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Berlin

'Don't tear down this wall!'

Plans to remove sections of Berlin's East Side Gallery, the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall, have struck a raw nerve in the German capital. Opponents see it as an attack on the city's identity.

In the summer of 1987, US President Ronald Reagan gave a landmark speech at the Brandenburg Gate, calling on Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev to make good on his intentions to liberalize communist Eastern Europe by demolishing the most visible symbol of the Iron Curtain. The speech culminated in the four most famous words of his presidency: "Tear down this wall!"

Who would have guessed that nearly 26 years later, thousands of Berliners would gather in front of the once reviled Berlin Wall and demand city politicians leave it standing?

Monday morning, about 100 demonstrators managed to prevent construction workers from removing approximately 23 meters of the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining stretch of the Wall that is now covered in murals painted by artists from around the world. The section was to be relocated just a few meters away.

That demonstration followed a much larger protest of some 6,000 people on Sunday, all demanding the East Side Gallery remain untouched.

While the 1.3-kilometer (0.8-mile) East Side Gallery is a protected landmark, city officials apparently approved - and perhaps even requested - the demolition work as part of plans to build a high-rise luxury apartment complex on the grassy area between the Wall and the Spree River.

That area was once aptly called the "Death Strip" because East German police would shoot any would-be defectors trying to escape through it into West Berlin. The gap in the East Side Gallery would give future tenants of the complex, as well as pedestrians crossing a bridge to be built there by the city, better access to the street along which the Wall runs.

Demonstrators protest plans to remove a portion of the East Side Gallery in Berlin

Large demonstrations have taken place over the past few days

An irreplaceable landmark

The East Side Gallery is beloved by tourists and Berliners alike, attracting some 800,000 visitors each year. Its authentic feel stands in contrast to other Berlin Wall-related tourist attractions like Checkpoint Charlie or the Brandenburg Gate, where actors dressed up like Soviet border guards are more likely to evoke memories of Disneyland than the sober reality of Germany's former division.

There are other sites in Berlin that remind residents and visitors of the city's history. But in many less touristy areas, it would be easy to walk along the former East-West border completely unaware that a wall once stood there. The East Side Gallery is not just the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall - it's also the Wall's most tangible memorial.

"The Wall for me stands for this city's very special history, and an especially brutal history that is otherwise completely invisible," said 25-year-old Berlin resident Marieke Krämer. "When the Wall is broken up into pieces, the impact is broken up as well. That's why the memorial has to stay intact."

Maria Nooke, deputy director of the Berlin Wall Foundation and a former citizen of East Germany, said for East Germans the Wall was an unapproachable symbol of communist oppression, and that after it fell it was astounding to simply walk across the border and see how close they had been to the West all along. She said the East Side Gallery should remain a testament to those memories.

"I think the former border area where the Berlin Wall ran is not meant for property speculation or obtaining revenue for the city," Nooke said. "This is a historic area that divided the city for more than 28 years, with significance not just for Berlin but for the whole world. You can't just give it away to build a pretty house."

Gentrification fears fuel the fire

Affection for the East Side Gallery as a historical landmark is the main reason behind the massive public opposition to its partial dismantling. A number of activists have long resisted virtually all development along the Spree River, but their opposition had limited mainstream appeal - until the East Side Gallery was threatened. Over the past week, in the run-up to the demolition work, newspapers ran editorials echoing protesters' demands that city officials and developers find an alternative building site for the project.

The uproar comes at a time when many Berliners fear the city's real estate boom could be destroying its soul. Gentrification in the East Side Gallery's neighborhood, Friedrichshain, has given birth to flashy projects like the O2 World event stadium, where artists like Beyoncé and Lady Gaga have performed, and the MTV Europe headquarters.

While breathing new life into the district, that gentrification has also been met with violent resistance. The 2011 clearing of the neighborhood's best-known illegally squatted building, Liebigstrasse 14, led to violent clashes between leftists and police. Last summer, anti-gentrification radicals also attacked a newly opened hotel in the neighborhood, smashing windows with fire extinguishers and throwing paint on the walls.

The movement to keep the East Side Gallery intact has so far been entirely peaceful, though protesters in the last few days have used their own bodies to stop parts of the Wall from being removed.

Confusing exchange of blame

Maik Uwe Hinkel, CEO of Living Bauhaus, the real estate firm behind the construction plans, has said he and his company have been unfairly vilified, and that it was the city government that wanted the new gap in the East Side Gallery. A spokesman for Hinkel said the plans would be discussed publicly at a forum later this month.

Real estate projects along the Spree River could offer the city new, much needed tax revenue and developers insist their plans still protect the character of the neighborhood and the integrity of the East Side Gallery.

Franz Schulz, the Green party district representative of Friedrichshain, has been accused of not doing enough to stop the development project's approval. However, he attended the demonstration on Sunday, and insisted he was on the protesters' side.

The first plans for development along the riverbank arose in 1992. Schulz explained that in the immediate post-reunification years of the 1990s, the Berlin Wall was seen as a nuisance and a barrier to growth that had to be removed as quickly as possible. It was under that mentality that the former Death Strip was designated as an area for development and construction.

Schulz said that while it's good that people are turning out to demonstrate for the East Side Gallery, more action is necessary. "We have to find a solution quickly, together with the Berlin Senate in order to actually put in place what the people here are calling for," he said. "That's not achievable with the Friedrichshain district alone. We need the support of the Berlin state government."

DW.DE

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