Visitors to the western side of the Berlin Wall used to clamber up wooden stairs to observation platforms that afforded a glimpse eastward. Perhaps the most famous of these tourists was President Reagan, who used a photo opportunity in 1987 to call upon Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall!"
And Mr. Gorbachev did, in a manner of speaking.
The demolition of the wall has made Berlin Europe's biggest construction site as it is prepares to resume its role as the capital of a reunified Germany. "Berlin - capital in the making," they call it. It's also known as Der Kranewald - the forest of cranes. And because groundwater is rarely more than 10 feet below the surface in Berlin, the digging of foundations for new buildings is turning the city into a land of a thousand lakes. One part of the city's rebuilding even calls for the temporary rerouting of a river. Many of the "hard hats" here are divers in wet suits and goggles.
The Potsdamer Platz, which in the 1920s was the busiest intersection in Europe but has been a wasteland since World War II, is being rebuilt. An army of some 6,000 workers in their hard hats and coveralls is on the scene already. Their numbers should triple as more buildings get further along and can accommodate more workers inside to finish interiors.
The private money invested in the city so far amounts to 8 billion deutsche marks ($5.3 billion). Daimler-Benz is building a mixed-use (office, hotel, retail, and residential) complex, including headquarters for its Debis services subsidiary, at Potsdamer Platz. The Sony Center will be adjacent.
The Info Box near the Potsdamer Platz, resembling a large red shoebox on stilts, is an information display on all major aspects of the construction, not only at the Potsdamer Platz but all over Berlin.
Everything from the logistics of earth moving and protection of groundwater to the new power-generating facilities, telecommunications, and rail connections is covered in the Info Box. Interactive computer displays, historic film footage, and the ubiquitous table displays of wooden architectural models are on exhibit. The Info Box, open since October and already a fixed point on sightseeing bus tours, was itself a $6.5-million construction project.
For anyone nostalgic enough to pay it, souvenir hawker Gerd Glanze will stamp your passport for one mark (65 cents) as "proof" you were in the old German Democratic Republic. Long established at a spot between the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, the pre-World War II parliament, he moved his stand three months ago to a spot about a hundred yards from the Info Box. His wares include East German currency, transit visas, license plates, and yes, inevitably, concrete chunks of the Wall - which he insists he cut away himself.
"I think I was one of the hardest workers on the Wall," he says.
But business is slow, he says. "Lazy" tourists don't want to walk the few yards off the beaten path to his stand, he complains.
Or maybe Berliners and other visitors are now more interested in their immediate future than their immediate past - which is starkly evident in some parts of the city.
Despite the glitz of new construction in Berlin Mitte, the center of town just east of where the Wall used to be, it is not generally hard to tell which sector of the city you are in. Berlin is a mix of imperial Prussian grandeur and socialist pseudo-grandeur, of layers of the past that have been unearthed but not quite restored.
State-of-the-art sleeper trains from the West, for instance, pull into the prewar Berlin Wannsee station from which the East German proletariat used to depart on its vacations.
Auto traffic patterns and subway connections seem to change almost daily, and the merging of the old Western U-Bahn (subway) and the Eastern S-Bahn (elevated) systems is more apparent on the maps than in reality.
And graffiti is everywhere, even on newly redone buildings. Berlin has graffiti the way some places have mosquitoes.
In areas like Prenzlauer Berg, grand old houses with ornate classical architecture have been preserved by a kind of benign neglect, although many still bear bullet holes, souvenirs of the street fighting between Germans and Russians in the final days of World War II. Some of these houses are being rehabbed and transformed from ugly ducklings "into swans," as one long-time resident of East Berlin puts it.
"It's so hopeful," he adds.