Are we still in Corona time? Can this still be a Corona diary? To both questions, sadly yes. To hope that the virus has been a curious phase set only in a passing season is unfortunately wishful thinking – the kind of wishful thinking which suffuses modern life, having been a feature since the start of post-war prosperity – we can go and hang out with dozens of other people and because we’re healthy and having fun, it’s clear we’ll be impervious, as we have been to countless other contemporary stresses from climate emergency to austerity and the rest.
Our society relies on this kind of hedonistic somnambulism to truck along in its business-as-usual way, with the emphasis on business. But this time the danger is as personal as it can get. In one night of partying in an Alexanderplatz venue, 13 people are known to have become infected, more will probably emerge as trace and track does its job. In another bar, in Neukölln many more may have been infected, the staff are all in quarantine and not all the patrons filled in the who’s who sheet correctly and so are harder to trace.
This isn’t to condemn the very human wish to get back to a normal in which nights out with friends and mingling indoors with innumerable strangers are without health-threatening dangers. Everyone is longing for that, even while making do with al fresco gatherings or circumspect outdoor drinking and dining at pavement bar-cafes. But spikes in various European cities show a further relaxation of restrictions cannot progress without incurring a tilt in the upward direction, which, unchecked will produce a second wave. So realism must temper escapism, there are more ways of having fun, we’ll have to keep being imaginative.
But alongside the impatience, frustration and sheer boredom of our new be-masked and sanitised everyday, are also uneasy uncertainties of what the city will become. While we’re partying in the parks and dancing under moonlight what will happen to the wrongly thronged bars if they close? And even with increased footfall, retail spaces are losing their ability to financially make ends meet, struggling as they were beforehand. Big names face insolvency and shutdowns are inevitable. In the best sense life will go on of course and surely the shuttered spaces can house different, maybe home-grown, perhaps more eccentric ventures, address housing shortages, open up all sorts of possibilities?
Any optimism this unknown territory offers however requires not just open-mindedness from city authorities but a true grasp on behalf of its inhabitants of who the city belongs to and if not them, then why not?
And it seems part of our zeitgeist that we are facing ever more renewed definitions of territory and questions of the extent we are allowed a place in it – Brexit, growing nationalistic authoritarianism, COVID-19 travel restrictions, grossly anachronistic statues in public squares. This isn’t a new thing, just newly incarnated, a feature no doubt in all times of crisis.
Close by in our neighbourhood lies a stretch of land and a building that kind of encapsulate ways in which territory can be contested, challenged and won. I wrote on 3rd April in Berlin Corona Diary #5 about Anita Berber Park and how it had previously between a cemetery. In between those identities it was also, for about 60 years until 2008, the very last stretch of a flight path, just a few hundred metres short of the landing strip. This was the case never more intensely during the time of the Berlin Airlift from late June 1948 to the September of the following year with Allied planes landing every 30 seconds.
The wider contested territory in question was, of course, West Berlin, Soviet Russia wanting to bring the whole of the post-war city under its control, having played a major role in its liberation, the Allies determined to keep it as an outpost bastion of power (and surveillance) on the edge of the East.
The rest as they say, is certainly history and while it took another 12 years before the wall went up, the Berlin Blockade could be said to have kicked off the Cold War, at least in terms of atmosphere. Operation Vittles certainly provided not just food and other vital supplies to the besieged Western sectors of the city but a host of propaganda coups, one of which featured US planes raining down candy bars on hordes of grateful children. What’s not to like?
The “raisin bomber” phenomenon rightly became a Berlin legend, with one iconic snapshot making it onto postcards, murals and book covers. In the famous image, children are seen standing on a mound of rubble, the bombed ruins of houses that once stood a minute from my doorstep. As well as the plane coming in to land and the children waving, an intact building is visible. This residential block stands to this day, at the top end of Leine Straße where it meets Oder Straße. Some of the windows look out onto what was once the flight path, now the park, and the west facing ones look out onto what was of course then the airfield, now Tempelhofer Feld. More of this house in a moment.
I happened across a feature film released in 1950 on the Film Detectives (a YouTube site). Called The Big Lift, it’s not so much an account of the Air Lift itself as a bit of soft power romanticism which is nevertheless full of post-war shades of grey. There’s a surprising bit of dialectics for example, in which a German girlfriend of an airman being schooled in the qualities of western democracy (as if the Americans invented it) confronts her oafish would-be tutor with his own dictator-like patriarchal tendencies.
It is, inevitably however, rather cheesy, but what I found especially captivating was the verite footage from the air showing how places around me had been at the end of the 1940s: the wrecked roof above the shell of a local church, the way the approach lighting towers were arranged in parallel diagonals in the two adjacent cemeteries, not straddling them as they do now, how very close to the buildings the aeroplanes once flew. Worth a watch, with the young Montgomery Clift in the lead:
One of the plots deals with a woman who is one of the Trümmerfrauen, the “rubble women”, who worked in the ruins of Berlin’s buildings, clearing debris and assembling bricks which would go to rebuild the obliterated streets. To the film’s credit, this isn’t presented sentimentally and the work was pretty gruelling with 9 hour days and a half-hour break. The rubble women in actuality were persuaded by the offer of more rations and although historians have since downplayed the numbers actually involved in the work, it is undeniable the part the women’s efforts played in the restoration and reassembly of the city.
Back to the house on Leine Straße. During the early days of the lockdown, on one of my short walks around the block, I noticed banners festooned on the balconies of the big mustard-coloured building. Leine-Oder Bleibt was one slogan, featuring the street names of the building’s address. (Leine-Oder stays). The word bleibt on a banner, preceded by a street or neighbourhood name usually means the house is under threat from developers, or rather the tenants are. The tenants want to stay, want to alert others to their threatened eviction.
Another banner at the side of the house had the slogans:
Vorkauftsrecht nutzen! (Use right of first refusal) Nein zum MilliardenImperium! (No to the billionaire empire) flanked by two green pear symbols, both in a red circle being cancelled out with a line. The right of first refusal stems apparently from Roman times when villagers were alleged to have been given the right to buy their own property were it being put up for sale. This law is on the German statute books. As well as banners, coloured cards printed with similar slogans were fixed on the back fence inside protective polythene pockets. One featured a two part, personal but political, genuine cry from the heart:
The yellow house at Tempelhofer Feld
You know the one I’m talking about
because you can’t miss it.
I’ve lived here my whole life
and suddenly, my home will cease to exist.
You come with your dough
and you want to take the house where I live?
That’s my home let me tell you.
I won’t let myself just be driven away.
Nurseries, schools and friends in the neighbourhood,
but you’re just obsessed with profit.
Chilling, crying and also joking,
my heart is bound up with this house.
This yellow house at Tempelhofer Feld,
for you all that counts is money.
We all live here, many nationalities, young and old
This house forms our coherence,
The yellow house at Tempelhofer Feld
For you just money but for me an entire world.
The two pears symbols referred to the would-be developers, an outfit called Pears Global who were described in a poster on the back gate. The same organisation apparently have designs on quite a range of real estate in Berlin, including a local progressive bar whose planned eviction was postponed due to the pandemic. https://syndikatbleibt.noblogs.org/kundigung/english/
While I admired the valiant efforts of the campaign of the tenants, I feared for the worst, that they’d be priced out of their homes and the building would inevitably just become another asset of a shell company portfolio. My gloomy suppositions were completely mistaken however when I checked their campaign website https://www.leineoderbleibt.de/ and saw the bright pink update banner at the top, proclaiming: “Saved at last! Preemption legally binding! The airlift building will become a cooperative. Here is our press release:” In summary, the Neukölln district senate practised its right of first refusal and because it wasn’t challenged, the building of 320 residents is now owned by a Berlin cooperative. An inspiring win for solidarity and determination.
Perhaps then our fears about what will become of our cities should take heart from stories like this, when we hold out and fight together we can not only win but gain a greater sense of common ownership and future. But in Leine-Oder the residents are not basking in self-congratulatory victory. At the bottom of their press release, they make it clear that just within the local neighbourhood, known as Schiller Kiez, another building on Oker Straße, 33, and two bars: Schillers as well as Syndikat are under threat. For those nearby, here are some forthcoming dates, culminating in a street festival of sorts for neighbourhood solidarity and resistance on 7th and 8th August. The long night of Weise Straße. https://syndikatbleibt.noblogs.org/