Seen from Above

For many of Berlin’s visitors, finding traces of the Berlin Wall is like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. A bird’s-eye view might make things easier.

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2014: Light installation commemorating the fall of the Wall,
image courtesy of Kulturprojekte Berlin

The Great Wall of China can even be seen from the moon. The only man-made object visible from so far away. The Berlin Wall, in contrast, has vanished — although it could never be seen from space, even when it stood complete. And now, its remains can only be found with the help of a map. I think it’s a good thing that the Wall is gone. And the isolated island of West Berlin was reunited with the city’s eastern districts following reunification.

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Then and now. Image courtesy of Archiv-Bundesstiftung, Uwe Gerig (left), Daniel Büche (right)

There are positive aspects that Berliners still have to show their guests where to find the last few fragments of the Wall. The Wall, a concrete testament to an extremely unpleasant era of German history, has shrunk from its original 160 kilometers to three short stretches that total no more than 1.8 kilometers. Maybe too much of the Wall has been lost given its historical importance? Every piece that has disappeared from Berlin is a piece that has ended up somewhere else in the world. Collectors have remnants in their gardens. Cape Town has a section; Denver, Portland, Taipei, San José (Cost Rica) and the Vatican all have their own pieces, too. The list of the places where bits of the Wall have ended up is a long one! When you think about it, it’s pretty amazing that so many people all over the world are still telling stories about the Wall.

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Berlin Wall in Portland, Long Wharf. Image courtesy of pitsch22 –

The revolution that led to the collapse of the GDR regime was peaceful: millions of people took to the country’s streets to demonstrate for freedom and, in 1989, finally toppled their government. Slow and steady wins the race — a wonderful, and very appropriate, saying. But for those looking for traces of Berlin’s past, the task is not an easy one. At least until nighttime, when the city’s streetlights are switched on. East Berlin had a very different system for its public lighting — a system that used very distinctive light bulbs. East Berlin’s streets were illuminated by sodium vapor lamps that cast a yellow glow. West Berlin, in contrast, used a mixture of fluorescent and mercury vapor lamps that flooded the streets with white light. Chris Hadfield, the Canadian captain of the ISS, took a photo from an altitude of 400 kilometers that clearly illustrates the way in which the city is still divided by its street lamps.

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Image courtesy of Nasa/Chris Hadfield

Over the next thirty years, the street lamps will be replaced and the same system will be used in both halves of the city. Until then, a simple look at the nearest street lamp will tell you whether you are in the East or the West. Strausberger Platz is, of course, no exception to this rule. The whole length of Karl-Marx-Allee, starting from the impressive Strausberger Platz, is bathed in light “Made in East Germany.” Green masts, topped by a ring of five plastic visors, emit yellow light all the way from Alexander Platz to Strausberger Platz. From Strausberger Platz on, things get even more historical: in true neoclassical style, candelabra lamps illuminate the scenery. These street lights are protected historical monuments. Although the lamps look like they were made in the 1800s, they were actually developed by Richard Paulick, one of the country’s leading architects, as part of the local redevelopment that took place in the 1950s. It’s really quite surreal that such a cold-hearted political system bathed its citizens in such warm light. Today’s residents continue to benefit: even in the midst of large-scale urbanization, there’s still something cozy about the area. From the heavens above, the view is (still) clear.

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Street lighting at Karl-Marx-Allee. Image courtesy of Andreas Tölke