Two Roads Diverged

Zwei Wege Trennten Sich

Translations of this essay in German and Bahasa Malaysia appear in ‘Kuala Lumpur – Berlin: Kisah Dua Bandar Raya / Kuala Lumpur – Berlin: Stadtgeschichten’ (2012), a book by the Goethe-Institut Malaysia and the Malaysian Institute of Translation & Books.

We took a different route that day. It was a Frostian decision, but one of “knowing how way leads on to way” rather than seeking the portentousness of taking less-travelled paths. For we were, quite simply, exploring Berlin. Still, we were stunned where this path took us.

A formal rose garden, a strange Oriental statue, a massive lake and a sunken park. It was early Spring and all was crisp and green after a Winter that had been harsh even for Berlin. The trellises that lined the broad avenue of the rose garden were heavy with blooms, the flowers dotting the foliage like a Monet painting. In the middle was a so-called Indischen Brunnen (Indian fountain) topped by an androgynous yogi figure and featuring, among other things, spouting lion heads.

At the far end of the lake, lush reeds provided a picturesque screen for the cafe patrons, and a home to birds and even turtles.

The lake’s expansiveness contrasted with the sunken park, which stretched eastwards in a narrow ‘J’. Set several metres lower than street level, the intimate space’s landscaped sections bookended wilder vegetation. At the park’s end, swathes of lavender stalks, appropriately phallic as befitted the season, rippled in gradations of purple and textured whorls.

The whole was known as the Luisenstädtischer Kanal, and its peacefulness was startlingly at odds with the area’s immediately preceding embodiment – the so-called Death Strip of the Berlin Wall. That it had been transformed into a thing of beauty and reflection rooted in nature was typical of Berlin. Likewise was how it had been transformed – through citizen action and the peeling away of pasts to one that would fit the present.

In Berlin, spaces open up in unexpected and inexplicable ways, a legacy of both World War II and the Cold War. But it is these spaces, their possibilities and evolution that have added edge and character to the Capital of Cool. And as the city grows and changes, what to do with these spaces is a guaranteed lightning rod for responses that range from the measured and practical to the impassioned and aggrieved.

For at the very heart of the debate is Identity.

And so, many recreational areas in Berlin are never merely planned nor accidental, the natural is rarely sculpted by nature alone, and histories are never far in the background.

Thus did we find when we encountered the Luisenstädtischer Kanal. An actual canal dredged when the area was Luisenstadt, an independent city that existed between 1802 and 1920, it has undergone numerous facelifts. Failing to serve its original purpose of drainage and transport, it was refilled. Because the canal was also part of a new civic centre, in 1926, an inspired director of urban gardens turned it into a green ensemble that would fulfill at least that civic purpose.

Of the ten different sections, the most ingenious was transforming the otherwise too-narrow ‘J’ section into a quirky sunken park.

War destroyed the garden but it was the Berlin Wall that kept it a wasteland. After the Wall fell, residents rallied against the building of a highway there. Excavations revealing surprisingly intact garden structures sealed the case for the area’s return to its green glory and renewed civic purposefulness, with the additional goal of reuniting the former East and West.

The same can be said of Berlin’s many waterways, parts of which also served as the Death Strip during the Cold War.

Today, these are among sections along the Spree and Berlin’s numerous canals, which are open to the public. They are among our favourite walking routes, for they allow us to breath in and be part of the largeness of space afforded by both the broad, lazy waters and wide tree-lined banks.

For when buildings and roads and cars and pavements and bodies crowd a waterway, they crowd out its potential to lift spirits, ease worries, inspire poetry and feed ducks. No matter how wide a waterway, you need space around it to enjoy it.

Some wise Berliners saw this and, at least for a 3.7-kilometre stretch of the Spree, initiated an action to keep the banks free against one of the city’s largest investment property consortia. Specifically, it was a citizen group of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, the most densely populated of Berlin’s boroughs, in which this stretch of the Spree runs. The initiative, which the group led, was against the Mediaspree, an urban renewal project whose masterplan included establishing mainly media and entertainment companies along the Spree.

The citizen group’s ‘Sink the Mediaspree’ initiative got a referendum going, which resulted in 87 percent of voters voting against the masterplan. Instead, voters demanded new development guidelines such as a 50-metre riverbank buffer zone, which would incorporate pedestrian and bicycle pathways and allow for creative public uses of the area.

New buildings were also to be limited to a height of 22 metres, the traditional height restriction of Berlin buildings.

The investment consortium behind the Mediaspree claims changes to the development plan is costing the city between thirty and hundreds of millions of Euros.

But then, creative Berliners have never waited for outcomes of citizen actions, even along this small section of the Spree.

A well-known action that occurred as soon as the Cold War ended in 1989, was how artists from all over the world captured the spirit of the Fall of the Wall on a section of the hated Spree-bordering barrier. Now known as The East Side Gallery, it sits in the area targeted by the Mediaspree. In time, the artwork was what succeeded in saving from demolition what is now, at a length of 1.3 kilometres, the longest surviving stretch of the Berlin Wall. This is also the world’s longest and oldest open-air art gallery.

On the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall, The East Side Gallery was given a much-publicised restoration. What was less promoted was that the riverbank behind the wall was also given a facelift.

One day, after filling my mind and heart with the newly-resonating, graffiti-less Wall art, I walked behind the gallery and sat down on the freshly-planted grass with my feet dangling over the Spree. The wall stretched out behind me. I contemplated the broad river and, on my left, a striking 19th-century brick Gothic bridge called the Oberbaumbrücke.

It was a sunny Autumn day and the tourists were – happily – keeping to the other side of the wall, where the artwork was. A light breeze was blowing, swallows were showing off their crazy acrobatics over the water, and barges were making their measured way through the wide arches of the bridge.

It was serene but it was a serenity that felt heavy, laden with the price paid for it during the Cold War. The width of this wonderful river was once a Death Strip. The fairytale bridge was a border crossing allowing only one-way traffic, from West Berlin to East Berlin. On one day in this time, perhaps a day like this one, close to the bridge, a West German five-year-old had fallen into the river and drowned because there were no protocols allowing West Berliners to respond to water emergencies along the border. East Berlin guards did nothing.

Maybe that is why Berlin needs fantasy too.

In recent years, music, voices and laughter have been floating above the artwork of The East Side Gallery’s middle section. Again, it was serendipity that led us to the source of these sounds.

The first time we checked it out, we could not believe the incongruity of what we saw. Sand: lots of it. In fact, about 7,000 square metres of it, right by the Spree.

In our world, sand belongs with the sea, but obviously, land-locked Berliners are undeterred by the lack of this minor detail. Nor by the fact that you cannot actually even swim in the river (it is too polluted, though it does not look it).

But this combination of dumped sand adjacent to a water body has so grabbed the imagination of Berliners that this artificial beach, the (East Beach), is only one of many urban beaches in the city. It is in fact, Berlin’s largest seashore Utopia, complete with a beach bar, deck chairs, and inflatable swimming pools.

In the warmer months, you’d be hard-pressed to find a spare quadrant in which to perch your suntan lotion and wriggle your toes. Be prepared to battle sunbathers cooling down with a Caipirinha, but definitely stay out of the way of men and women hell-bent on throwing balls as hard as possible in furious games of beach dodgeball (Strandvölkerball). In fact, with the presence of Asian masseurs, one could even imagine one were in Phuket.

And that little issue about not being able to swim in the Spree? Well, that could be a thing of the past, thanks to an ambitious programme called Spree2011, which seeks to make the Spree swimmable.

Not only does it involve new engineering technology, it is also creating opportunities for natural and recreational use on the river itself, such as reed islands or cafes.

The pilot project is east of the Oststrand, still within the Mediaspree target area, and it lends indelible weight to having public access to riverbanks and attendant environments rather than office and commercial lots.

Meanwhile, having clean rivers might seem very 21st-century eco-trendy, but Spree2011 actually takes a leaf from the past.

Two hundred years ago, public bathhouses started taking hold in the Spree and grew in popularity. Confined areas were important then because not many people could swim but wanted to enjoy public bathing. Using water from the Spree, these bathhouses, in turn, contributed to the development of the art of swimming among Berliners.

They were so popular, there were seven in the Oberbaumbrücke vicinity alone in the 1930s, when dangerously high bacteria levels in the water led to the closure of all bathhouses in the city.

The earliest bathhouses were on barges and were called Badeschiff (literally ‘bathing ships’). In 2004, an artist revived this tradition not far from the river-cleaning pilot project. Called – appropriately and to recall that great era of swimming in the Spree – the Badeschiff, it comprises a river cargo container anchored in the river, which is filled with fresh water and heated.

The first sight of what it held in store was a life-sized black and red steam locomotive, what train enthusiasts would niftily identify as a Class 50 goods train locomotive. Against a backdrop of trees, it gleamed jauntily as if it were 1940. However, the tracks on which it perched were truncated. No. 50 3707-2 was going nowhere fast.

There were many of these railway tracks throughout this narrow park, appearing and disappearing into the ground, alone or in swathes, criss-crossing or running in parallel.

To reach this marvel, one walks through (surprise, surprise) an artificial beach, before navigating wooden decks which are themselves anchored in the river. Once one is in the pool, it is the closest possible feeling to swimming in the Spree, something no one had done for 70 years. It is a marvellous foretaste of what it would be like to be able to swim in the Spree itself in the near future.

Now, the Spree was to Berlin, no different from any other major river driving the growth of any number of cities, only to be overtaken by the railroad. But what will take over from the railroad? An intriguing and unorthodox park that arouses pique at this question is the Natur-Park Schöneberger Südgelände (Schöneberg South Nature Park).

It was a warm Spring day when I first visited the park, a 120-year-old former railway switchyard. Other railway-related bits and pieces abounded, from a 50-metre tall water tower to pumps and levers. The whole was covered in vegetation, lime green at this time of the year, and growing ‘creatively’ among or through or even out of these structures.

And it was the vegetation that made the park so uniquely fascinating. For alone and in itself, the rusting and rotting railway relics would have been the eyesore that abandoned industrial graveyards are the world over.

Instead, nature took over and transformed it, so that visitors must admire the branch-interlaced lamppost doing a great impression of a Henry Moore sculpture, or consider the irony of trees growing among timber sleepers carved out of their cousins. But only pure pleasure is evinced in witnessing a rifling squirrel taking purchase of the disused tracks as a kind of lookout.

Even as I contemplated the meanings of the nature of progress versus the progress of nature, trains whizzed past on either side of this narrow park, dizzily compressing the past and the present.

The Schöneberger Südgelände marshalling yard had been one of the busiest yards in Berlin but fell into disuse after World War II under particular circumstances resulting from occupation agreements.

Not foreseeing the Cold War, West Berlin, where the yard was located, came under Allied control, while the entire Berlin train system, which also ran in the West, was managed by East Berlin. After the Berlin Wall was erected, West Berliners boycotted the trains, forcing the eventual closure of half the West Berlin train network.

The Schöneberger Südgelände lay as it was for decades. Then in 1980, plans were passed to build a new freight station, which would incorporate this former yard. By that time, nature had firmly taken root in the area, and citizens banded to fight the clearing of the oasis.

Backed by an ecological report confirming the surprising wealth of the ecosystem, the area was identified as among the most valuable natural areas in Berlin, with sections even receiving protected status.

Today, visitors enjoy a unique complete railway setting hosting diverse plant communities ranging from dry heaths to liana-draped woodlands and dry grasslands.

Moreover, the existence of plants and creatures from other regions were very likely to have originated from piggybacking on trains way back when the yard was active!

Thus do histories and citizen determination combine in powerful ways to formulate the many engrossing green and recreational areas in Berlin. These spaces are colourful, important pieces in the mosaic of this city, and unexpected and fascinating in their diversity. ω

Experienced: 01.06.2009 || Recounted: 03.09.2010

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