It was an eventful 2014 to say the least – including an umbrella revolution in Hong Kong, a pestilential virus spreading over West Africa, a looming civil war in Ukraine, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Spanish king abdicating, Israel and Hamas dropping yet more bombs on one another, a spacecraft landing on a comet and Scotland deciding to remain in the United Kingdom (even though the possibility of redesigning the Union Jack did at one point seem very real). But the land of the brave is not the only one to have staged an exciting referendum in 2014. Berlin saw its citizens become engrossed in a matter that – at first glance – may seem rather insignificant and petty compared to those mentioned above.
It is a hot Indian Summer’s day in mid September. Shortly before she disappears on her six-month hiatus in the southern hemisphere the sun has snuck out one last time and turned Berlin into a scorching hot desert. Soon she will have gone, only to leave us Europeans alone with the moon, a lot of darkness and runny colds. It seems that most Berliners have followed the sun’s warm call and flocked out to spend their day on what used to be the grounds of an airport, and since its closure has been turned into a public park – known by the name of Tempelhofer Park. What the foreign visitor will not know or see during their visit is the amount of petitions, boundless collective energy and protest that took place for the simple right to stroll across this field. A big fight for – well, nothing: a fight against any form of privatisation, selling off or constructing of buildings on any part of the former airport’s grounds.
We are faced with a vastness that has become rare in ‘dickes B’ – a nickname that German rapper Peter Fox famously dubbed the German capital with back in 2001. Since its reunification in 1989, Berlin has slowly and quietly become the place to be in Europe. With its trendy cafés, a fast growing fashion scene, underground (and often illegal) raves, it has not only become appealing to the young and trendy German but attracted folk from all over Europe. Dubbed as the ‘new land of opportunity’ by Washington Post, Berlin has become an international destination for artists, musicians, start ups, entrepreneurs but also for engineers, architects and designers from countries like Spain, Italy and Greece who have had a hard time finding jobs back home. Many hear about the promising futures that Germanland has provided others with. They are told about young graduates – maybe a friend, or a cousin twice removed – who had been jobless for months, sometimes even years, and turned their lives around by finding a job and better life in Germany. Cheap rents, low cost of living, lots of jobs and two international airports that can take them home in no time. Whilst the reality of moving to Germany might be a little less rosy and romantic as imagined by most, it is true indeed that its economy is booming. 25 years after its reunification, Berlin is still and evermore building, constructing, growing and sewing bits together that formerly were disconnected by opposing ideologies and a bitterly hated Wall.
Our thoughts return back to Tempelhofer Park, where we have now crossed the first runway and are walking past a big Turkish family that has gathered here for a family meal under the glaring late-summer sun. Kids are laughing, chasing each other around; parents, aunts, uncles and friends watch their offspring and nibble on bits of food. It does not take long to understand why this rather plain field means so much to the people of Berlin. We look around and find ourselves in three and a half square kilometres of what could mostly be described as semi-barren grassland, interrupted only by a few runways. Very few trees, no buildings, no shops, not a single roof to provide shelter from the elements. A colossal piece of land that stretches almost as far as the eyes will see: infinity, abyss, a seemingly endless horizon. And kites – kites everywhere, in all shapes and sizes. Students starting barbeques, a group of scruffy-looking musicians jamming and smoking cigarettes, dog lovers taking their pets out for a play, couples enjoying what might be their last sunbath of the year. A little walk further down we discover urban gardeners tending to their sunflowers, vegetable patches and, yes, even bees. We see plants growing out of bathtubs and garden benches made of wooden pallets. It is tempting to think one has ended up in a somewhat hippie-alternative universe. A little further down a man is reading his book on a wooden umpire-style chair that overlooks not only rows and rows of greenery but also allows a sneaky view of a seemingly distant Berlin.
A distant Berlin?! All but an illusion! Tempelhofer Park lies barely seven kilometres away from the centre and is almost equidistant from both hip and trendy Kreuzberg and its younger sibling Neukölln, which are both a mere 20 minute cycle away. Leave the park and you’re right back in the middle of Berlin’s hustle and bustle, surrounded by traffic, shops, noise – and the unavoidable dirt of a multimillion city. But whilst in the confines of this tranquil public space it is so easy to forget all of that. For Tempelhofer Park, which – until its closure in 2008 – used to act as an international airport and gateway to the world, embodies everything that the city is not: a safe haven away from construction sites, tourists, traffic, capitalism. It is a place for the wary Berliner to escape facing the new identity his city is being confronted with. All humans are resistant to change – and the Berliners maybe even more so. It is common urban knowledge that the indigenous Berliner is suspicious of the recent influx of capital, foreigners and rich people into his city. What brings them here, what are they doing with his space and – most importantly – are they taking it away? Will Berlin’s popularity result in what has happened to so many of the big cities? Will it mean forcing the working class natives out of the centre and into the outskirts, to make space for the rich in overpriced central penthouse flats?
Tempelhofer Park – an escapist fantasy?
But back in Tempelhofer Park none of these troubles matter. For the government has (begrudgingly) provided and the masses can meander. Tempelhofer Park has become a place for the fragmented city to reunite as one – class, age and origin are blurred and become almost insignificant. People gather in an almost rural fashion. Strangers stop and talk to one another about their dogs. The local Turkish diaspora finds a public space amongst the Germans, a people it has a rather estranged relationship with. Children are left to run around freely, with no worries of them being bulldozed by the next incoming truck. Two girls are attempting to fly their winged box kite. One of them is wearing a hijab, the other a ponytail. And Tempelhofer Park has become a place for man to return to nature in an almost anarchic way. For one is allowed to plant and tend to plants, skate across the runway, cycle and run to the point of exhaustion or, if in the mood, pretend to be an airplane, sprint down the runway and fly off into the distance.
However, as peaceful as Tempelhofer Park may seem at the surface, its present existence was in fact contested and fought over in a lengthy battle between citizens and government. After its closure in 2008, the former airport was soon declared as a public space for people to enjoy and meander, left mainly to their own devices. Berliners, who are characteristically rebellious and slightly anarchic, had soon claimed it for themselves, turning it into the somewhat hippie-style park that it is today. When the government announced its plans to sell parts of land off to private companies in order to build 4700 new (mostly luxury) flats and commercial spaces, Berliners of all ages cried in outrage. Not long before an action group was formed, petitions were signed – and consequently ignored. The battle finally reached its climax on the day of the European Elections when Berliners were called to a referendum over the future existence of their beloved Tempelhofer Park. And the people won. David fought against Goliath and defeated the Giant. Results of the referendum concluded a new law that now forbids the government to sell, commercialise or dig on any parts of the land. It is to be used as a public park in which the people may plant trees, play sports, have barbecues, stage protests (of which it saw a few in 2014) and let their dogs run about to their heart’s content.
Silent waters are deep – so is Tempelhofer Park.
But why does a city in the midst of a housing crisis revolt against new living space and extra jobs (of which the government promised 7000)? Why did a few square kilometres of grassland turn into such a contested space? Maybe it is relevant here to take a look at Tempelhofer Airport’s past. Opened in 1923, it was soon taken over by the Nazis who not only used it as an airport but also as a stage for the appropriation of International Workers Day, gigantic propaganda parades and as a location for several forced labour camps. For the best part of 20 years it became a space symbolising precisely the opposite of the freedom of speech that German’s citizens enjoy today. Following the Gleichschaltung, only a handful of very brave individuals would dare to voice open criticism against the government – and often pay with their lives. And whilst 1960s Tempelhofer Airport was situated in the West of Berlin and never confined by communism, it was indeed the West Berliners that were confined by a wall. When in 1968 the first Cold War crisis resulted in the Berlin Blockade, it was through Tempelhof Airport that West Berlin was supplied with food, clothes and any other goods needed. For a year of Germany’s history it provided the only link with the outer world. To therefore privatise and commercialise a place that had historically been so politically loaded certainly seemed wrong to the citizens of Berlin. However, to argue that it was the mere history that drove them to protest for the park’s conservation may be a little reductive. Berliners are known across the country to be forward people. If you irritate them they reputedly will not beat about the bush in telling you off. If you expect polite and forthcoming service in restaurants and cafés you best go visit another city. To watch Berlin being privatised and turned into a metropolis of the rich, like so many other big cities of the world, is therefore a reality that Berliners not only loathe but also openly protest. Berlin is to be a city of the people and not that of avaricious politicians and millionaires. Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile – or three point five square kilometres. Native Berliners are very wary to see their city suffer the same consequences of popularity as the likes of London or New York have. And they protest against it by making it as uncomfortable for greedy politicians and enterprises as they possibly can. So whilst at first glance the battle for Tempelhof may seem a little trivial it in fact represents a much bigger struggle at large: that for German citizens’ continuation of its still very young right to a freedom of speech and democracy but also a right to remember a painful past that not only separated Germany but saw the genocide of millions of human lives (and a second World War, come to think of it). Today Tempelhofer Park includes and is surrounded by several monuments remembering those who suffered and perished under the terrors of the Nazi regime.
2014 was an eventful year. Wars, bombs, enduring conflicts – and a bunch of people standing up for the rights and the space that so many of their fellow human beings do not have in this world. May Tempelhofer Park inspire more of this in 2015.
A German-British hybrid, Katharina Massmann is studying Social Anthropology in London. In her free time she loves reading (anything from novels to newspapers), taking photos and exploring the fabulous city that is her home. Whilst harbouring a passion for BBC Radio 4, her top 3 pet peeves are labelling, othering and gender inequalities.