March 22, 2013
In sixth grade we learned about the great boulevards of Europe. My teacher, Miss Meitzlefeld, was particularly rhapsodic about Unter den Linden in Berlin. Walking down this boulevard on Tuesday evening it hardly seemed like the bustling main drag of a major European capital. The buildings were grand, with the Brandenburg gate at one end, the US, French, Russian and British embassies and the grand hotels built for the diplomats and their receptions looming over us. But it was so quiet, except for a few busses and a few pedestrians it was quiet. Except for the snowplows it was quiet. It was a beautiful night for a walk, the snow muffling what city sounds there were. It looked so clean. We were looking for a café and one with the chalk board advertising gluwein caught my attention. It was the perfect drink for a night like this, along with a large German meatball, mustard and fried potatoes. When he served the mulled wine the waiter said, “Like Christmas, ya, but Christmas we has no snow.”
Berlin has a lot to offer and on past trips I have been to Museum Island and seen some of the cultural attractions. And while the reason we were in Berlin was for Radio Days Europe the real attraction for me is the wall. The wall was up for 27 years and 9 months. It has been down for 24 years and 4 and a half months. Sooner the wall will have been down longer than it was up. I keep telling myself “get over it.” See what else Berlin has to offer. But it still fascinates me. Perhaps because when I was 17 I was in a summer student program in Berlin and my street dead ended — into a wall — into the wall.
The wall is mostly erased, there are just a few sections standing and we went to see them. East Side Gallery is the longest stretch of wall, 1 and a half kilometers. It is the “inner wall” the one on the East side of the death strip so it was not painted with graffiti like sections of the wall facing west. The death strip ran from this inner wall to the River Spree. Now the wall forms the outer boundary of a riverfront park, the wall shielding the park from traffic noise. The park side of the wall has a lot of “free graffiti.” Often it plays politics. “Kosovo is Serbia” the wall proclaims. The other side is an art gallery. The city commissioned artists to paint their hopes for freedom and peace on that side. The works ranged from pop art to political art to cartoon art to drug induced chaos. The famous painting of Brezhnev and Eric Honaker’s fraternal socialist kiss is on this wall, “Fatal Kiss.” The dictators’ lips are locked. Tourists feel they need to tag the famous paintings with their own signatures, love notes or political statements. In 2009 the city invited the artists to come back and repaint their works. Many did, but the tourists and lovers with paintbrushes and sharpies just keep on coming. Recently the city started to remove parts of the wall so a real estate developer could have better access to his property from the river. (A small section has already been removed so the O2 Arena could have boat access. It was re-erected in the death strip.) Berliners, led by David Hasselhoff, (Knight Rider, Baywatch), who performed his hit song “Looking for Freedom” at the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall, protested. The demonstration was Monday while we were talking radio, so we missed it except for the coverage. We went to the gallery on Wednesday. The construction was still going on, several sections removed for construction truck access.
On Sunday, before Suzi got in, I took an excursion with the folks at Radio Alex, Berlin’s community station. They offered a tour of a part of the former wall and then a visit to the station where we enjoyed beer and conversation. The station is in the Wedding District which is also home of Mauerpark. This is a green park strip along the former death strip of the wall. It is the home of the Sunday flea market and karaoke. The karaoke started when a man brought his machine to the park, set it up and sang “My Way.” He drew a crowd and now it is a weekly public participation event. The first song is always “My Way.” Participation in Sunday’s was a bit thin. The old inner wall still stands running along a stadium in Eastern Berlin. It too is a gallery for artists. At the flea market I saw a man carrying an old wooden cased Grundig radio he had just bought, a good start, I thought, for Radio Days.
Wedding also has Bernauer Str. This is the street where the East Germans bricked up lower windows and people jumped, either into fireman’s nets, or to their death before the East Germans tore down the houses behind the facades, leaving the facades as the wall, until a decade later the facades came down and the standard 3 meter reinforced concrete wall 3.0 went up. In 1964 I photographed the monument to an 80 year old woman Olga Segler, who jumped and missed the fireman’s net. She died. I photographed a new monument to her in 1990. In 2008, during the anniversary of the fall of the wall, she had a talking monument, a student holding her name and a tape recorder telling her story. Now the monument is a stone set in the sidewalk. While snow covers the sidewalk someone has cleared the stone so we can read it. I went back to the site with Suzi on Wednesday. A group of school students stood around the stone, an interpreter told Olga’s story. This section of the wall is “represented” by two rows of upright steel pipes. It is very striking. They are interspersed with original sections of the wall. In one block along the street the whole wall has been recreated, the double wall with the death strip in the middle and a watchtower. Stainless steel walls book end it so, in the right light, the reflection makes the wall look like it goes on forever. In the former death strip the Church of the Reconciliation, the original was torn down, is replaced with a modern church which holds the old alter piece. The original church bells swing in a wooden frame outside the church.
Radio Days is as much a festival as a conference, a festival of radio crazies who love the medium. It is where radio, the Internet, Spotify, Pandora, social media and mobile apps all meet. It points to the future of radio. And research is showing that radio listening is on the rise with young people in some countries, especially when radio engages social media. As one speaker said, TV did not kill the radio star, Video did not kill the radio star. The radio star is now also the Facebook and Twitter star.
So Radio Days are over for another year, next year they are in Dublin. And Suzi are walking in the snow. We walk from the Brandenburg gate to our hotel on Axel Springer Street, a hotel that 23 years ago would have been in the death strip. We walk past Checkpoint Charlie. Someone has taken sections of the wall and painted a gallery of modern dictators waiting for falling. The newest wall panel is Assad of Syria. He joins Mugabe from Zimbabwe, Kim from Korea, and Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, among others.
Axel Springer, after whom the street was named, was a German newspaper tycoon. His company owns the biggest papers in Serbia and in Slovakia as well as papers in Germany. In 1959 he built his tall headquarters building right on the border. Two years later the wall ran right up to his building. He enlarged the building. He wanted to show East Berliners that his Morgen Post still published even though they couldn’t read it. Now the wall is down and Morgen Post has access to its parking lot again. On the 50th anniversary of the building, his company commissioned a sculpture of a man walking on top of the wall, balancing. It is surrounded by panels from the original wall. The wall is gone, a free press remains.