germany’s future? Inherently, these questions relate back to what Berlin is as a city, and Germany is as a nation, and what both will become moving forward.

Museum Island, Berlin | Photo by Philipp Dase, Flickr

Museum Island, Berlin | Photo by Philipp Dase, Flickr

The second controversial site on Museum Island is the proposed Flussbad, a space occupying the canal next to the museums that have made the island famous. The idea to filter the polluted canal for recreational use has been around since the 1990s but has gained hold only recently. In German, “fluss” means river and “bad” means pool, so essentially the canal will become a natural public pool for the citizens and tourists of Berlin. Opponents say the Flussbad would denigrate the cultural importance of Museum Island, becoming merely another space for loud parties and trash with the added ill of bathing suits. However, supporters argue that the Flussbad would become a new public green space that attracts tourists and locals alike, bringing life back to a district that’s largely dead at night. Gottfried Ludewig, a politician and vocal supporter of the project, explained to the New York Times that the Flussbad would “show we’re still a city where crazy ideas can become reality.” For people like Ludewig, Berlin’s identity lies in its possibilities and the belief in the fact that anything is possible here.

As a student here for the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to witness the changes at hand through both classes and personal experience. I’ve walked along the river and canal in question and seen the buildings that have become so controversial. But understanding why these controversies exist and what they mean from a cultural and historical standpoint is far more complicated. And while I am a resident of the city, I’m also a tourist, and I recognize that my perspective is limited. However, as I’ve contemplated these controversies, it always seems to come back to the people who live here and call this city home. As with any city, Berlin is defined by its people and their history, which is a violent one. This is a history of people being controlled from above by regimes that denigrated the humanity of those that lived under them. But after the fall of the wall, the city became a place of radical alternative expression coming from the bottom up instead of vice versa. And perhaps as the city changes, the conflict coming into play is more than just buildings but the people’s role in those buildings changing the face of their home. Or rather, their lack of a role.

And perhaps that’s the real question at hand in the city without a real catchphrase. Who will define Berlin’s future? And what will that future look like physically and culturally? Who has the power here?

And what will it take to find out?

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