Germans pine over Zoo Station

Planners see its demotion as just another step on the road to reunifying Berlin.

It's one of West Berlin's most enduring icons. When the Wall stood, it was the only link between East and West. Later, in the 1980s, it was known for the drug-addicted teenagers who lurked in its dark corners. It was even immortalized in song by the rock band U2.

But the long-distance train through the storied Zoo Station - the transportation hub for Germans and tourists alike for 111 years - is nearing the end of the line.

German Rail, the private company that runs Germany's rail network, announced last month that Zoo Station would be taken off their long-distance grid next year. With the completion of the new Hauptbahnhof (main station), a sleek steel-and-glass behemoth with views of the Reichstag, Chancellery, and Berlin's central park, Zoo's services on the western part of the city are no longer needed, says a German Rail spokesman.

The move reduces the station to a local and regional hub, closing the line that carried everyone from American backpackers to curious West German schoolchildren to diplomats into Zoo Station, built near the Berlin Zoo and the Kufürstendamm, West Berlin's shopping mile.

"Zoo was always a focal point, it was a world famous station," says Erhardt Schröter, who worked for the east German railway company during Berlin's division. "It was the gateway to the East."

For city planners and historians, Zoo's downgrading is just another step on the road toward once again becoming a truly reunified city. Such steps are always controversial in the German capital, where the Berlin Wall still exists in the minds of many, and Zoo is no exception.

Not only nostalgic citizens and historians are ruing the day on which Zoo stops its long-distance business, but shops and hotels are as well. Many see the Zoo as directly linked to their own livelihood.

"Our jobs are on the line. Our boss has told as that much," says Heidi Eberling, an employee at a tobacco shop in the station.

When the Wall fell, Ms. Eberling, who grew up in the East joined the hordes of former East German citizens rushing into the western part of the city. The first things she wanted to see, she says, were Zoo Station and Kufürstendamm, where designers like Gucci, Bulgari, and Prada have stores. "All the tourists want to go there, that's the first place they head," she says.

Behind the counter of her small shop lies a yellow piece of paper covered with signatures. The petition is the work of Helga Frisch, a former Berlin pastor and lifelong activist. In the past few weeks, Frisch has launched a campaign to get the German Rail to reconsider its decision. By September, she expects half a million people to have signed.

"West Berlin will be severely cut off," says Frisch, a determined woman. "Zoo station has been the only train station in [West] Berlin since the division of the city."

Burkhard Ahlert, a German Rail spokesman, seems slightly annoyed at the doomsday scenarios spun by Zoo Station loyalists. "It always sounds like we're closing the train station and we're not," he says. "There are 150,000 people that use that station every day, and only 20,000 of them are long-distance users."

But numbers don't register with many West Berliners when it comes to Zoo Station. "It's a legendary place," says Petra Schulters, standing on one of the station's platforms recently with her daughter. "If Berlin is mentioned together with a train station, then it's Zoo Station."

T hough missing the majesty of New York's Grand Central Station or astounding passenger turnover of Tokyo's Shinjuku Station, Zoo has crafted its own powerful story. Spectators to the 1936 Olympic Games got their first glimpse of the city through the large windows of the station. Visitors from Paris and Basel passed through the train station on their way to Stockholm, Warsaw, or Moscow.

In the early 1980s it became synonymous with the packs of teenage drug addicts who hung around the station, their story immortalized in the book and movie "Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo." Following reunification, the Irish rock band U2 paid tribute to Zoo Station with an eponymous song on their 1991 album "Achtung Baby."

Though rail officials ordered a renovation of the station in the 1990s and promised city planners to keep it on the long-distance grid, construction of the main train station near the heart of reunified Berlin marked the beginning of the end.

"Every generation creates something new and as a result something in the old generation needs to fade away," says Laurenz Demps, a former professor of city history at Berlin's Humboldt University.

Or, as U2 put it:

Time is a train

Makes the future the past

Leaves you standing in the station

Your face pressed up against the glass.

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