The Standstill

OK: I mostly read this piece on the New York Times because of the great article image. Do check it out. In the peice, Ian Johnson writes about the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which makes for an interesting read about West Berlin in the 1980s. He calls it a “city on life support” and it makes it clear how very strange it was to live in that enclave surrounded by a hostile East German state.

Equally interesting, however is his scathing criticism of the city today. Johnson argues that the city is more of less stuck in the 1990s and that it profits mostly from decisions that were made 20 years ago:

(…) Since then, the city has been coasting, mostly consumed by small-bore issues instead of grasping the chance to become a truly great city. Berlin has tried to make a virtue of being a less polished version of London or Paris — in the words of its departing mayor, “poor, but sexy.” Yet that is more a reflection of a city whose ambitions rarely extend beyond narrow parochialism. (…)


(…) the city’s problems have started to pile up: the cheaply built central train station with its short roof and low ceilings; the failure to redevelop old Tempelhof Airport; the controversial proposal to shoehorn the city’s world-famous museum of European paintings into a smaller space; a similar, tourism-driven plan to shrink the Ethnological Museum and relocate it in a fake Baroque palace; and the inability to come up with effective measures to stave off gentrification. And then there’s the new airport. It was needed 20 years ago, was supposed to open in 2011 and is now unlikely to see traffic before 2016, by which time it already will be too small for projected passenger flows.

All these problems can be explained away as bad luck, or typical of ambitious, large-scale projects. And of course all big cities have their problems. But in Berlin’s case they are a fair reflection of the fact that the city has been treading water, and that many of Berlin’s accolades stem from the big changes of a quarter-century ago and not the efforts of city administrations since then.

He is certainly right that Berlin is profiting immensely from the historical circumstances 25 years ago. The entire East of the city could only look and feel the way it does because of the division – it was conserved, it developed in a completely different direction than the West. And he rightly laments the shortcomings of many formerly ambitious projects like the debacle of the new airport.

But I would argue that the failure to become like a German Paris or London is exactly what makes this city livable, that differentiates it in a positive way. Some grit and decay certainly makes it more interesting than the bland appearance elsewhere, some undeveloped land affords it the public space that is so painfully absent from many other cities.

I really makes me wonder what the ideal city looks like in Johnson’s eyes. While many of the city administration’s decisions may amount to standstill, it doesn’t mean the city and its people aren’t changing either.