A town of diplomats and party bikes

In every metropolis there’s always a corner that embodies what the place is all about.

In every metropolis there’s always a corner that embodies what the place is all about. The steady murmur of people and vehicles, the alternating rush and hush of traffic moving and standing still. Spend a day there, and you get to know the city. And how it’s changing. 

In the center of Berlin, on the traffic island between Hotel Adlon and the European Commission building, there’s a small convenience store. Inside this kiosk, which looks something like an overgrown sardine can, is 22-year-old Aline Lindner. She feels at home here, but strangely alien, too. The tip of Pariser Platz is off to her right while Unter den Linden and Wilhelmstrasse meet to her left. Here, in the stop-and-go of traffic, is where Aline grew up. 

When she was born, her father had already been running the shop for four years. The Lindners will tell you it wasn’t quite as snazzy back then. As a young girl, Aline often accompanied her father to work. So she grew up at the very spot where the two Berlins have now grown together again. Where no man’s land once stretched out in front of the Brandenburg Gate. A place that saw Ronald Reagan praise the virtues of freedom – and David Hasselhoff sing them. In the late 90s, it was both a construction site and a confluence – a kind of vision for a new Germany, with facades of shining glass rising up alongside historical counterparts restored to their former glory.

In the dust and noise of all this change, men running a shell game or some other type of hustle looked for fresh marks, street vendors peddled painted pieces of concrete that passed off as remnants of the Berlin Wall, and men in American or Russian uniforms offered to pose for photos with tourists. It was here, a place that devours history to spit out the future, that the Lindners sold drinks and cigarettes, and hawked souvenir plates, glasses, cups, lighters, and refrigerator magnets – emblazoned with historical images of Berlin. But it was not just the surroundings were changing at the intersection; the people were as well. 

Just before rush hour 

The sky is blue on this Berlin morning, and you can feel the promise of summer in the air. Apart from Aline Lindner and the sausage guy across the street who is heaving giant, 100-sausage packs of Wurst into his stand, the only people around are the hotel porters in front of the Adlon, a few VIP limousine chauffeurs, a handful of taxi drivers leaning against the hoods of their vehicles near the shop, and some construction workers. After all, there’s always someone building something here.

Black limousines from the federal government motor pool arrive from Alexanderplatz and turn right onto Wilhelmstrasse. A few double-decker city buses head towards the Reichstag, its black-red-gold flag fluttering gently above the horizon. This is the calm before the storm of tourists, whose arrival will be signaled by city guides exiting Brandenburg Gate subway station in red jackets and opening their red umbrellas to the sun. The umbrellas tell tourists the language a guide can talk to them about Berlin in.

The crush of visitors in front of the Brandenburg Gate is more organized now than when Aline was a child – even though there’s a lot more traffic today. Every day, thousands of vacationers stampede across the intersection next to the Lindners’ shop, moving on from Madame Tussaud’s to the famous gate in a throng of travel groups, party bikes, cycle rickshaws, and rented Trabants.

And even though there are more tourists now than ever before, Aline is selling less than she used to. “People hardly buy anything anymore,” she says. Maybe they’re spending their money at the Starbucks on the corner, or in the boutiques on Friedrichsstrasse instead. These days, people are more likely to take home a selfie from Pariser Platz than a commemorative plate. They’re still interested in the past, but they prefer to consume it now. Aline has completed a vocational training program in retailing. She’s trying to convince her father to update the store’s inventory with more t-shirts, gadgets and refreshments before their little souvenir shop itself becomes a memory of days gone by.

Now she glances at the intersection she’s gazed upon since before she can remember and hopes there won’t be any accidents today. Three cyclists a week wipe out in front of her store, she estimates, and she doesn’t even bother to count the dents and fender-benders anymore. Lots of people underestimate the intersection. Traffic laws are changing, and so are drivers.

At the beginning of this century, the Brandenburg Gate was closed to most road traffic. Since then, only taxis, tourist buses, and horse-drawn carriages have been allowed to roll down Pariser Platz. A short time later, big anti-terror barriers were installed in front of Wilhelmstrasse (formerly Husarenstrasse, which became Neue Wilhelmstrasse and then, through 1993, Otto-Grotewohl-Strasse) to protect the British embassy against car bombs. Since then, the intersection of Unter den Linden and Wilhelmstrasse has only been traversable via an L-shaped route. Even so, this grandest of Berlin’s grand boulevards still has six lanes. Cyclists appear from all directions. The six pedestrian crosswalks are used by masses of people who begin to materialize around noon. So it is still a bit chaotic.

From time to time, attempts are made to improve the intersection. There is even a passage in the German government’s coalition agreement that limits traffic on Unter den Linden to pedestrians, cyclists, and buses. The idea is to make the heart of Berlin automobile-free and herald the start of the transportation revolution. But not much has really happened yet. And certainly not everyone thinks having a pedestrian zone in the middle of the city center is a good idea. For one thing, this 61-meter-wide street is one of only a handful of east-west routes in the city. And some, including urban planner Hildebrand Machleidt, fear that it will become a kind of 3-D museum. “Kitschy tourist wares would be everywhere you look. Like Disneyland, from Pariser Platz all the way to Forum Friedericianum—and a rather unsophisticated one at that.” 

 

Everyone passes by this place – all headed in different directions. 

“What I love about this intersection,” says Aline, “is that everything comes together here. Berliners in a rush to get somewhere, the Chancellor and her security guards, celebrities staying at the Adlon, lost Chinese tourists, and young people partying into the night. But they’ve all got one thing in common—they just want to pass through. And they’re allowed to! When I think about the border being here just 30 years ago, I get goose bumps.”

That sounds like a lot of drama and daily chaos. But there are also a lot of people in police uniforms standing around. Theoretically, they could all help manage the traffic, but not everyone who looks like a police officer is there to hand out tickets. Mario Erfurth, for instance, has been working in facility security for 16 years. He is one of those standing at Pariser Platz in a uniform, but if there’s a traffic accident, the most he can do is provide first aid. Day after day, Mario and his co-workers stand outside in all weathers and watch out for any suspicious activity while guarding the many high-security buildings here: the British, American, French, Hungarian, and Russian embassies, the offices of the German Bundestag, and the Brandenburg Gate itself.

“When you stand here all day and think about everything that’s happened in this place,” says Mario, “it makes you feel kind of small.” As tourists so often ask him questions, he knows, for instance, the exact date when Napoleon rode through the Gate. He also knows that, on the corner of Unter den Linden and Wilhelmstrasse, where the little police booth now stands, there once was a legendary artist hangout called Das schwarze Ferkel. And he knows where on Wilhelmstrasse the Kingdom of Prussia and the German Reich once had their headquarters, as did the Nazi government later on. He feels it’s awesome that this intersection is such a peaceful place now and that people from all over the world want to see it: “There’s even a giant New Year’s Eve party here every year!”

An intersection that’s never been as laid back as it is today 

Yet history is not full of happy endings. The best you can hope for is to enjoy a little peace and quiet while it lasts. So the question is always, what comes next? Where are we headed? The people of Berlin—its citizens, business community, and politicians—need to figure out what purpose this intersection in the heart of the city center should have, and how that fits in with the Berlin of the future. Should this dot on the city map become an expressway, a fairground, a recreational area, or an open-air mall?  No one has all the answers yet.

Lots of people complain about how artificial the street has become: A place of great historical significance strangely lacking in personality, where history no longer happens, but is preserved and consumed instead. Yet standing between the plumes of smoke rising from portable barbeque grills between the lime trees on a sunny day like today, Mario is happy that the history of this place, as it is retold on the many plaques, ends with the fall of the Berlin Wall. This intersection has never been as relaxed or clean as it is today.

The city has categorized Pariser Platz as Cleaning Class 1, which means they send six cleaners to clean it from top to bottom three times a day. Here, everything shines in a way rarely seen in Berlin. People call it the city’s “front parlor”. And there is a good reason why everyone is allowed to enter it, protesters included. They are here every week, by the way—often in front of the US embassy and demonstrating on streets that look like they’re straight from a movie set. Today, it’s members of the repressed Boloch minority from Pakistan who take over the intersection for a few minutes. In these days of global political turmoil no one would be surprised if the security zone around the embassies near the Brandenburg Gate were much larger. Perhaps it is important for Berlin to remain open, even at what may be its most vulnerable spot. So Mario and his colleagues have to be here, on this postcard of a street, hoping that nothing ever happens, but ready for anything, no matter how dangerous. A sinister plot. A deeply disturbed individual. An attack. But how could they possibly protect us? Every second person is wearing a backpack here. “It’s easy to spot people who are acting strange,” Mario says. “In most cases there’s a very simple explanation ­– they’re usually either lost or need to find a toilet.” So he asks them if he can help. And hopes he’ll never have to experience anything that would warrant installation of a new commemorative plaque.

The moral here is that traffic can only flow through a major intersection in a big city if everyone behaves according to the same rules. You follow them for the most part, keep your eyes open, and trust that everyone else is just trying to get to where they’re going, too. Cooperation not collision ­– it’s the only thing that works.

Even an uneventful day at this intersection is a bit exhausting. But Mario and Aline love it. Standing here, they feel they’re right at the very heart of Germany. But they need to counter-balance this, too. For Aline that means living on the outskirts of the city in Reinickendorf. Mario and his wife have just moved to the Brandenburg countryside, which is about as far away from the center as you can get.