From the throngs of holiday shoppers who pack the Kurfrstendamm, for decades Berlin's most exclusive address, it is hard to imagine that the elegant boulevard is a street in decline.
Yet since the fall of the Berlin wall 10 years ago, the emergence of a new city center in the former Communist east has challenged - and changed - the urban role of what once was West Berlin's showcase of capitalism.
Following the collapse of the Soviet-controlled east bloc, Europe's center of gravity made a decisive shift to the east. Likewise, the German government's 1991 decision to move the capital from Bonn back to Berlin oriented Germany increasingly eastward, a trend encapsulated in Berlin as nowhere else.
Speculating on the government's move, developers scrambled for lucrative plots east of the Brandenburg Gate, the historic heart of Berlin. Modern office buildings and sleek shopping centers filled prime locations near the new nexus of power, as businesses on the western side watched with dismay.
"In the time after reunification, especially in the last four to five years, there certainly was a trend to the east," says Christian Pepper, manager of the Europa Center, a shopping center and office tower in west Berlin known for its huge rotating Mercedes star. According to City Report, a real estate consulting company, of the 5.5 million square feet of office space that banks bought and rented in Berlin since 1990, 80 percent were in the east. A lot of upscale retail business followed the money.
The Kudamm, as Berlin's two-mile long shopping street is popularly known, was originally a riding path for the city's nobility. In the late 19th century, it became the artery of an exclusive neighborhood where artists, movie stars, and politicians would come to shop in boutiques and hobnob in cafes.
Gemtlichkeit, the German concept of coziness, was one of the first sacrifices of the reunified city. Last week the Kopenhagen restaurant, a boulevard institution, auctioned off its interior decor. In March, the world-famous Cafe Kranzler will become a construction site. "All around, coffee shops and a yuppie soup bar have now opened along New York lines: small places, quick turnover," the Hamburg-based weekly Der Spiegel noted recently.
Sitting in his office on Friedrichstrasse, the glassy new luxury mile in eastern Berlin, Patrice Wagner shakes his head when asked about the frequent disappearances on the Kudamm. "It's not that the west is emptying out and going east," says the manager of Galeries Lafayette, a multilevel store peddling French couture and cuisine. "It's rather that what's new comes here directly.
"Perhaps it's a redistribution. In the east there is the image that anything is possible," he says.
Ironically, Friedrichstrasse may become a victim of its own location. For years, shopkeepers in the east have had to deal with the noise and torn-up streets of the building boom. Now the proposed construction of the "chancellor line," a subway extension to the nearby government quarter, threatens to block an important access route for years.
Says Mr. Wagner, "Now people feel the change and are afraid. But they don't need to be. A city like Berlin can maintain several centers."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society