Places That Are Gone

Last week, I was returning from buying coffee at Galleries Lafayette on Friedrichstr. when I turned a corner and — POW! — there was a huge hole where something had been. I stopped and gaped. What had been there before? It was a district between the railroad tracks and the river, a sort of no-man’s-land, but it was someplace I’d been many times before. Something was gone, yet I had no idea what. But that it was gone was absolutely certain.

I went back yesterday to shoot it, and by then the bulldozers had smoothed over the rubble. This is one feature of demolitions in Berlin: there’s always something below, often ghosts of bombed buildings, their cellars, or their air-raid shelters. That’s what I saw when I first saw this site, but nothing of the sort is visible in the shot you see above. Still, a huge hunk of a city block has just vanished, as you can see.

To write about Berlin is to write about what’s not there any more. I’m not old enough to be able to remember what was there before the Allied bombings and the depredations of the Russian soldiers as they retook the city, but you don’t have to be in your 80s to gasp in shock when you revisit a familiar block and see that it’s gone. There’s an absolute mania for tearing down the past here without spending much time thinking about it. It makes the future more accessible, even if there’s not really a plan for that future at hand, and it also erases a past which is frequently filled with inconvenient facts.

A classic example is the Palast der Republik, the former headquarters of the East German government. PBS in America just did an interesting piece on it, 17 minutes long, and worth watching every second, although the guy soft-pedals the political affiliations of the people who want to rebuild the Schloss. (I also posted a long comment, and although I doubt they’ll post it, maybe they’ll show it to the filmmaker). The vehemence with which the pro-demolition forces pursue their agenda in this film is frightening, but all too common in a city whose motto is “tear it down today, worry about it tomorrow.”

Incidentally, here’s what the Palast looked like yesterday:

It’ll be gone by this time next year, if not by Christmas.

But buildings are just buildings, and what I’m beginning to miss about Berlin is a sense of mystery which made it unique for me when I first came here and for many years thereafter. I used to work on Linienstr., just a block away from where I live today, and there was one block of that street on which every single building was pocked with bullet holes from the street-to-street fighting the Russians engaged in while taking control of the city. I used to walk down that street and imagine the sheer number of bullets expended, any one of which could have killed me if I’d been in its way. Nor was Linienstr. alone in this; plenty of other streets in the neighborhood shared this feature, although not necessarily on every building. But there was enough to remind one of the horrors of war far more eloquently than the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedachtniskirche near Zoo Station. That’s just a war ruin. Walking down Linienstr. was like being in a place seconds after the war was over.

Today, it is nearly impossible to find bullet holes. That is absolutely mind-boggling to me, that no one has sought to preserve this most eloquent reminder of what war is like for the average civilian. Churches get bombed: we know that. It could be Coventry Cathedral, or it could be the Kaiser Wilhelm. But an obscure street with little traffic is not a landmark. Still, you were reminded, it happened there, too.

That was another facet of the suddenly-vacated lot I stumbled upon. There was an old building there, and the demolition had made its bullet holes suddenly a lot easier to see:

No doubt this building, if it’s allowed to stand, will soon be scrubbed and sanitized and divested of its patina of history, too.

Rather autumnal thoughts for the gorgeous summer weather we’ve been having (although there are always threatening-looking clouds in the sky and a forecast of rain always hovering a day or two off, nothing’s happened so far), but these, I’m afraid, are the sorts of thoughts that you get when you live in the middle of a place with this sort of heritage. But since I now have a good camera, I’m going to be documenting a lot of this stuff in the neighborhood, because I know it probably won’t be there much longer.

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