'Ich Bin Ein Ampelmannchen'? A Pop Icon Helps Unite Berlin

New German cause is anything but pedestrian

If visitors to Berlin tire of gazing up at the forest of cranes over Europe's largest construction site and refocus at street level, they will discover one of the mascots of what might be called East German pop culture: the Ampelmnnchen, or "little traffic-light men."

Everyone who has ever crossed a city street - with the light or otherwise - knows the standard international pedestrian signals for "Walk" and "Don't Walk." But it's different in the former East Berlin and East Germany. There, pedestrians are signaled to walk or wait by two very different figures. The green "Goer" - a jaunty little guy with a wide-brimmed hat - is represented in mid-stride, heading off to the viewer's left (appropriately, perhaps, for a former communist country). The red "Stopper," also wearing a hat, stands with both arms outspread "as if he wanted to embrace all the cars," as one newspaper essayist rhapsodized.

Karl Peglau, who designed the Ampelmnnchen in 1961, intended them to be fun to encourage children to obey traffic signals more willingly.

"They're so cute!" says one lifelong West Berliner, for whom the Ampelmnnchen have been a relatively recent discovery, "and so much more dynamic than what we have."

So why is there a Committee to Save the Ampelmnnchen?

Reunification. The government in Bonn now has jurisdiction over traffic signals in eastern Germany and has been requiring the replacement of the Ampelmnnchen as signals are modernized. A new set of standard European Union pedestrian signals also is being phased in. Vaguely androgynous, with no hands or feet, they have even less energy than the standard Western signals - in short, they're wimpy.

To save the remaining Stoppers and Goers, The Committee to Save the Ampelmnnchen was launched about a year ago. Mr. Peglau himself joined the group, and the committee now controls the rights to his copyrighted designs.

One of the group's first tactics was putting small black "Save the Ampelmnnchen" posters, featuring you-know-who, all over Berlin. But so many were taken down as souvenirs that the message didn't get out as well as the group had hoped.

Since September, the committee's Internet Web site (http://www.interactive.de) has had 300,000 "hits" from visitors. What do they say about the Ampelmnnchen?

"They look nice; they should stay!"

"Struggle against the technocrats!"

"The Ampelmnnchen lives. Down with imperialistic West German traffic lights!" (This from "Che.")

"There was even a call for a huge demonstration in front of the Reichstag," adds Jorg Davids, coordinator of the committee.

The Ampelmnnchen are making friends in high places too. "Everybody's jumping onto the bandwagon," Mr. Davids says. Kurt Biedenkopf, Saxony's minister-president, and his economics minister, Kajo Schommer, have spoken out in favor the Stopper and the Goer. The factory that makes the Ampelmnnchen is in their state. Neighboring Saxony-Anhalt state, also in eastern Germany, is a hotbed of Ampelmnnchen support too. Transportation Minister Jrgen Heyer is reported to be developing guidelines that will favor the Ampelmnnchen.

"There's an amateur soccer team in Magdeburg called FC [Football Club] Future that wants to use the Ampelmnnchen design," Davids says. There's even an Ampelmnnchen Ballet in Magdeburg, made up of eight- to 10-year-olds, which will be performing at a Berlin children's festival this month.

Nearly eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, "reunification" remains on the minds of Germans: Are we really one people again? they ask.

"The Ampelmnnchen breaks through the wall in people's heads, rather than building it back up," Davids says. The effort in support of the Stopper and the Goer "has been a revolution from below," he adds - like the one that swept away communist East Germany.

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