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Plan to remove longest section of Berlin Wall sparks outcry

Plan to remove longest section of Berlin Wall sparks outcry

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BERLIN -- The latest in a series of municipal failures, a plan to remove a section of the remaining Berlin Wall has divided the city over a memorial meant to unite.

BERLIN -- "The city says I have to."

That's what luxury housing investor Maik Uwe Henkel of Living Bauhus effectively told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper about his controversial plan to remove a section of the East Side Gallery -- the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall and the world's longest open-air art gallery.

Indeed, removing the wall section was initially the city's legal obligation -- for a previously planned public bridge project -- until Henkel inherited it when he bought the adjacent land for luxury apartments. Meanwhile, he would use the opening in the Wall for access to the construction site.

But that story was too complex -- and perhaps too inconvenient -- for opponents to the Wall opening, some of whom went further than advocating for the preservation of the East Side Gallery. "No luxury housing in the former death strip" became their mantra instead, drawing the likes of David Hasselhoff and thousands of demonstrators to the site earlier this month in protest of the developer's plans.

After the city failed to produce a compromise, Henkel's crews moved forward with the removal of the Wall piece in the early morning hours last week under police protection -- provoking widespread public outcry. The conflict has exposed numerous problems with urban development policy in Berlin, creating bitter rifts in a city already under pressure from skyrocketing real estate prices and mounting public debt.

Through its decoration by 188 artists from 21 countries in 1990, the once-untouchable eastern side of the Berlin Wall was transformed into the East Side GalleryRather than serve as a reminder of the city's dark past, the Wall's longest remaining strip (0.8-mile) became a local landmark and tourist attraction -- a status reiterated by the return of many original artists to restore their artwork in 2009.

"The East Side Gallery is a place where historical myths, symbolic meaning, opaque construction plans, private investments, exclusive living spaces, artistic projects and autonomous ideas all come together," writes urban ethnologist and Humboldt University professor Dr. Wolfgang Kaschuba in Die Zeit newspaper.

Referring to the celebrated real estate along Berlin's major river, Kaschuba notes, "The banks of the Spree have become a playground of urban interests -- a strategic area spawning all kinds of polarizations: proponents of privatization versus defenders of the public domain, speculators against creatives, the chic at odds with the sceney. This is a place designed for political controversy."

But the controversy is a relatively new one, considering the city was suffering from a surplus of public and private space only 15 years ago. Today, the delay of major projects such as Berlin-Brandenburg Airport (BBI) -- whose opening, which was originally set for 2010, is now projected for 2015 -- have damaged public confidence in the competency of city management. And the recurring failures of politicians to develop city spaces with multiple spheres of interest in mind have only reiterated the many barriers to Berlin's social and economic development -- including that of its creative capital.

"We're not opposed to entrepreneurs earning money from the property," East Side Gallery founder Kani Alavi said in an interview with Die Zeit. "But you can't destroy a historical deed in the name of it. Of course we, as artists, react sensitively to that threat and want to make it clear that this particular stretch of Wall has to be preserved for future generations."

"We're not interested in stirring up controversy in the city," housing investor Henkel told the Berliner Zeitung. "We're ready to talk -- but I expect that from the district mayor as well."

It was the silence of local district mayor Dr. Franz Schulz and other city officials that Henkel says forced him to move forward with the controversial opening of the wall.

"When the district says, 'Stop work on the wall,' then we'll stop … but we also have to be given alternatives to access our construction site," Henkel had said at the beginning of March.

Kaschuba told SmartPlanet he believes politicians are struggling to govern a re-awakening city like Berlin with outdated rules. Rapid changes to the city's social and physical landscape are forcing a number of different interests to the discussion table, he says, which calls for a different brand of politics.

"Politicians are learning that ever more expertise will have to come from the public sphere and from various scientific fields -- 'top down' policies are no longer working … because everyone's watching," Kaschuba said, referring to the well-connected, highly-engaged nature of Berlin's current public and private stakeholders.

"This calls for a new kind of politician -- namely the kind that is closely connected to social movements -- to play a central role in Berlin's political future."

Though investor Henkel has said the removed Wall section will be replaced once construction is complete, Gallery supporters gathered in a makeshift vigil last week nonetheless for the missing artwork "Sky Over Berlin" by artists Karina Bjerregaard and Lotte Haubart.

PHOTOS: Flickr / libertinus / zak mc / PAVDW / GonzaloMMD / Jumilla

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Shannon Smith

Correspondent (Berlin)

Shannon N. Smith has written for WNYC's The Takeaway and TheLocal.de. She holds a degree from the University of Texas at Austin. She is based in Berlin, Germany. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure