These days, Berlin is like a giant that is stretching its limbs and trying to find a new balance. For the first two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the giant moved only its right foot and arm. No longer divided by a wall, Berlin was divided in other ways. Everything that was new and exciting was happening in the east. Those first years were the time of sky-high cranes, the overnight birth of entire new urban districts where vast empty spaces had sat for years, when people seemed to prefer going to construction sites instead of the theatre, opera or museums. In contrast, the western half of the city — with the exception of the bustling immigrant neighbourhoods in Kreuzberg and a few squares in Schöneberg and Charlottenburg — seemed to have fallen asleep.
Over the past five years or so, though, this has begun to change. Until the early 1930s, West Berlin was the city’s racing heart. Now, it is beating once again. But it has not eclipsed the east — far from it. The whole city is prospering: Unemployment has fallen; the economy is growing faster than in any other German city. Finally, Berliners feel good in their city.
No, wait: not so much in their city as in their kiez, the local term for neighbourhood. Interestingly, even as the city has rebalanced itself, it has broken apart into dozens of pieces. An August survey by Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg, a regional broadcaster, found that while 52 per cent of respondents said they could easily imagine leaving Berlin for a good job in another city, fewer than 18 per cent, answering a separate question, said they could imagine leaving their kiez. Perhaps neighbourhood loyalty is more or less evident in any major city. But Berlin’s case is special. It’s as if, even as all the surface evidence points to a unifying city, Berlin still can’t accept its own unification. Four out of 10 Berliners in the survey said they still didn’t feel at home in a united Berlin.
In part that’s because of the long, painful division between east and west. But it’s also because the city, in a country famous and infamous for efficiency and other “German virtues”, can’t seem to move forward on the kind of grand projects that might symbolise unity. The only largescale project that is currently on schedule is the reconstruction of the palace of the Hohenzollern kings, in central Berlin, which many Berliners consider completely unnecessary.
Another major project, the Berlin-Brandenburg international airport, which really is indispensable, was originally scheduled to open on October 30, 2011. After an initial postponement to 2012, it became apparent that there were problems with the airport’s fire protection system. In the meantime, thousands of other defects have come to light, further opening dates have come and gone, and the airport’s new chief executive doggedly refuses to name a new date. Instead, dates for the announcement of yet another projected opening are announced. Berliners are reminded of a remark by a former East German head of state. Two months before the wall was built, in June 1961, Walter Ulbricht proclaimed, “No one intends to build a wall.” In a variation on this lie, Berliners now quip, “No one intends to open an airport.”
Even so, there is no lack of signs of a new “we-feeling” in Berlin. After Germany won the World Cup this year, I headed to the Kurfürstendamm. After just a few minutes, the procession of cars came to a standstill amid a concert of honking horns. Even though it began to drizzle lightly, none of the many convertible drivers put up their tops. Arms, legs and necks jutted out of every car window, roof and hatchback, celebrating with a collective victory sign. It was loud and cheerful, and hardly a false note was struck.
In short, Berlin is finding new ways to celebrate, to feel good about ourselves as Berliners, as Germans, no “east” or “west” or “foreigners” allowed. The fact that more and more people feel at home in Berlin today is more or less unwittingly supported by the diversity of our government, which was unthinkable in the years of the Cold War.
Schneider is the author, most recently, of ‘Berlin Now: The City After the Wall’. This essay was translated by Sophie Schlondorff from the German.