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What a difference a decade makes
May 5, 2012 7:36 AM   Subscribe

In 1990, right after the Berlin Wall fell, Stephen Koppelkamm ventured into East Berlin and photographed what he found. Ten years on, he revisited the same locations.
posted by pjern (43 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Seems like a clear case of the walls coming tumbling down being a good thing. Except I do wonder where those sculptures above the antique store went?
posted by infini at 7:45 AM on May 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I like the old ones better.
posted by swift at 7:49 AM on May 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


As I'd guessed, I prefer many (not all, but many) of the shots in the 'before' versions. And it's not because of some romanticized view of communism or anything (I actually spent some time in the former East Germany, doing some gigs and wandering around East Berlin and Leipzig, and life there looked pretty damn bleak), but rather because of the hyper-pristine way of maintaining buildings in Germany is really a turn-off for me. They keep them so spotless and freshly painted and so damn PERFECT that it's kind of deadening. Medieval towns wind up looking like fucking Disneyland.

Give me Italy any day, where they like to let really old buildings look really old. That's where you get the soul of the past, where the past can really speak to you.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:51 AM on May 5, 2012 [12 favorites]


Trendy lefties really like Cuba's tattered charm as well, which eludes the locals.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:58 AM on May 5, 2012 [13 favorites]


East Germany was horrible. Even relative to other communist countries, they were terrible at running their economy. The place remains to be cratered. I read somewhere - I think it was in the NYRB - that of the 100 top corporate headquarters and 100 top industrial centers in present day Germany, exactly 0 are in the former East Germany.

These pictures aren't as striking as they could be due. The original photos are too prosaic, and the black and white doesn't really work here. I'm being snotty, though. It's still an interesting photo series. As many problems as there were with reunification, at least they're keeping things spic and span and trying to make things work.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:04 AM on May 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Poor maintenance, shabbiness, wear and tear and urban decay may be interesting for the short term visitor but I have a hunch the people who live(d) there much prefer 10 years after. I spend part of the year with one foot firmly planted with a worn out urban landscape and after a while I do not find it at all uplifting--sometimes it grounds me and reminds me that worlds can be very different but I have the option of moving in and out.
posted by rmhsinc at 8:06 AM on May 5, 2012 [6 favorites]


Trendy lefties really like Cuba's tattered charm as well, which eludes the locals.

Lazy characterization. "Lefty" has nothing to do with it. Nor does "trendy" for that matter. Furthermore, one wonders what particular insight you have into what the "locals" in Cuba think.

And there is a charm in "tattered". Places that are old and look old are entrancing and aesthetically appealing. That's why tourists flock to certain locales around the globe. Non-trendy, non-leftist tourists, mostly.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:09 AM on May 5, 2012 [9 favorites]


It's really interesting to stand at Checkpoint Charlie these days. To your west is a traditional German city ... You could be in Munich or Stuttgart or wherever. To your east is a modernistic metropolis with beautiful glass exteriors and a sense of being five minutes into the future. It's quite striking.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:10 AM on May 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


The first thing that struck me was that this was a perfect argument for capitalism being better than communism, at least the East German variety. Not that capitalism is perfect by any means, but wow, the difference is amazing.
posted by freakazoid at 8:15 AM on May 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


I know this exposes me as an artless rube, but I detest black and white photography. I always want to know what I'm missing, like half of the picture is just not there. The before and afters don't look all that different to my eye. I know I'm in the minority, the photo sites I frequent are always gaga over black and white images, but blah.
posted by karlos at 8:22 AM on May 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Considering that Western Germany poured 300 billion Euro into the eastern part, what you're seeing is much more careful central planning than capitalism at work.
posted by dhoe at 8:22 AM on May 5, 2012 [8 favorites]


If it's not clear from clicking the link, most of these are not places in Berlin.

I don't know, I feel like the presentation is kind of off-putting in that it tries too hard to say "East Germany was depressing. Let's celebrate progress!" For example:
The old chunky street lamp has been replaced by a slimmer, more elegant model.
Er... okay? I'm equally not shocked that a few buildings that looked like building sites in 1992 are now no longer building sites. The disappearance of the random pile of bricks doesn't mean anything, other than the project got finished.

Some of this reaction I'm having is almost certainly caused by the translation. Saying 'people-owned' in quotation marks reads to me as sarcastic in a way that VEB doesn't. I mean we all know that VEBs were state enterprises. This may say something very complicated about how these acronyms have been conveyed to me, someone who wasn't old enough to understand reunification (though I knew it was happening--I was learning where countries were at the time) and a few thousand miles away.

And while fixing falling down buildings is pretty much a uniformly good thing, I don't think we can see the gentrification that's going on in, say, what was East Berlin as unequivocally good thing just because it's restored some buildings.
posted by hoyland at 8:25 AM on May 5, 2012


They keep them so spotless and freshly painted and so damn PERFECT that it's kind of deadening

Heh, its all relative. I'm currently in Singapore... where they've managed to tear up and rebuild the corner outside the window at least thrice in the past 5 years.
posted by infini at 8:27 AM on May 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


I visited Berlin in 1994, 2003 and 2009 and it was plain that not only had the city changed in the first decade after communism but that it has continued to change significantly since as a result of continued spending on governmental and other infrastructure.

I would also agree that the black and white does not suit this, but largely as it fails to catch the drabness of East Berlin and its ubiquitous concrete and the change as brighter options became available. What film can't capture is how the people might have changed in the period. My German colleague was keen to underline how berliners had a different perspective from other Germans as a result of the needs of living as they did, and that this manifested in seeing themselves more collectively.
posted by biffa at 8:32 AM on May 5, 2012


Superficially tattered but functional with underlying beautiful bones IS charming and is sustainable. That's not what the before pictures were. Those buildings were dying or already dead, not elegantly decaying.
posted by JPD at 8:35 AM on May 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Fascinating! But:

a) Rule 29 of The Internet: the only appropriate format for a photo series is a long vertical strip with the pics taking the full width of the page. Everything else if fucking annoying.

b) it's surprising how creepy it is to still find blackletter signs in Germany. I was travelling by train there some years back, and there was this tiny station with its name written in blackletter. Creeped me the fuck out.
posted by Tom-B at 8:38 AM on May 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


I visited berlin in the early nintes, and the thing that lept out to me about the buildings on the east side was that a lot of the decay wasn't just happening because of age, but because the buildings were riddled with bullet holes. Having had the good fortune to live (so far) in a peaceful place, the evidence that there had been such violence happening there that even the buildings were scarred was a bit chilling. I agree that the look of an old crumbling building can be charming, but it's also true that plaster and paint do serve to preserve and maintain a structure. If an old building is worth admiring, it does make sense to keep it in good repair to prevent further delapidation. It made me very happy to see that gorgeous art nouveau building restored so beautifully.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 8:47 AM on May 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


The first thing that struck me was that this was a perfect argument for capitalism being better than communism, at least the East German variety.

I think it's more the perfect argument for European social democracy being better than East German communism. Germany is hardly a bastion of free market fundamentalism. Even the center-right CDU would be lambasted as communists by Republicans in the US, for example.
posted by jedicus at 8:47 AM on May 5, 2012 [6 favorites]


it's surprising how creepy it is to still find blackletter signs in Germany. I was travelling by train there some years back, and there was this tiny station with its name written in blackletter. Creeped me the fuck out. Tom-B

I'm not sure why Fraktur "creeped you the fuck out"… because you saw it in Nazi movies? Fraktur was still regularly used for printed German for a lot of the 20th century. My father's German textbook from high school was written in Fraktur. And he was born, raised, and educated in the United States! Would it freak you out to see something written in the style of "font" used in the US Constitution?

But I digress.

As a German student in the 80s, it was striking to have seen the DDR *before* it fell. Wow. Walking up to the border from the West in practically nowhere's-ville… and there's a guard tower with one soldier pointing a pair of binoculars at you and another soldier checking you out simultaneously through a rifle scope. A lone creek splits the border, in which stands a sign written in a dozen languages informing you that you WILL be shot if you touch that water.

My father was in the US military at the time and had the special privilege of being able to ride around E. Berlin. No passport required. Just a military uniform. The US (and other other Allies) made a special point of driving through East Berlin daily, to maintain that right that we enjoyed/demanded of the Russians. There were people whose sole job in the military was to maintain this status quo, which I found pretty interesting. And boy was the East a wreck. As a visitor, you had to spend every last pfennig you had, because they were (a) going to confiscate it when you left and (b) you couldn't use it anywhere else anyway. But there was a slight problem… there was NOTHING to buy! You'd end up wandering through "gift shops" buying all kinds of stupid stationery or "souvenirs" or whatever just to ditch the currency. Almost always in vain.

On the plus side, it wasn't uncommon to have a meal for a dozen of your pals, stuff yourselves full, and drink endless amounts of booze… and have a tab equivalent to 20 bucks.

Last point… my German prof at the time was an old guy that was a teen when he left Nazi Germany. Needless to say, there were many tears shed in class on that fateful day in 1989. It was almost as if he had stood up at the front of class and said "now I can die". Being so close to history and with such a vantage… now that's what I'd call freaky.
posted by readyfreddy at 9:09 AM on May 5, 2012 [11 favorites]


Considering that Western Germany poured 300 billion Euro into the eastern part, what you're seeing is much more careful central planning than capitalism at work.

It's a combination of both approaches. West Germany wouldn't have had the funds to try to develop and stimulate East Germany if its entire economy had been centrally planned.

I know this exposes me as an artless rube, but I detest black and white photography. I always want to know what I'm missing, like half of the picture is just not there. The before and afters don't look all that different to my eye. I know I'm in the minority, the photo sites I frequent are always gaga over black and white images, but blah.

I like B&W photography, but it wasn't the perfect approach here. That said, the originals were probably B&W, so you could only go B&W for the follow-ups.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:27 AM on May 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nice to see that they preserved most of the old buildings. I'm used to seeing "then & now" shots of the US where there's a cool old building in the "then" shot and a parking lot or a Wendy's in the "now" photo.
posted by octothorpe at 9:30 AM on May 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


freakazoid writes "The first thing that struck me was that this was a perfect argument for capitalism being better than communism, at least the East German variety. Not that capitalism is perfect by any means, but wow, the difference is amazing."

I wouldn't read too much into this photoset; One wouldn't have to look hard to make up a similar set featuring places in the USA.
posted by Mitheral at 9:38 AM on May 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


One of the most amazing nights out I've ever spent anywhere was barhopping with my brother in Berlin a few days after Christmas in 1992. We were staying with our parents at a hotel near Alexanderplatz, and the conceirge pointed us in the general direction of Oranienburgerstrasse. We wound up hopping from cafe to cafe in the ground floor of all these huge half-empty warehouse buildings, where a range of Ossies, Wessies and other opportunists had set up squats, art spaces, semi-legal cafes. (There's just one left - the now somewhat touristy Kunsthaus Tacheles.)

It didn't seem clear what the rules were about anything. Land use, property rights, liquor licenses, drug laws - didn't even seem like anyone knew which cops were in charge. I've never been anywhere so sizzlingly alive with promise. We ended up in some subterranean den in I think Kreuzberg, near dawn, delirious.

Unforgettable night. Even the haziest parts. Wish I'd had a camera with me. These pictures really take me back.

Still love Berlin, by the way. It may not have as many tattered edges, but it's still a city where people look at change as the inevitable and preferred state of being. Makes for a fun town even today.
posted by gompa at 9:50 AM on May 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


I thought it was interesting that the path of the wall next to the Brandenburg Gate has been turned into a highway.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:50 AM on May 5, 2012


By the way, is it really just a decade? It's been 20 years since the wall fell, not 10.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:50 AM on May 5, 2012


CP, the after pictures were mostly taken around 2002-3.

I also don't think the "before" pictures only have tattered charm or weathered shabbiness to recommend them. There's one set in particular where I feel like something's been lost comparing the before to the after (Zittau), whereas in other cases the restoration looks good to me in comparison (Glambecker Strasse).

Maybe it would have been too expensive to repair the Zittau building without such a drastic change; that'd definitely be a fair point. And of course I am a non-resident and a total non-expert in architecture or historical conservation. I just find something a little bittersweet about that second picture.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:24 PM on May 5, 2012


CP, the after pictures were mostly taken around 2002-3.

Yah, pictures taken on those spots today would reveal a lot more teardowns.

Of course the 2002-2003 set is probably heavily biased in favor of non-teardowns.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:27 PM on May 5, 2012


It's a combination of both approaches. West Germany wouldn't have had the funds to try to develop and stimulate East Germany if its entire economy had been centrally planned.

It is a combination of both approaches, Germany has much greater links between Government, finance and industry and a much higher degree of planning in terms of the government trying to pick winners than is the case in the US or UK. Its known as a coordinated market economy in the literature if anyone wants to do some reading.
posted by biffa at 2:30 PM on May 5, 2012


The before pics have a post apocalypse charm the way Detroit porn has a post apocalypse charm. But I get to enjoy East Berlin's former dilapidated charm from the other side of the globe, in a city that's been bustling for decades, as a citizen who's free to leave if the shiny storefronts and chain restaurants in this town start grating on my sensibilities.
posted by 2N2222 at 2:48 PM on May 5, 2012


Don't worry, give it another hundred years and the decay will come right back up to the surface. Wonderful entropy, the preservationist's friend.
posted by Scram at 4:05 PM on May 5, 2012


I spent the summer of 1995 in Berlin. When I went to the east side, around the Brandenburg Tor, the place was an ocean of cranes and construction sites. Cranes cranes cranes just absolutely everywhere in East Berlin. You couldn't walk everywhere because there were whole city blocks--sometimes two or three of them--that were completely closed off for construction; the buildings and the streets. It was a very busy time. I haven't been back since, but I really would like to see how East Berlin is now that it's "complete".
posted by zardoz at 4:10 PM on May 5, 2012


The before pics have a post apocalypse charm the way Detroit porn has a post apocalypse charm. But I get to enjoy East Berlin's former dilapidated charm from the other side of the globe, in a city that's been bustling for decades, as a citizen who's free to leave if the shiny storefronts and chain restaurants in this town start grating on my sensibilities.

I think some of it IS post-apocalyptic, untouched (mostly) since the war.

And I think you could have done that set with just about any big western city between 1991 and 2012 and get a similarly depressing/progressive looking photoset. (With your exception of Detroit, I suppose. I was there in 1997 ish, and it just amazed me at how empty it was.)
posted by gjc at 4:44 PM on May 5, 2012


When I lived in Germany in 1995, you could immediately tell which cities and buildings belonged to the former East by the still-thick layer of coal smut everywhere. Apparently the avast had a distinctive coal smell well into the '90s.
posted by mynameisluka at 10:07 PM on May 5, 2012


Having risen upon a foundation of ashes, it looks like even East German reconstruction efforts were an improvement. Compare the following post-surrender images of Berlin taken in 1945 by Life photographer William Vandivert:
Berlin
Schöneberg, Berlin
Berliner Sportspalast
Chancellery Gardens
Oberwallstrasse, Berlin
And why fight over the relative values of black and white or color when you can have both? Russian photographer Sergey Larenkov blends historic WWII images with his contemporary color images of the same locations:
The Ghosts of World War II's Past
The Ghosts of World War II's Past (Paris, with photographer's interview).
Perhaps photographs don't really preserve the past at all. They merely capture brief moments of the present taken at very specific times, and it's up to us to rebuild the past as we think (or hope) it was from them.
posted by cenoxo at 9:19 AM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


The first thing that struck me was that this was a perfect argument for capitalism being better than communism, at least the East German variety. Not that capitalism is perfect by any means, but wow, the difference is amazing.

That seems to be the aim, but I don't think it's quite fair. Not a single McDonald's in any shot? If it were really capitalism that was funding those restorations, you'd see a lot more, you know, capitalism, in the pictures.

I mean, aesthetics is not generally a major aim of capitalism (check out Houston or Stamford CT, or basically any strip mall or condo development anywhere)
posted by mdn at 9:55 AM on May 6, 2012


There were people whose sole job in the military was to maintain this status quo, which I found pretty interesting.

Raises hand.

I did this for a while, and also drove tour buses through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin as a "side job". Oddly, in all the time I was there did anyone ever ask me how I got such a detailed knowledge of the East. Not once.

USMLM (US Military Liaison Mission) is what the poster is talking about above, and it is interesting to note that the Soviets had their own version, called the SMLM (Soviet Military Liaison Mission). Under the Four Powers agreement that divided Berlin (and Germany, for that matter), all the Allied Powers had equal access to each others' areas. This led to interesting things like being in line in the American PX behind a Podpolkovnik (Lt. Colonel) from the Soviet Army, who was buying up cigarettes and other creature comforts like there was no tomorrow.

I was trained to memorize lists of license plates, etc, of certain East German and Soviet officials, and was debriefed on what I had seen after every trip to the East. I at one time knew the locations of something like 30 different East German and Soviet military and police installations. I am sure other people had different tasking. Such were the ways of HUMINT in the Cold War.

I posted this primarily because I was interested in the reconstruction of the bullet-riddled, dreary hulks of patched-up prewar buildings I remembered. Outside of the Alexanderplatz, there were precious few bright, cheerful places to be found in the late 1970's.

At this remove, it all seems so silly now. I took it deadly seriously as a young, naive man, going so far as to bring East German flags back to my rooms to use as table drapes. Nowadays, what I took so seriously back then is just an irrelevant old man's memory of his youth. And so it goes.
posted by pjern at 3:06 PM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


>I'm not sure why Fraktur "creeped you the fuck out"… because you saw it in Nazi movies?

YEP

>Would it freak you out to see something written in the style of "font" used in the US Constitution?

NOPE
posted by Tom-B at 4:00 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


>I'm not sure why Fraktur "creeped you the fuck out"… because you saw it in Nazi movies?

YEP


I think readyfreddy's point is that you've got a 'false' association going on. That you can still find Fraktur signs all over Germany isn't a commentary on Nazism. It's 500 odd years of printing history. (There's a fair bit of Fraktur in the Berlin U-Bahn and S-Bahn systems. My go to example was going to be Unter den Linden, but it's been renamed Brandenburger Tor and re-signed.)

In fact, the Nazis banned Fraktur and Sütterlin, on the grounds they were (somehow) Jewish. The two theories for what was going on seem to be that Hitler was anti-Fraktur and that trying to conquer Europe when no one can read your handwriting is a tad impractical.
posted by hoyland at 5:17 PM on May 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


pjern said: At this remove, it all seems so silly now. I took it deadly seriously as a young, naive man, going so far as to bring East German flags back to my rooms to use as table drapes. Nowadays, what I took so seriously back then is just an irrelevant old man's memory of his youth. And so it goes.

The human world we live in is the sum total of the deeds and influences of the dead and the living, whether major, minor, or unknown. As the curtain closes on our acts, what matters most is that we have played our parts. C'est la vie...
posted by cenoxo at 8:33 PM on May 6, 2012


> I think readyfreddy's point is that you've got a 'false' association going on. That you can still find Fraktur signs all over Germany isn't a commentary on Nazism. It's 500 odd years of printing history.

readyfreddy and hoyland, I know all about that! It's not a rational reaction, that's why I wrote it is "surprising". But even before the nazis, Fraktur has always been associated with German nationalism.

I love Germany and Germans, you guys are awesome. But I find nationalism of any kind creepy, and German nationalism feels extra-creepy, can I be blamed?
posted by Tom-B at 7:45 AM on May 7, 2012


as someone who's parents grew up in germany after the war, it can be kinda off-putting to see you label something that is a very old traditional german style as "creepy" just because you associate it with nazis. Not all germans were nazis, and many suffered greatly because of that regime.

so yea, can you be blamed? I don't know, but can you be tactful? it would be nice
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 10:15 AM on May 7, 2012


as someone whose mother was born in Poland during the war, I apologize for my lack of tact. Sorry!
posted by Tom-B at 12:00 PM on May 7, 2012


it's cool, no worries. I do understand your wariness of nationalism - it's a nice thing when the feeling is "we're a community and proud of our background" and gets nasty when that idea is backed up by "and that means we are better than everyone else" and then when that sentiment gets put into action it gets even worse. That creeps me out too.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:42 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


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