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Culture

A Last Stretch of the Berlin Wall Fights Fate

The famous murals painted on the longest standing stretch of the Berlin Wall are crumbling away with the weather and crowds of souvenir-hungry tourists. But nothing is being done to save the East Side Gallery.

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Berlin's East Side Gallery is a major tourist draw

Johnny picks up his pace as the first slab of painted concrete comes into view along the Mühlenstrasse in Berlin's Friedrichshain district. He's reached the start of the 1.3 kilometers (0.8 miles) of murals painted on this once untouchable stretch of the Berlin Wall.

"It's such a great feeling just touching it," Johnny says, running his hands over the faded mural, which is covered in graffiti and missing large chunks.

"I want to take a piece home with me," he adds, and starts picking away at a part of the wall still flecked with green paint. His companions protest, but Johnny is resolute. After a few seconds, he holds up a small chip of the Wall triumphantly, and then wraps it in a handkerchief for safe-keeping.

Johnny's friend Ruth is not impressed. "I think it's crazy to have people just picking and picking," she says, shaking her head. "I think they need to put some protective coating on it, something needs to be done."

Johnny is hardly alone in his desire to take home a piece of the Cold War's most famous symbol. But that desire, coupled with the damaging effects of Berlin's hot summers and cold, wet winters, is causing the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall to crumble away.

Unique artistic achievement

Die East Side Gallery in Berlin, Berliner Mauer, Bruderkuss

The "Bruderkuss" mural at the East Side Gallery

During the summer of 1990, shortly after the collapse of the East German regime, artists covered a section of the Wall along the Spree River with murals re-telling German history and bearing slogans of peace. The East Side Gallery was born. Some of the murals, such as Dmitri Vrubel's "Bruderkuss" (photo) between former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and East German Prime Minister Eric Honecker, have become famous in their own right.

In 2000, the artists' initiative carried out a partial restoration of the East Side Gallery, as the murals were already beginning to show signs of wear and tear.

Now, artist Kani Alavi is proposing a total restoration of the East Side Gallery. At a cost of €1.5 million ($1.8 million) the concrete would be stripped, the murals repainted, and then sealed with an anti-graffiti coating. But where should the money come from?

Ownership in question

Typically, the preservation of historical monuments such as the East Side Gallery falls to the owners. The part of the Wall in question was given to the district of Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain in 1990, but there's a dispute over whether the gift contract is still binding under current law, and therefore, over who the owners are: the district, the state of Berlin, the federal government, or private investors who've bought land on which the Wall stands.

Such legal squabbles frustrate Gerd Glanze, who runs the East Side Gallery souvenir shop.

"This important document of our past is coming down and nobody is doing anything about it," he said. Glanze advocates charging every tourist a fee of €1 to view the gallery.

Pay-per-view?

Sarah, a tourist from London who made the East Side Gallery her first stop on her trip to Berlin, agrees with Glanze's proposal.

"We've come a long way just to see this and I think it would be good if they maintained it," she said. "I think even if they charged to see it people would want to see it, just like you pay to go into a museum. Look at the amount of people here. The way it looks now I think somebody has to step up and take responsibility for it."

Bastian, who's lived in Berlin for 14 years, doesn't think the financial responsibility for the gallery's maintenance should fall to tourists.

“The money should come from the government, not the visitors," he said. "The Wall is a part of our common German history. Politicians decided to build the Wall, let politicians pay for its upkeep as a historic monument.”

Die Berliner Mauer

People stroll past the East Side Gallery

The artists' initiative says the best solution would be a foundation for the gallery's restoration, sponsored by the state, the federal government and private donors.

The other strategy -- one that's popular among many Berliners -- is to resist any attempts at artifice, and just let time take its course.

"The way (the Wall) looks now reflects Berlin," said Michael B., a Berlin resident who often strolls along the East Side Gallery, barely giving it a glance. "It's typical of the city. Not everything looks perfect here. If they start preserving it too much, it starts to look fake. But like this, it looks real."

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