Alternative Tour of Berlin: City Planning Thoughts

Walking tour focusing on culture and creativity in Berlin

Today we took a tour of alternative Berlin. We had taken a historical tour of Berlin on the 13th but today’s walking tour focused on sources of innovation and creativity in Berlin. The tour focused on art and graffiti, urban culture, alternative lifestyles, cultural icons like the YAAM Beach Bar, and artists’ squats. Themes that ran through these sights were significance of the areas and current city planning problems including the tension between preservation of Berlin’s history and modernization initiatives that might spur economic growth.

The alternative tour focused on many aspects, including the graffiti culture in Berlin. Although this tag does not look that impressive, there is a large fine since this is a very public area under the Berlin train station. Graffiti artists often gain credibility for the measures they took to tag the area and this tag becomes arguably a bit more impressive when considering the likelihood of a big fine.

We started our tour at Alexanderplatz, one of the best-known public squares in Berlin. It was a central meeting place during communist rule in East Germany. It has the iconic Fernsehturm television tower and the surrounding shops are very commercialized—including a Starbucks and other shopping chains. Like much more of what we would see, Alexanderplatz demonstrated the tension between history and modernization are affecting Berlin’s growth and redevelopment.

We saw quite a bit of street art on the alternative tour and this sculpture spoke to the theme of an increasingly commercialized world. The Native American is wearing the cliche I

Another aspect of alternative Berlin relating to city planning that we saw was in the Hackescher Markt area, specifically the Spandauer Vorstadt area. A number of artists’ squats, workshops and galleries sprang up here in the early 1990s. The area we walked through was a former artists’ squat and now has a flea market, a beer garden, the Anne Frank Zentrum (home of the Anne Frank: Here and Now Exhibition), and the Monster Kabinett (part art gallery, part haunted house holding massive robotic creatures, metal sculptures, and insect-looking beasts). This former art squat describes the action of artists to occupy (squat) in abandoned buildings and using these to create art. The concept of art squats, some of which are still open, really spoke to the alternative culture of Berlin and how different conceptions of housing are in the United States as opposed to in Berlin. Art squats in Berlin seemed to be much more accepted in Berlin than squatting would be in the United States.

Hackescher Markt had a really great market with jewelry, produce, coffee, spices, and lots of food.
This is the former artists’ squat that now has two beer gardens, the Anne Frank exhibit, the small flea market, and graffiti and art on the walls

My favorite part of the tour was when our guide mentioned YAAM Beach Bar, which our group went to after the tour ended. YAAM is an acronym for “Young African Art Market” and is located on the River Spree. YAAM is a cultural hotspot and has a club, beachbar, and gallery, complete with sand, hammocks, and picnic tables. YAAM is incredibly laidback and although it’s really close to some of the main attractions in Berlin, namely the East Side Gallery (the largest remaining section of the Berlin Wall), it is not face paced and is a really unique area.

Mediaspree is one of the largest property investment projects in Berlin and aims to establish telecomm and media companies along the section of the banks of the River Spree where YAAM is located. Unused or temporary occupied real estate is to be converted into office buildings, lofts, hotels, and other new structures. Our guide said that YAAM’s current location is its third location due to these Mediaspree plans. YAAM is temporarily thriving in its current location, but only time will tell whether it will be able to survive the increasing commercialization of Berlin.

To the right of YAAM we saw the Mercedes-Benz arena being built which to me really embodied the increasing commercialization of Berlin. The arena is being built right by the East Side Gallery and Mercedes-Benz. That is the type of mix between history and modern initiatives that this alternative tour and all of our time in Berlin kept demonstrating. We can debate the merits of this commercialization and the Mediaspree plans, but it will likely take active citizens to keep places like YAAM from being bought up by larger corporations. This alternative tour demonstrated all of the careful planning that must go into city planning initiatives in a city that will likely keep growing for quite some time.

-Jennifer Craft

Farewell Dinner

The last gathering of the Burch program

After an exciting alternate tour of Berlin focusing on street art and gentrification, students were given about five free hours to explore the German capital city. Students dispersed in small groups to view the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, city center and the Tiergarten, Berlin’s largest inner-city park. After exploring the city students headed out to meet the professors for the farewell dinner reservation at 5:45, a couple S-Bahn stops away.

Städige Vertretung, the restaurant where students and professors gathered to eat their last meal together.

Professor Gangi and Radamker chose a restaurant called Ständige Vertretung, which means permanent or steady representation. Upon entering it was certain that the restaurant had an archive of history hanging on its walls. Black and white pictures of politicians, historical icons like the Berlin Wall and various photographs of political groups covered all available wall space.

Coaster and menu of the restaurant. It was quickly evident that this restaurant is a place of great history.
A hungry and happy Professor Gangi ponders the menu as he awaits students to arrive to the restaurant.

As it turns out, “Permanent representation” has a significant political meaning. After WWII, and the fall of the Nazi regime, the German country was controlled by two main political sectors. The Western Allies held the western side of the country while the Soviet Union covered the eastern side. Tensions began to grow between the east and the west territories which eventually led to the cold war. Citizens on the eastern side began to flee to the west for a safer life. In response to this migration, in 1961, the Berlin Wall was constructed to officially divide the two territories. Crossing was possible only at certain checkpoints, as for instance Checkpoint Charlie, though only people from West Berlin were able to pass through to the East. These two sides did not have regular embassies, but “steady representations” in the regions of Bonn and East-Berlin. When the Berlin wall was torn down in November 9th, 1989, a bitter fight commenced between the west and east capital cities. Eventually the city of Bonn lost and Berlin became the capital of the united Germany, after which the city expanded greatly. Therefore, forty years of Bonn as a German capital was consigned to history. This is why Städige Vertretung restaurant was born! A French news agency previous wrote – “The ‘StäV’ is not an ordinary pub, but a political reading-book … The past decades’ history is brought back.”

Hungry students and professor Cor preparing to feast. Bittersweet emotions before the start of dinner.

Students were seated at two tables with the professors, Emily Gangi, and Gina Difino, the Burch program head administrator. Professor Cor Radamaker gave a heartfelt toast to the group, saying “it’s been a pleasure getting to know all of you, and I hope to keep in touch.” The menu offered various traditional German meals, like curry-wurst sausage and flammkuchen, a German style flatbread pizza. Over the delicious meal, everyone traded food and reminisced on the top memories of the seemly quick six-week program. Some best memories included the castle day, where students hiked up hills in the French country side, or watching the sunset on the beach every night in The Hague. A bittersweet atmosphere filled the room as deserts were ordered and students realized their summer adventure was coming to a close.

The final meal, which consisted of meatballs, fish, and german pizza called flammkuchen. It was all delicious!
Professor Cor commencing his final toast during dinner. Quote, “it’s been a pleasure getting to know all of you, and I hope to keep in touch.”
Burch students bonding for the last time together at the end of the six week program. Also, note the interior of the restaurant, and its historically decorated walls.

As the tab was paid and everyone moved outside the restaurant, the program was officially concluded. No more eight o clock program day mornings and no more train rides through the beautiful German countryside. After hugs and an official goodbye from all the professors, two students snuck up behind Dr. Gangi and started a program wide group hug in the downtown district of Berlin. There could have been no better way to end such and amazing six-weeks abroad.

-William Onorato

Berlin’s Street Art Culture

Graffiti and Other Forms of Street Art in Berlin

During our alternative tour of Berlin today, a lot of time was devoted to discussing graffiti culture within Germany. Many of us came into the tour with generally negative feelings towards graffiti in public spaces, especially when it seems sloppy or inconsiderate. However, upon closer inspection, a lot of this street art is created with a message or goal in mind. When you start to look at it more like art and less like vandalism, graffiti can serve as a great window into the minds of the artists who create it.

This mural, painted in an area where street art is legal, pokes fun at tourists who take too many pictures. Ironically, I took a picture of it.

We started our tour on Dircksenstraße, a street near the famous Alexanderplatz square that leads towards Hackesher Market. To be located between so many upscale areas, Dircksenstraße is littered with street art in all forms. Our guide first showed us several pieces by popular artist El Bocho. His signature piece involves reimagining an old Czech cartoon called “Little Lucy”. In this show, a young girl named Lucy embarks on adventures with her cat; however, El Bocho chooses to twist their friendship in his artwork by depicting Lucy murdering her cat in a multitude of ways. Our tour guide suggested that this may be a way to show the levels of morality that exist in every one of us. No one is entirely good, like the original Lucy, just as no one is entirely evil, like his version of Lucy.

This is an example of the Little Lucy series that El Bocho has scattered throughout Berlin. Here Lucy is seen cutting her cat from a spit and using the meat in a döner, one of the most cherished fast food items in Germany.

Like El Bocho, graffiti artists try to find ways to leave their mark on the city they inhabit. The most common way they accomplish this is by leaving their tag, or their groups’ tag, in the most dangerous places possible. Different areas are dangerous for different reasons. For example, tagging a wall in a populated part of town is dangerous because of the high risk of being caught. On the other hand, tagging a sound barrier next to train tracks, or the top of a building’s wall, is dangerous due to the risk of dying. In fact, the very top of the exterior wall of any tall building is called the “heaven spot” for its desirability among artists.

A member of the POET graffiti group has claimed part of the heaven spot on this building. This was likely painted by someone being held by the belt from above.

Apart from graffiti, we also saw a lot of paste-ups throughout the alternative tour of Berlin. Paste-ups are a form of street are that involve printing, drawing, or painting on relatively cheap paper, and then pasting it a wall with special glue. This type of street art seemed to be more common in some of the areas we visited, likely because it is punishable by a fine of 25€, while graffiti can result in thousands in fines. Along Dircksenstraße, we mostly saw paste-ups done by SOBR, an international artist currently working in Berlin. His series titled “It’s Time to Dance” features photos of real people dancing in bars and clubs. He chooses to paint the people in black and white, and then covers them with colorful confetti after pasting them on the wall. This contrast draws attention to his artwork, which is common throughout Berlin.

An anti-Trump paste-up is peeling off of the wall along Dircksenstraße. Many Europeans feel strongly about his presidency, and he is a common figure in street art throughout the continent.

In addition to these more visible forms of street art, we also discussed some strategies that groups use for temporary awareness. For example, the popular group called 1UP sometimes engages in “train bombing”, an activity which involves rushing into a train yard and covering a train wagon in graffiti in a matter of seconds. Germany, especially in its big cities, is very quick when it comes to cleaning their trains and train stations. However, train bombing will allow graffiti to travel for at least a day before it is removed, showing everyone the groups’ daring stunt.

Although all of these forms of illegal street art are common in Berlin, there is also a fair amount of commissioned, legal artwork to admire. Victor Ash’s “Cosmonaut” is one such piece. It stands at 72 feet tall and is painted in the style of a stenciled painting, although it was done freehand. At one point, the shadow of a nearby flag would land in the cosmonauts’ hand at night, however, the flag has since been removed. Ash has said that the mural was meant to represent the Cold War era space race between East and West, an important issue for Berlin since it was caught in the middle of this power struggle.

Victor Ash’s “Cosmonaut” stands tall over a block in Kreuzberg. It has received international attention as one of the most well-known paintings in Berlin.

After our alternative tour, many students, myself included, came away with new ideas on graffiti and street art. Although it can certainly be disturbing and ruin certain areas, such as well-known monuments, it can also offer deep insights into current issues and even be aesthetically pleasing. In certain cities, like Berlin, street art has become a part of the culture and is likely here to stay.

-Jed Higdon