East Berliners have a special reason to cheer this year's 750th anniversary of their city. As with any special celebration, it looses East Germany's purse string in an effort to get Berlin spruced up for the occasion. And that means both new apartments and historical beautification of the old city center, which at the end of World War II fell in the Soviet zone of occupation, and thence in East Germany.
Visitors find a warren of scaffolding and construction fences in downtown East Berlin. A new Grand Hotel (average room price $150, hard currency only) is going up at Unter den Linden. Some 4000 new apartments are being built along Friedrichstrasse, with arcades for shops and galleries on the first and second floors, said the city's deputy chief architect, Dorothea Krause, to foreign correspondents on a special bus tour. Another 4000 flats there are being rehabilitated by adding toilets and heating to structures that were built in the 19th century.
Skilled workmen, having so recently finished their painstaking restoration of the exterior of the early 19th-century Schauspielhaus (theater) of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, are now turning their talents to the medieval Nikolai Church and its neighboring rococo Ephraim Palace, to be opened this spring for exhibits and concerts. The old pub ``At the Nut Tree'' is being moved from Fisher's Island to the Nikolai District. Sophienstrasse is being restored to a typical turn-of-the-century craftsman's street.
For East Berlin residents the most important news probably concerns apartments. The 750th anniversary is providing a welcome impetus toward realizing the goal of enough housing for all adult East Germans to have a room of their own by the year 1990. The places most urgently in need of such help are crowded cities like East Berlin, Leipzig, and Halle.
This year East Berlin is devoting $1.5 billion to apartment subsidies, mayor and party Central Committee member Erhard Krack told journalists before he launched them on their tour of construction.
Some 33,400 flats were built or rehabilitated last year in East Berlin, to expand average apartment area to 62 square meters; this space houses families with one, two, or three children, according to Krause.
Schools and shopping facilities have kept pace with apartment construction. School classes are down to an average 21.6 pupils per room, he said, and each school has its own gymnasium, and garden.
Until very recently the two goals of housing and historical architectural preservation were even more incompatible here than in most big metropolises. In the years after World War II the royal palace, one of Schinkel's masterpieces, was torn down rather than repaired. In its place giant modern glass and cement boxes went up for government and party buildings. And the Socialist Unity (Communist) Party took pride in erecting cheap pre-fabricated high rises with no regard for ``bourgeois'' architectural surroundings.
Beginning in the 1980s the East Germans returned to appreciating their German roots, however, and a rekindling of interest in historical buildings accompanied it. The old statue of Frederick the Great was reinstalled on Unter den Linden. Remaining buildings designed by Schinkel - the author of Berlin as it was known in its century and a half as a world capital - were lovingly refurbished. Elsewhere in East Germany churches associated with Martin Luther were restored for the 500th anniversary of the Great Reformer's birth in 1983.
Now the Grand Hotel, unlike its predecessors in the '60s and '70s, is being kept to a relatively modest eight stories. And even the new pre-fabricated apartments going up in the center of East Berlin are low-storied and have softened contours that blend in somewhat better with 19th-century neo-classicism than do high-rise slabs.
A purist might complain. Certainly East Germany's new chief preserver of landmark buildings, Peter Goralczyk, did not waste many words on the new apartments on the other side of Academy Square as he explained the work that has gone into redoing the Schauspielhaus and its two flanking Protestant cathedrals. But the new apartments are a great improvement over the drab high-rises on Leipziger Strasse. And the lucky 800 families that will be living in the apartments tucked away behind the 17th- and 18th-century facades in the Nikolai District will have a special reason to celebrate Berlin's 750th anniversary.
As for East Germans in the rest of the country - who have been complaining loudly that all the construction crews have been whisked off to East Berlin - they will have reason to celebrate the end of Berlin's 750th anniversary.