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Berlin – Mix of Old & New!

June 3, 2010

After months of anticipation and preparation, not to mention a grueling 20+ hrs of traveling to get here, we finally arrived in Berlin about a week ago.  To start with, initial reactions – one of the things I’ve found most striking as we’ve been exploring is the edginess of the eastern part of the city when compared to the west.  Copious amounts of graffiti seem to represent the political, social, artistic, and cultural voice of the citizens here and is much more prominent in the east, though it is interspersed throughout the city.  Some of the most amazing graffiti I’ve ever seen was found in the art district of East Berlin:

Artwork lines both the streets and alleyways alike and can be found almost everywhere in town.  And what is most surprising is that most graffiti and street art not only seem to be tolerated but almost celebrated as a form of expression.

Many of the older buildings in the eastern part of the city are almost foreboding in their distinct utilitarian style; a multitude of abandoned buildings and lots are either being vigorously absorbed back into nature, have become both palette and display for urban art and graffiti, or have been literally occupied and taken over (borrowed, not owned) by people to house clubs, bars, or other similar business ventures, which the city allows for the sake of the local economy.  I can’t say for sure that I actually saw many homeless people there though it seemed that people could also live in these dilapidated shelter situations if they needed to.

And on that point, unlike the increasingly hostile environment we’re seeing more and more often in Denver concerning treatment and tolerance of the homeless, there was much less of that in Berlin (though you did have to pay to use public restrooms).  While discussing the economy with many German residents, I discovered some interesting and relevant rebuttals concerning a more socialized style political economy, of which I have always been a strong proponent.  Some components are wonderful, such as socialized medicine, a much more socialized and inclusive form of unemployment benefits, and very low cost college tuition.  But all of this comes at a price – first the increasingly overwhelming economic costs which are compounding due to the current state of the global economy; and secondly, the social costs – in the case of college specifically, the resulting quality of an individualized university experience can be lacking.  But there is something to be said for everyone knowing they will have enough money for food and shelter no matter what, that they can be treated for a medical condition regardless of their economic situation, and that they have the opportunity to go to college without having to pay very much in the way of tuition.  I’m feel more educated concerning the pitfalls related to a more socialized system but I personally still find it to be a more preferable option than others.

Another favorite feature of mine in Berlin is the environmental component.  From various futuristic eco-friendly buildings, less prevalence of non-biodegradable disposable containers (plastic bottles, plastic bags, etc.), general energy conservation (most people do not own dryers or cars), an amazing and highly connected transit system which runs all the time, to the many beautiful public parks (crowned by Berlin’s Tiergarten which is a HUGE park in the middle of the city spanning 2-1/2 acres), I found the various environmentally conscious components of Berlin to be wonderful.  Although I had read of it previously and found it interesting, I was inspired by the once-called Reichstag Building, or it’s now official name, the German Bundestag (home of the German Parliament) once there in person. Environmentally, it is awe inspiring equipped with a plethora of energy saving technology including a light funneling mirrored cone, heat recovery systems, solar panels, generators fueled by rapeseed biodiesel, and a water reclamation system.  Further the symbolism represented by the building itself brings together the tangled history of Berlin and provides a foundation of renewal.  The building has a long history that began in 1894 – it was once home to the Reichstag, which was the Parliament of the German Empire and the Weimar Republic; it is the infamous building which suspiciously caught fire shortly after Hitler came to power ominously ushering in an era of no democracy; after World War II, the building was practically in ruins though the Red Army briefly occupied it and flew a Russian flag over it as a symbol of their victory; it rebuilt during the early 1960s and used  as a history museum and occasionally as a government meeting building; after reunification, the building was once again formally established as the home of the new German Parliament; final reconstruction of the building began in 1995 and now the building, a blend of the astounding old and new Germany, has as its center feature, a glass dome which is meant to symbolize the transparency of the German government.

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