COMMENT: Berlin, a city still in progress, threaded by brick stripe

Monday, November 9, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 3:18 p.m. CST, Monday, November 9, 2009
A small portion of the Berlin wall still standing in Berlin.

BERLIN — It was hot and humid this past July when I stood at the Brandenburg Gate. A brick stripe about a foot wide wound through the street in front of it like a hairline surgical scar. Pressed into the stripe was a little brass plate: "Berliner Mauer," it said. Berlin Wall.

In the center of the city, the stripe crawls across sidewalks and streets, slipping past the Potsdamer Platz and on toward Checkpoint Charlie, the military checkpoint where many East Germans tried to sneak into democratic West Berlin. People died trying to cross this line, many of whom were men my age. Headed toward a coffee shop, I effortlessly crossed the line that, until 20 years ago, had been a concrete embodiment of the Cold War. But the wall fell in 1989 — Germans call it the "Mauerfall" — and the barriers that divide Germany today are less conspicuous, now taking on racial, economic and political forms.

I had recently turned 24 and quit my job to backpack around Europe by myself for a while. I’d never been out of the States before, but they seemed to follow me. In Berlin, the big story in the news was that Michael Jackson had just died. At newsstands, his face was on the cover of every German magazine, each bearing vaguely Wagnerian headlines like “Triumph und Tragödie des Michael Joseph Jackson."

I’m a restless person, so I spent my time in Berlin exploring by foot, which allowed me to see the city up close. It was as if Berlin was erasing and reinventing itself before my  eyes. Construction cranes dominated the city’s low-set skyline, appearing to pop up overnight like gigantic steel dandelions. What wasn’t under construction? A thin layer of dust seemed to settle on everything.

You half expected to be handed a hardhat every time you stepped off the S-Bahn, Berlin’s elevated train. New buildings resembled high-tech origami, and public sculptures were gracefully abstract.

The city seemed obsessed with the avant-garde and the ultramodern — and wouldn’t you be too, if you had a past that included two world wars, the Holocaust and the Cold War?

Next door to my hostel, tucked onto a quiet street just off the Friedrichstrasse, an old red-brick industrial building had been converted into some kind of school or day care; the brick had been enthusiastically riddled by dozens of bullet holes. On the opposite side of the block, another old brick building had been tattooed by graffiti.

Someone had spray-painted in English "HOW LONG IS NOT LONG ENOUGH?" I looked at those words and thought about the American Cemetery at Normandy I’d visited a few days earlier. There were thousands of graves.

I had seen a marker for a GI who grew up a few miles away from me in rural Missouri. He was three years younger than me when he died.

While wandering a side street near Checkpoint Charlie, I encountered a stretch of the Berlin Wall that was still standing. Most remaining portions resemble a pockmarked neon moonscape.

During the fall of the wall, thousands of Germans had taken chisels and sledgehammers to help the dismantling in the spirit of civic duty, or maybe in anger or joy — pick your catharsis.

A little while later, I visited the archives of the Stasi, the East German secret police who kept millions of pages of documents on the spying they did on their own citizens. The archives had been opened 17 years ago, but Berliners still hovered outside the door, waiting their turn to see what their government had collected on them.

But it was soon obvious that to define Berlin by its past was to ignore everything that was complex and beautiful and new about this turbulent city.

I met up with a friend of a friend, Rafael, a German from Bavaria. We were at his flat, and while he cooked bratwurst for supper, we sat and drank beer and talked about politics, school and old girlfriends as sunlight crept across his dinner table.

He told me about German gangster rap and how it was a big deal that one of Berlin’s rappers had been shot — that was a new kind of street cred in Europe.

Rafael later sent me YouTube clips of Germans rapping about thug life on their way to the city’s hyperefficient public transportation system. Seventy years ago, he and I would have been on the opposite sides of a global conflict.

On my final morning in the city, I woke up to the sound of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony being rehearsed by a student orchestra at the conservatory across the street from my hostel. At that moment, I’m not sure if I could have heard anything more sublime.

As I walked to the train station, I stuck my hands in my pockets and looked at the buildings for the last time. A pretty girl in a red dress smiled as she rode by on her bike.

It started to rain, and businessmen and tourists covered their heads with newspapers and ducked into bookstores and coffee shops. Three Turkish men stood in the doorway of their fast-food shop, looking out.

Berlin, it seemed to me, is racing toward the future, with no wall in its way.

Matt Pearce is a graduate student in the Missouri School of Journalism from Cleveland, Mo.

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Laura McNamara November 9, 2009 | 3:39 p.m.

Excellent piece Matt. The article manages to calmly exude news quality professionalism while also presenting a subtly poetic style. An absolutely refreshing feat in the world of "pyramid-style" journalism. Artfully crafted Matt.

Not to mention, you successfully whisked me back to the experiences of my own visit last winter.

I'm glad you were as notably impacted by Berlin's modern transformation as I was...

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