Marc Lefkowitz | 11/06/11 @ 4:00pm
What's striking about Germany, and in particular Berlin and other reconstruction cities like Dresden, is the national inclination toward conservation and efficiency seem to be guiding the rebuilding efforts today.
But the built environment over much of Berlin at first glance is a dizzying experience. It's a city in many ways still grappling with the decisions made in its post-War and pre-unification state.
Berlin is not a well-planned city in the classic sense. Seen from behind the wheel in a drive from the Kreuzberg neighborhood, which is in the former East Berlin, over a canal and under an elevated S-Bahn train line to the area around the Zoo reminds us of the old Times Square. Most of the building stock and street layout is vintage 1960s—modernist facades that aren't aging well and a road network not on a grid with major arterials meeting each other in odd, angular ways that seem to accelerate confusion.
Still, the next day after we relinquish the rental car and explore the city on foot, we notice the good points—secondary boulevards are relatively quiet and connect the colossal buildings around Alexander Platz to a very moving historical site located at a major divide: Checkpoint Charley.
It's a city that's good at the grand statement building and the vista to soak it in such as the hyper touristy, linear Pariser Platz. At least no giant surface parking lots can be found in the central city. The large, tree-lined Tier Garden is a great escape valve from the crush of tourists at the Brandenberg Gate and the Reichstag, which is fronted by a big lawn that appears to be the roof of an underground garage (important to have these spaces when traveling with a 17-month old).
From the green space by the Reichstag, the glass arch of the new, half a billion dollar Normal Foster designed German national rail station can be seen. I mention this because the country's priorities seem to be focused in, on the urban core (this is confirmed by our experience with Berlin Tegel Airport, a cramped, dumpy place that feels like it hasn't been cleaned or improved since it was built in the Sixties).
But, walking from Checkpoint Charlie back to Kreuzberg, what strikes you is how quickly the care falls off and the true grittiness of the city creeps in. The McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts of the scrubbed Pariser Platz are replaced by weedy vacant lots and some funky but often dirty GDR buildings (only a few remaining art deco buildings are still standing and when you see them you are only reminded of the oppression of the past mistakes).
The fact is, Berlin is still standing, but it's like a bruised prizefighter late in its prime. It's been 20 years since the Wall came down, but you get the sense that the city is still limping into its next chapter. After a brief and frustrating visit to the disorienting but very moving Daniel Liebiskind-designed Jewish Museum, we cross over the stagnant canal and we're back in former GDR territory. We wander into the housing projects around Meringdam Platz; a sordid, Brutalist place plastered in graffiti on sad little nightclubs. It's not the abject poverty you find in American core cities, rather, it wreaks of a resignation, of pining for "the former times".
Once in Kreuzberg proper, the energy picks up even if the grit doesn't wipe away. Packed with young families who bike together, busy sidewalk cafes, and more quiet avenues whose denizens include aging 60s revolutionaries who squatted in the rows of belle epoch and four-story GDR walk ups, Kreuzberg is the hipster enclave that reminds me of Williamsburg or parts of Portland.
A word about green infrastructure in Germany, both inside and out. It looks like they don't hold back from trying many different types of treatments. In two weeks there, we see bike/ped shared use paths separated by red and grey cobblestone, tram lines sharing greenways and bike paths, a variety of hardscape surfaces from grasscrete to permeable pavers. A funny discovery about Berlin were the pink pipes snaking overhead in Potsdamer Platz. Here we thought, 'oh, they're using those pipes to designate where the Wall went.' In fact, we found out later, these were actual sewer pipes running overhead. Apparently Berlin has tapped out the space below ground for infrastructure. At least they make these overhead sewer pipes aesthetically interesting.
In hotels we experienced light switches and showers on timers, triple-pane windows even in the most modest pension, low flow toilets and compact fluorescent bulbs are standard issue. In Berlin, street lights scaled for cars are only on main roads and these are fluorescent tube fixtures (side streets have pedestrian scale lights or none at all).
In Dresden, we're invited for coffee and pflaum und apfel kuchen (plum and apple cake) and discover that living space is at a serious premium. Our hosts, like us, are a young couple and a small child but instead of our 1,800 sq. ft. American colonial they live in a pre-renovated walk up (meaning it hasn't been touched since before GDR times) in an apartment divided by a hallway into three small rooms. Our idea of personal space is so out of line with the rest of the world. This is a mature economy and indeed, they are bothered by the size of their place and the fact that ownership is out of reach.
Maybe the smaller living arrangements explain why so many young parents and kids in Dresden and Berlin use the parks and pocket spielplatz as their living room-spending as many hours there even on cool days as possible. I do think in this regard-being less hung up on germs and always looking for the 'safest' thing to do or place to be-Americans can learn from our Germans contemporaries.
Between the serious endeavors to learn math and science that we experienced at the Math Adventure Land, an exhibit at the Technical Museum and the parents who don't think twice to let their kids crawl all over cobblestone wearing rubber overalls, I can see why Americans think Germans are tough. But we conclude that the parents here care about safety when there's something to be concerned with, and otherwise, they don't hover and stand in the way of their kids falling down and picking themselves up again. Having our young son experience some of this is the best souvenir we bring home.