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Berlin’s Famous East Side Gallery Protected from Development

The outdoor gallery on a former section of Berlin Wall has been threatened by a building boom in recent years

(Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Only one major section of the Berlin Wall still stands, a stretch running almost a mile along Mühlenstrasse paralleling the river Spree. Almost a year after the fall of the wall separating East and West Berlin in 1989, artists from around the world were invited to transform that section of the barrier into a tribute to peace and unity. The East Side Gallery, as the open-air art gallery is called, has become a powerful symbol of post-Mauerfall unity. But over the years, a development boom along the river has threatened to overshadow, and even demolish parts of the world-famous gallery. Now, reports Deutsche Welde, a foundation has taken control of the historic wall and the property around it, and declared it will protect the site from future encroachment.

More than 118 artists from around the world were invited to put their mark on the wall in 1990, and the colorful, message-laden space was put under national monument protection the following year. However, maintaining the outdoor art has proven to be a challenge. In 1996, the Artists Initiative East Side Gallery, a group of wall artists, was formed to help restore some of the flaking and vandalized art. Occasional restorations have been ongoing, including work in 2000 and a major restoration in 2009 partially funded by Berlin. But the Artists Initiative has had trouble keeping up with the maintenance backlog and providing legal protection. Meanwhile, as Berlin’s real estate market continues to boom, luxury apartment blocks and a concert venue have shot up between the river and the gallery. In 2013, part of the wall was even taken down to make space for an access road for the luxury condos.

All of this has led to outcry from art lovers, historians and locals. They can breath a sigh of relief now that the wall and surrounding property has been transferred to the Berlin Wall Foundation, which already runs several sites and museums in the city. Not only will the group perform much needed maintenance on the wall and the paintings, it will also offer guided tours of the wall and establish displays explaining the history and significance of the site. It will also undertake archaeological work to find the foundations of the guard tower that once overlooked that section of wall, where it’s believed 10 people were killed while trying to escape East Berlin. The city of Berlin will also contribute $285,000 to help preserve the site.

Most importantly, the foundation says it will no longer allow development on the riverbank behind the gallery. “We are happy that our foundation is trusted with the preservation and care of this monument,” Hannah Berger, a spokeswoman for the foundation, tells Carlo Angerer at NBC News. “It’s also important that we can now explain this place.”

The artwork on the wall is varied in style and symbolism. Russian artist Dimitri Vrubel’s Lord Help Me To Survive This Deadly Love depicting Soviet premiere Leonid Brezhnev and East German leader Erich Honecker locked in a kiss is especially iconic.

With the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, people were more than happy to bust up one of the grimmest physical reminders of the Cold War. Today, with the exception of surviving chunks here or there, little of the Berlin Wall, which once stretched 87 miles, still remains, though some of its route is marked by double paving stones through the city.

Besides the East Side Gallery, the Berlin Wall Memorial preserves the only other substantial stretch of the former border. November 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the wall, which has now been gone longer than the 28 years it divided the German capital.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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