“Don’t tear down this wall!” This phrase may sound shocking to Berliners who lived for decades in a divided city and celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But it is the rallying cry of the current protest in Berlin to preserve the East Side Gallery, a 1.3 kilometer section of the Berlin Wall in the Friedrichshain neighborhood.
The East Side Gallery is the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall and functions today as an open-air museum and international monument to freedom. It is the second-most visited tourist attraction in Berlin, with an estimated 800,000 visitors per year. Commissioned in 1990 following the fall of the wall, Berlin invited artists from all over the world to paint the eastern side of the wall, which during the Soviet occupation remained blank, while the western side was covered in protest art and graffiti. The gallery consists of 105 mural paintings, including the iconic kiss between Leonid Breshnev and Erich Honecker and the painting of a Trabant, the famous East German car, breaking through the wall.
The East Side Gallery is decorated by over a hundred mural paintings, including the Trabant breaking free.
Controversy has broken out in the last weeks over a new building project along the Spree river that would require a 20 meter section of the East Side Gallery to be removed. The building project is two-fold: one part is a private endeavor by the developer Living Bauhaus to build a tower of offices and luxury apartments, and the other part is a public city project to rebuild the “Brommy Bridge,” a pedestrian and cyclist bridge that was destroyed in World War II.
Construction began on March 3, but an estimated 10,000 protestors quickly brought things to a halt. Only one 1.5 meter section of the wall was removed before the police deemed it unsafe to continue. Students, parents with baby carriages, tourists, and prominent politicians and public figures called for the preservation of the site as art and history, and condemned the building project as gentrification.
The current outcry about the East Side Gallery is an example of what many Berliners see as a trend towards commercialization and gentrification that threatens the city’s character. For planning officials, it is a delicate balance: Berlin derives much of its appeal for both developers and tourists as an alternative, hip, and dynamic city. Sacrifice too many of these beloved features, and Berlin loses that cache. But Berlin also has major financial problems and high unemployment, meaning that the city needs to promote development. The current East Side Gallery controversy is a part of this ongoing dilemma in Berlin, and may set a precedent for how the city and developers will carry out these projects in the future.