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East Berlin Resurgent

By David Sturm

Berlin's Green Man (Ampelmannchen) is on the move.

Hat perched on head, arms and legs outthrust in a jolly cakewalk, he's everywhere in the city -- worn on lapels, decorating magazine covers, pasted in shop windows. He's virtually a mascot of the reunified city.

Also, and most significantly, he is an emblem of pride in resurgent East Berlin, where he flashes on every street corner as the "walk" signal for pedestrians.

West Berlin has a different walk signal, an uncertain-looking fellow stepping ahead tentatively. Maybe he's not so sure he wants to cross the street. As the reunited city begins to standardize its long-separated infrastructures, there was some question whether East Berlin's high stepper would gradually disappear and be replaced by West Berlin's shuffler. A "Save the Green Man" campaign arose a little over a year ago and the whole city has embraced him.

"The Green Man is a little part of our identity," said Kathrin Ruemmler, a 28-year-old research engineer and a proud native of East Berlin. "Our sign looks better than the one in the west. The campaign is a way of saying, 'Don't erase who we are.'"

The East gets hip

Like its mascot, East Berlin is taking big strides.

The western sector may have its silk stocking neighborhoods, its posh shops and lush parks, but the east has become the epicenter of the au courant. Streets like Oranienburger Strasse and Rosenthaler Strasse in Berlin Mitte -- "Middle Berlin," the old showcase of Prussian might stretching from Brandenburg Gate to Alexanderplatz -- and the neighborhoods south of Brandenburg Gate around Potsdamer Platz and to the northeast in Prenzlauer Berg buzz with cafe chat by day and rumble with techno music by night.

Oranienburger Strasse, less than half a mile east of where the Berlin Wall stood, is practically the capital of Berlin hipdom. It's chockablock with bars-cum-art galleries like Silberstein, Obst & Gemuse and Cafe Orange. Nearby are the techno-rave madhouse Tresor, where you can shake it in a former bank vault, and Delicious Doughnuts, the acid-jazz venue that boasts both its own record label and web site (http://www.doughnuts.de).

At Oranienburger Strasse 53 is the vast and slightly preposterous Tacheles, a warren of galleries, clubs, art studios and restaurants inside the former Friedrichstrasse Arcade, a semi-ruined department store. Its quasi-legal occupants have long been squabbling with city officials over squatters rights, artistic freedom and, of course, money. This seven-year-old house of outre culture, which shows every sign of becoming a permanent fixture of the city, is the kind of place you can shop for a sculpture made out of working flamethrowers, videocassettes of underground movies, computer-generated art or a cute robot, not to mention the usual T-shirts and coffee mugs. Find a table amid the iron armatures sticking this way and that in the sculpture garden (watch your head!) and catch the slackers of Europe hard at work trying to out-cool each other.

If Berlin Mitte is where you wear a ring through your eyebrow, Prenzlauer Berg is where you wear it more sensibly in your earlobe. Dubbed "Yuppie Town Prenzlauerberg," this old neighborhood about a mile northeast of Berlin Mitte is undergoing a blitzkrieg of gentrification. Rising rents have forced an estimated 70,000 East Berliners, mostly young families, to flee elsewhere for cheap digs to make room for battalions of young executives and DINK couples (double income, no kids), most of whom are Wessies (west Berliners).

On weekends, they come to Prenzlauer Berg from all over the city on Berlin's subway, the U-Bahn, to make the weekend scene around the neighborhood's two main landmarks, Kollwitzplatz and the Wasserturm (Water Tower), scarfing pasta at chic eateries like Die Krahe, arguing politics under a portrait of Karl Marx at the Westphal Cafe or checking out the jam sessions at the nightclub Cafe-Kunstfabrik Schlot.

East Berlin may be one of the few urban areas in the world where a city official would be quoted in the newspaper promoting lenient treatment for graffiti artists who get caught. Wouldn't want to scar a teenage paint bomber with a criminal record! The city has an estimated 3,000 graffiti artists and a ride on the 1 tram along Prenzlauer Allee, which stretches from Berlin Mitte northeast to Prenzlauer Berg, is like a tour of their gallery.

Where Ossies don't meet Wessies

Although Ms. Ruemmler, the East Berliner quoted above, wouldn't be caught dead at a rave on Oranienburger Strasse (she's a country & western music fan), she takes out-of-town friends to Prenzlauer Berg, the urban living blocks at Hellersdorf and other places in the east. In fact, she rarely even goes to West Berlin, which she finds full of self-centered people who value only money.

Lots of East Berliners share her attitude.

A 1997 study conducted by the Leipzig Institute for Market Research found that only one-fourth of Ossies (east Berliners) could imagine themselves living in the west. Many scorn the west as a fount of egotism, greed, arrogance and immorality. The study found that East Germans see themselves as more industrious, family-oriented and willing to help others.

While the study may show that East Germans value a hardscrabble identity forged over four decades of communist rule, there's no trading in nostalgia over politics. Other studies show that less than 5 percent want the old regime back.

You need only visit Alexanderplatz to see why.

In East Berlin, Alexanderplatz is inescapable. A vast, mind-numbing concrete plain of socialist modern architecture, dotted here and there with an old church, Alexanderplatz is the epitome of old regime kitsch. Ten new skyscrapers to be built in the next decade will no doubt transform the square's drab, uninviting appareance, but for now it's a place to buy cheap socks or CDs at open-air kiosks or puzzle over how to read the international clock.

The main reason tourists go to "Alex," as Berliners fondly call it, is to ride to the top of the Fernsehturm, the soaring television tower (second highest construction in Europe), which looms over all Berlin like the Death Star impaled on a spike. From the observation deck or the tower restaurant, more than 200 meters up, you can imagine that knob off in the distance is the tip of the Eiffel Tower.

Unter den Linden, which connects Alexanderplatz to Brandenburg Gate, was the old city's grand promenade, clattering at different times with the hooves of Hohenzollern cavalry and the boots of torch-bearing Nazis. Now, the boulevard's windswept spaces are in sore need of street life. Pedestrian-level activities and services are currently in the works.

Where to buy that Green Man pin

On the north side of Unter den Linden is Museumsinsel (Museum Island), a clutch of art museums dominated by the Pergamon Museum, which holds one of the world's most awe-inspiring displays of ancient architecture. You have to crane your neck inside the mammoth rooms to look up at the Babylonian Ishtar Gate, the Roman Market Gate at Miletus and the friezes of the Pergamon Altar of Zeus. The Pergamon Museum's collection makes manifest the century of German scholarship that began with the legendary archaeologist and plunderer Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890).

After exiting the Pergamon, visitors can give their neck a rest at the outdoor flea market just over the Spree river that runs along Am Kupfergraben. There's plenty of the usual leather goods, used books, cassettes and knick-knacks, but several stands specialize in communist era items, including medals, posters and vintage magazines with advice on how to spy on your neighbor. Here is a good place to buy your Green Man pin.

Opposite Museumsinsel on the south side of Unter den Linden is the big, boxy and quite empty Palace of the Republic, the former East German parliament building. Sheathed in reflective bronze-tinted glass, it has been closed ever since the discovery of asbestos in the walls.

The Palace of the Republic has become a focal point of Berlin's debate over what is and isn't worth saving from the communist era. Many want it torn down. Others, including not only East Berlin natives but the city's own architectural curators, see it as worthy of preservation, a focal point of a lost political identity.

The further west you go on Unter den Linden, the less interesting it gets. However, it's worth making a stop in front of Humboldt University (alumni include Hegel, Marx, Einstein and the Brothers Grimm), where books are for sale on table tops.

The Berlin Wall has all but disappeared. But so many visitors are curious about where it stood -- and so many Berlin natives have fuzzy memories of where it stood -- that city officials have taken to painting a red stripe, to be replaced later by a row of cobblestones, to show its location.

To immerse yourself in giddy Cold War paranoia, there's only one place to go -- Haus Am Checkpoint Charlie, the museum situated at the location of what was once the world's tensest border crossing.

Haus Am Checkpoint Charlie at Friedrichstrasse 43-44 is a real house, or more precisely, a series of rooms going through several houses. The walls, floors and stairwells here are a crazy quilt of inspiring, frightening and poignant relics -- escape contraptions, fake passports, propaganda posters, protest art, screaming headlines, hero dissidents, booby traps and much more. Several televisions are going at once, showing everything from Cold War documentaries to Erwin Leiser's "Mein Kampf." One car on display invites visitors to find the secret compartment where an escapee hid, replaced now with a dummy.

The Cold War demarcation between East and West Berlin was once likened to a shop window, with the Ossies outside peering hungrily at the array of western goodies on the other side. Reunification has revealed a measure of western self-congratulation in that cliche.

The Green Man struts happily these days in his beloved East Berlin. The only wall hindering his freedom to go where he wants now is the one surrounding the construction sites.

(Originally appeared in the Washington Post on June 14, 1998.)

(c) 1994-2001 David and Chris Sturm
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