Whither Amerika Haus?

In German cities — excuse me, make that West German cities, the Amerika Haus was something you just always assumed was there. Exactly what it was was hard to figure out: was it an adjunct of the government, a propaganda tool, a reference center for Germans needing information on the States, or what? The answer was, yes, all of the above, and doubtless, especially in Berlin, just a bit more, if you catch my drift.

The Amerika Haus here was a squat, ugly box visible from the tracks of the S-Bahn at Zoo Station, sitting on Hardenburgstr. separating Zoo’s sleaze from more upper-crust offerings like a Steinway showroom and an art college. Word soon got out among expats settling here that it had a great lending-library if you could negotiate the German harridan who reigned over it, and so did the British Council just a few doors down. It also had a small auditorium to which authors and other speakers came from time to time (I once saw Paul Williams of Crawdaddy give a lecture on Bob Dylan there, pretty much the first time I’d seen him since I’d quit the magazine in 1967), and a nice exhibition space which hosted a fine show of jazz photography by William Gottlieb, Herman Leonard, and William Claxton which I covered for the Wall Street Journal, and, in the process, got to interview and meet these great masters — three of the coolest old hipsters it’s ever been my pleasure to hang out with.

Signing up for the library remained one of those things I was going to get around to doing (hey, they were cool enough to have a copy of Rock of Ages, the book I’d co-authored), and one day a friend was raving about Alan Lomax’s book The Land Where the Blues Began, and recommended I get it from the Amerika Haus library, because it was a pricey item. I went down there and discovered…all the books had been sold off the previous weekend. In fact, the place looked gutted; there was almost nothing there; a few computer terminals dedicated to study overseas for German students, some pamphlets, and that was it. I later found out that the attitude of the American government was that since we’d won the Cold War, there was no more need for an Amerika Haus, although a couple of them had opened in cities in East Germany and were being maintained for the time being.

I thought this was awfully short-sighted, since after all Berlin was one of Germany’s most important cities, half of it had been isolated from all things American for fifty years, and there was an intense interest in the country on the part of Ossis I knew who could now travel or study there. At one point, trying to raise money for my English-language magazine and website project, my colleagues and I visited there to talk to some kind of “information officers,” and they all wished us luck and told us the institution was broke and they were all being transferred at some point.

Amerika Haus just sat there, and my trips up and down Hardenburgstr. became rarer and rarer, so it wasn’t until a couple of days ago that it came back into my life. A friend forwarded an invitation to a meeting in the Rotes Rathaus which was to be chaired by some people who wanted to turn the now-empty building into a center for cultural diplomacy. As much because I was curious about the interior of the Rathaus, Berlin’s central administrative building, which dates to the 1860s, as anything else, I headed down there last night to see what was up.

The meeting started with a summary of the current situation: this past October 1, the U.S. Embassy, which had paid the lease on the building, which it was renting from the city, had stopped their

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