(delayed by Covid)
Daytraders Berlin’ is an ongoing collaboration between myself and photographer Andy Rumball. Mixing short stories and photography, working in the present with the never-silent past in the rear view mirror, ‘Daytraders’ documents street level storytellers momentarily shaping a version of a city, knowing that, because it is Berlin, it will soon change into something else and be gone. Our project was ready to go in 2019 and then Covid arrived – we put the work away to wait out the storm, knowing that people were struggling and it wasn’t the time to put out this book. But that storm is passing (we hope) and we will begin the process of publication this year, 2022.
Scroll down to read three of the thirty short stories or fragments I have written for the project, and some of Andy’s photographs.
There are places in Berlin that cannot be papered over. Cracks made by War and Wall remain, strangely disguised. After awhile you become adept at spotting them, and they grow familiar to you. I treasure them. These are places where the seeds of hotels and malls will not take root. Some are made on purpose, some have simply emerged in time, like scar tissue on the city.
The old death strip of the Berlin Wall, that place between the inner and outer walls where guards patrolled, towers stood, dogs sniffed, lights burnt, fences tripped and bullets ripped, has largely disappeared save for major monuments like the one along the Bernauer Strasse. Yet does the city itself remember the barricade that once “Cut through the living flesh of the city,” to quote the then West Berlin mayor Willie Brandt. Can a city remember at all, or does it rely on its human inhabitants to order the marks of the past either through destruction or memorialisation?
I can’t give a definite answer to that question, but surprising things emerge. Cycling along the path of the Berlin Wall in Pankow, far away from the center of the city, I find myself amidst white birch woods in a narrow corridor. Packed together, slim like unsmoked French cigarettes, they constitute a regal gathering. I cannot ignore them. Behind me a group of tourists have paid good money to struggle along this very beaten track, where sometimes we have to get off and push out of fear for our tires. I stop them and explain that the birch trees are here because they are pioneer trees. Wherever a sudden gap occurs, on good soil, they will rise up. They now grow in most of the parts of the old Death Strip that hasn’t been developed.
These white trees, so fey and lithe, are the opposite of memory. They don’t, as far as we can tell, know that they mark the path of the Berlin Wall, and nobody put them there. Yet they eradicate the look of the death strip as it was, and indict its ugliness with their impervious beauty.
In opposition to this are places humans have said cannot be developed or inhabited. Tainted ground where pioneer trees can’t grow, because they are to be left open at all costs. An empty wounded place like the Topography of Terror in Mitte, where a vast stone-covered area marks where the Gestapo headquarters stood. Alongside this open place are the remains of the Wall that ran between Mitte in the east and Kreuzberg in the west. A museum has been built next to an area excavated to reveal prison cells that once stood in the basement of Himmler’s hated 8 Prinz Albrecht Strasse. Open and exposed to the air all year round, these places stand as if in hope that that with enough time and exposure their stains will wash clean. Wishful thinking of course. All you need to do is look up, to the left, and see the field of stones. Brutal stones, the opposite of growing things, on a place not allowed to seed life again. If a tree peeped through, it would be cut down.
I realised recently, standing there with a tour group in early Spring, that the Holocaust Memorial is the same kind of place. It occupies a large central block of Berlin. Nothing will grow there ever again. Its harsh geometric shape, its blocks of stone, will never shelter the slender bodies of pioneer trees. No one could dream up better memorials than these, locking away the promise of growth, keeping back the tide of change, making empty places in a capital city always and endlessly being built, and rebuilt again.
Both stories are the same. The pioneer trees like scar tissue, rising quietly in places left behind by the Berlin Wall. The places forbidden to grow ever again. We are hardly listening anymore. It is, after all, the city that remembers now.
© Lauren van Vuuren 2018
Flying from Tempelhof
You can’t fly from Tempelhof anymore. The airport closed down in 2008. It has since become a Berlin phenomenon. It is the only place in the world where you can have a picnic in the middle of an airstrip formerly used for the take off and landing of commercial passenger jets. It is a burst of space so large that the air lifts on its outskirts and the smell of the city disperses as you arrive, replaced by the smell of earth and the sounds of shrieking hordes of birds. It is a place where you can cycle on a Sunday evening and watch kites above a skyline of autumn orange, dodging as you do rollerbladers, skateboarders, walkers, kite boarders, and hovering clouds of weed smoke.
Tempelhof is where Berliners go to hold off the end of the weekend. The scaffolding of the coming week is in sight, but it is ignored. It is the theatre of this field that matters on a Sunday evening. There are many stages too. Allotment gardens on one end, for example, and a vast field of tall grass that acts as a bird sanctuary. Beer gardens and a baseball pitch where matches have been played the day before. Each runway is a riot, with every person moving across it as if they are secretly thinking they might suddenly take off and fly. There is a kind of alchemy of space and movement that occurs amidst all these Berlin creatures, who swerve and dodge around one another, almost never colliding.
Last night I arrived there at dusk. I thought, how can it be Autumn of 2018 already. In the misty evening light, there was not one thing that wasn’t in motion. Even the groups of people picnicking were gesticulating and drinking and eating with such intensity that they hardly seemed stationary. As I rode up the main runway, faster and faster, I turned to my left and saw the Alexanderplatz TV Tower in the middle distance, mooning over Mitte. In the shimmering autumn air, it seemed to be dicing with the old Tempelhof Radar Tower on the field, no longer bound to the ground. I passed a man as he scooped up his running child and when a kite swooped low over our heads I too became one of those people who genuinely believed that any second I would take off and fly.
The only thing solid in all this flux is the airport building behind me, with its square, heavy sign saying ‘Berlin-Tempelhof’. It was placed there in the 1930s when the Nazis made Tempelhof the biggest airport in the world, and a fitting staging ground for their dark pageantry. In the dying days of the war, Albert Speer flew out of the airport with a raving instruction from Hitler to burn and destroy every bit of Germany that was left, because the country no longer deserved to exist. Four years later British and American planes flitted in and out over that sign, taking off and landing every three minutes during the Airlift of 1948-1949. They were delivering supplies to West Berliners who had been cut off by Stalin in his final attempt to gain control over the entire city. The British and American planes were feeding the same population they had conquered four years earlier, because Berlin, that spinning top of history, was now becoming the most potent symbol of the Cold War and its survival was essential to the west.
All around Tempelhof , West Berlin did indeed survive, increasingly somnolent and derelict as the years of the Berlin Wall passed. In West Berlin’s isolation, the airport was a window out of which those lucky enough to be able to travel freely could fly. There were other airports in West Berlin, of course, but history loves an evocative name, and in Berlin history, ‘Tempelhof’ is just that.
I turn my back on the sign with its heavy symmetry, and set off again at speed. I think, how the view from its vantage point has changed over the years. The markers of war have vanished, the swastika never allowed to fly there again, the planes gone with their loads of supplies, their weaponry, their passengers from all over the world, craning to see the city as they arrive, the Alexander TV tower no longer in another country but a friendly eye to be met, and no more the marching, marching, marching that so haunted the airport’s past.
Now, there is all that space and sky around, and every day of the week that passes brings it closer to Sunday, where in a communion of colour and sound, Berlin itself seems no longer tethered to the ground.
© Lauren van Vuuren 2018
The Building Sites of Berlin
Many words – poetic, journalistic, novelistic – written about Berlin in the past 20 years make reference to the omnipresence of cranes on the city’s skyline. As I write this, activists desperately try to stop a private developer from pulling down sections of the Berlin Wall at the East Side Gallery. It is a rerun of winter 2013, when Berliners resisted the razing of a section of the East Side Gallery by the owners of a ghastly glass monstrosity built dubiously beside the Spree. The happy ending to that story is that the building remains half empty, hopefully forever tainted by the contemptuousness with which it was built. The activists won that time, with only a few sections of the Wall being removed. In January 2018, the outcome looks less certain. The grip of malls/gyms/shops/hotels on the imagination of developers the world over, and their ever willing army of investors who apparently like to exercise and shop where they eat and shit, looks set to define the city’s shape for decades.
On one of my tours in 2016 I encountered a very kind, very rich Norwegian man who had invested heavily in Berlin after the Wall came down. After listening patiently to my not very subtle digs about the sheer lack of imagination evident in current development happening all over Berlin, taking the rent prices and the city’a anarchic culture with it, he said to me, even sympathetically, “I understand your distress but nothing will stop this process. It is inevitable. It is business.”
I appreciated his honesty; and absorbed his words with a pricking behind my eyes. I ended that tour with a new feeling for Berlin. A feeling of mourning, knowing I would watch the city tip over into a new era when I hadn’t had the privilege to see it as the Wall fell.
Privilege! you may exclaim?! Privilege to see the grimness and decay of East Berlin, and the strange graffitied West, still generically elegant in parts but shabby from years of isolation? Who wants to witness the ruin and stultification of 45 years of war and division?
I did. I do. Berlin limped into the 1990s with the skin of the past still on, so that we could see, feel, smell it. That skin remains, much depredated, but still evident. In December 2012, I was lost on Friedrichstrasse on an icy New Years Eve afternoon. It was my 3rd week in the city. I’d gone the wrong way up Friedrichstrasse and instead of arriving at the Brandenburg Gate I ended up at Hallesches Tor. It was grey, wet and ugly. Three old ladies perambulated across the red brick square in front of the U-Bahn entrance. Bottles clattered around in the sudden gusts of terrible wind. Anticipating the night, the fireworks started up around me.
I felt as though I had temporarily slipped out of time. I heard the sounds of the war in 1945. The relentless guns on the city limits. Rolling rounds of heavy artillery and the high pitched rattle of the anti aircraft guns. I looked around to see if anybody else heard it. The old ladies? They stood inside a bake shop buying rolls. They didn’t even react. The only thing rumbling was a train arriving at the station. I closed my eyes. At that moment the air filled with a memory that wasn’t only mine. It was Berlin. In this city the past darts out of side streets in sudden flashes of sound and smell. I am still not used it, four years later.
Is it naive to believe that the relentless development of the city will kill its ghosts? After all, arguments can be made for increasing available housing and giving people the chance to make money. This churlish, ever-resistant city is, after all, the capital city of the largest economy in Europe.
I don’t care. Careless development will sew closed the gaps from which the past of the city emerges to surprise and warn us. From some angles it doesn’t look like the new developments rise upwards. Instead they look like burial sites, with their wide blank mountains of sand, and they are burying Berlin, with all of us looking on.
© Lauren van Vuuren 2017
All images © Andy Rumball 2019