Flâneuring Past and Present Divides in Berlin’s Cityscape

One crucial way to identify and understand borders that run through an urban space is to actually be there and move around in it. The practice of attentively walking in a space while using all senses to experience and observe it, offers yet another important perspective than solely reading and talking about it. In the field of geography, this method is sometimes called ‘modern flânerie’. It refers to the figure of the flâneur, which has been subject of a large number of appropriations and interpretations since Walter Benjamin, drawing on poetry of Charles Baudelaire, made it and object of scholarly interest in the 20th century, describing the flâneur as the essential modern urban spectator and amateur detective and investigator of the city (Walter Benjamin).

Parallel to the articles, book chapters and city documents I read, the projects I participate in, the workshops and conferences I attend, the people I speak to or work together with and the helpful and willing coordinators of various City Locality Centres that I interviewed up until now, I started flâneuring through the city, its boroughs, its localities and its Kieze, right from the first day.

When you are on a hunt for borders that presently run through an urban space, it makes sense to first delve yourself into this space’s history. In Berlin, this history is a very particular one, especially when it comes to the topic of borders.  A history that clearly occupies a key position in any analysis of borders and urban spaces in in Berlin. A history of a complete division between two parts of the city for more than twenty years of the past century.  A history of a material, evidently visible Berliner Mauer that characterised the cityscape.  A history full of stories about goodbyes, succeeded and failed escape attempts and ruthless killings in the border area.  A history of a period whose end was tremendously celebrated twenty-eight years ago.

Today, this history continues to have a clear physical presence in the city’s urban space. After the period of clear reticence in terms preserving the past that marked the years after the fall of the Wall started to decrease, the experience of the long-term division has become central to the practices of an emerging memory culture in Berlin (Simon Ward). A large variety of memorials, positioned in the former borderland, serves to celebrate the fall of the wall, to convey respect to the victims of its consequences, to tell stories of the past, to figure as a kind of anti-example that warns us to never act this way again and to continually value the fact the material border wall does no longer runs through the city.

At these memorials, the borderland of the former wall is daily visited by many people. Some of them come to commemorate events that took place in history. Some of them come out of curiosity, eager to learn about history. Some of them come to take a photo, either with possibly few other visitors featuring in it or with themselves posing in front or on top of it, looking at their best. It is in fact at these memorials too, where history tends to be turned into a commodity product that can be consumed.

History commodified

So, it is possible, for example, to pay to get your passport stamped in a little tourist shop painted to look like an old border checkpoint, positioned half way down the East Side Gallery (one amongst the three most visited places of the former border and simultaneously the longest stretch of the original Wall that still stands). Also popular is the posing with actors dressed as American and Soviet soldiers outside a replica of the control hut that stood at the famous Checkpoint Charlie and visit the privately initiatied Museum of the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie for no less than 12,50 euro’s.  And do not get me started about the numerous Imbiss stands named after well-known places or persons of the bordered history and the hawkers selling ‘historical’ souvenirs that are most likely produced in some post-communist factory in Asia.

‘HALT, Staatsgrenze!’ ‘WE STAMP YOUR PASSPORT’, East Side Gallery

Historic ghosts haunting present divides

The inherited physical presence from the past is not limited to these concretely visible, popular memorial-sites along the border. To make sense of Berlin’s (border)history, I decided to start walking a slightly different memorial of the Berlin Wall that silently crosses the cityscape: The Berliner Mauerweg – or, Berlin Wall Trail –  which..

..traces the course of the former GDR border fortification encircling former West Berlin along a total of 160 kilometers. In most sections, it runs along the former patrol road used by customs officers in West Berlin or along the border control road used by GDR border troops for their own patrols (Chronik der Mauer).

While flâneuring along the Mauerweg, sections with traces or remains of the old Wall, those that are often crowded and surrounded by the aforementioned hawkers, Imbiss stands and souvenir shops where most visitors gather, alternate with sections where the former divide remains barely visible and the crowds of visitors seem to have suddenly disappeared. Following the trail through the centre of the city made me discover many stories of past. Stopping now and then to realise how certain placed had looked during the period of the Wall and how they have changed, brought a tiny part of history back to life. Furthermore, it helped to increased my understanding of the contemporary city as it revealed how some of the social structures, city architectures and urban dynamics of today’s cityscape connect to the conflicted Berlin’s past.

Along the trail, the no man’s land of border fortifications has become a palimpsest for multiple meanings and uses (Elizabeth Golden). Apart from serving as the space for multiple memorials, is became also the space that can function as a synecdoche for some of the debates and frictions taking place in the rest of the contemporary cityscape.

For some parts, for example, the former death strip has been turned into an investment site for large (and often foreign) firms (e.g.: Media Spree). These came to form the centre of both, debates over whether or not to allow development at iconic public monuments and the battles over ownership of public city spaces (e.g. Media Spree Versenken) that sprung up on and around the Mauerweg as well as in the rest of the city, as gentrification has continued district for district and street for street. In some other parts the past border area became occupied by small groups of caravan- or tent dwellers who fashion an alternative way of living in the city (e.g. Wagenburg Lohmühle). Walking past these places however, clearly showed that these people are often threatened to be displaced – yet another situation whose occurrance is not limited to the route of the Mauerweg.

Sometimes, the former death strip became hidden by relatively new buildings that cover its location completely. And in other parts it remained a rather empty plot of land, ready to serve as a playground for yet another investor. Also there are, still, abandoned houses remaining standing in it at some places, almost figuring as skeletons of the past.

What deserves to me mentione too, is that in many parts, the former borderland has been turned into long-streched green sites for leisure and coming together, where (apart from the continuous struggle around tourism and the commodification of history) frictions are far to be found.  The most famous one being the Mauerpark, located between the localities Prenzlauerberg and Gesundbrunnen. Here, hundreds of locals and visitors mingle every Sunday to look at the continually redecorated former inner Wall, to stroll around the stalls of the flea market, to relax, picnic and play in the park or to listen and dance to live musicians or the outdoor karaoke sessions.

Within and outside the circle new and old collide

In addition to conversating with various residents and interviewing coordinators of various City Locality Centres who are the experts in their social space, being a ‘modern flâneur’ in cityscape Berlin allows me to actually sense and encounter Berlin’s urban dynamics and present divides. What moving attentively through the city by foot, both along the Berlin Wall Trail ánd into the diverse boroughs, localities and Kieze of the urban space, made me realize, is that there are also more recent dividing lines have developed throughout the city since the fall of the Wall.

My walks, during which I experience and observe my surroundings step by step, allow the urban space itself to figure as a storyteller, telling that apart from being arranged along the enduring dynamics of the former east-west border, some present divides, on different levels, take place along an interplay between the city’s centre and its pheriphery – a divide that is also marked physically by the Ringbahn encircling the city centre. While many analysises around the border-theme in Berlin rightly give the ongoing heritage of the old division a key position, this attention has the downside of possibly veiling these new divides which should be included too, when speaking of borders in the urban space Berlin.

Up until now there are several levels on which these centre-pheriphery dynamics  repeadedly caught my attention. Most of them can, in a way, be described as divides between an ‘old’ and a ‘new’. What centre and periphery have incommon is that no matter where you are walking in the city, at least somewhere on the horizon you will notice a construction crane through which the urban space-as-storyteller tells the on-going story of the border between constructing something new and reconstruction something old, for which Berlin has been fated already in 1910 by Karl Scheffler as “always to become and never to be” and which today reveals its struggle to come into terms with its persistent economic difficulties and struggles over ‘the right to the city’.

In the central boroughs, through the numerous cranes and construction sites, the urban space tells the story of the border between new and old actors on the urban stage. The old actors being the long-established residents of the city and the new actors being the more recently arrived private house owners or renters from all over the world, tourists, housing companies and any kind of investors. This story can also be sensed through the numerous posters, tags and banners that warn and fight against Verdrängung and Mietsteigerung (as part of the so frequently mentioned process of gentrification) this story becomes told.

While this border story plays in the central boroughs of the city, also in the city’s peripheral boroughs a story of a border between new and old residents can be sensed. It is often here, where the less affluent people that cannot (longer) afford housing in the centre have to move to. Many of these boroughs’ (also literally) old residents are not as used to the diversification of the neighbourhood that the arrival of these new residents brings.

To briefly illustrate; walking through very diverse and dense localities, often in the centre of the city, where the streets are crowded and you pass by the most diverging shops and people from nearly every end of the world (e.g. Kreuzberg or North-Neukölln), differs enormously from when you move through some localities located further outside, where less life seems to take place on the streets and many people you pass by speak German (e.g. Lichtenberg).

It is also in these peripheral boroughs where there is space to find and build accommodations for refugees, who now slowly but certainly have to move out from the centre where they resided in numerous sport halls or empty buildings and were surrounded by the centre’s diversities and a strong network of people willing to help – a completely different urban environment than the often badly connected suburbs they are displaced to. Also this story of new and old residents colliding in the periphery is not without difficulties and should be increasingly taken into account by city planners.

Flâneuring through Berlin by foot shows how the old border still echo’s in the present urban landscape and, in a sense, haunts it like a ghost (Brian Ladd) – turning it to a Border-Memoryland. But also, the attentive walks help to discover and understand the new divides caused by complex urban dynamics, and playing a varying role in the central and peripheral boroughs, localities and Kieze of the contemporary.

Sources

Benjamin, W. (2006). The writer of modern life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire. Harvard University Press.

Golden, E. (2013). Following the Berlin Wall. InTerrain Vague: Interstices at the Edge of the Pale. Pp. 217-229

Ladd, B. (2008). The ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German history in the urban landscape. University of Chicago Press.

Scheffler, K. (1910). Berlin – Ein Stadtschicksal.

Ward, S. (2016). Urban memory and visual culture in Berlin: framing the asynchronous city, 1957-2012. Amsterdam University Press.

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2 Replies to “Flâneuring Past and Present Divides in Berlin’s Cityscape”

  1. very observant and interesting. In my opinion there is so much more to Berlin, it’s old and not so old history.mere words would find it difficult to capture what Berlin and especially its people are. The Berliners came a bit short in your observations. They are very important!

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    1. dear Dieter, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I completely agree with you that translating the observations that I made with all my senses while walking through the city into words is challanging! Concerning the Berliners; they certainly play a large part in my research project. Their voices and experiences will be heard through some of the methods I use parallell to the walking practices (see About). I hope to write on those here soon!

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