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Culture

Derailing an Icon of West Berlin

German Rail has announced that starting next May, long-distance trains will no longer stop at Berlin's Zoo Station, once West Berlin's primary train terminal. It marks the end of an era for many Berliners.

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Zoo Station is soon to lose some of its slightly gritty shine

It is not a large, nor particularly elegant place, nothing on the scale of New York's Grand Central or Paris' Gare du Nord. There are only four railway platforms, one sit-down restaurant that has seen better days, a few fast-food counters and shops, and a permanent presence of homeless people, beggars, and prostitutes mixed in with the travelers and tourists.

Despite its lack of glamour, Zoo Station (officially Bahnhof Zoologischer Garten, or shorter, Bahnhof Zoo) has a treasured place in the hearts of many Berliners and the decision to take away its status next year as a primary stop for long-distance trains arriving in the German capital has many mourning what they see as the final dénouement of a legend that played a central role in the divided city.

Bahnhof Zoo

During the almost three decades that the Berlin Wall separated two different political philosophies, not to mention neighbors, Zoo Station was the western sector's main train terminal, despite its small size. It came to almost represent the small island of democracy and capitalism in the socialist East German sea.

"The symbolic power of the station is very strong," said Manuela Damianakis, a spokesperson for Berlin's planning office. "It was one of the most important parts of the city, especially since it was the arrival point for visitors from the west."

With the Berlin Wall's construction, Berlin's traditional center, the neighborhood of Mitte, was cut off from the west. A new center developed, with its focus around Zoo Station and the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. It served as a capitalist counterpoint to the socialist city center at Alexanderplatz in East Berlin.

Menschenmenge

Shoping Time - The Kurfuerstendamm boulevard in western Berlin

Just a block away from the station begins the elegant Kurfürstendamm shopping boulevard (photo). The Europa Center shopping mall is a stone's throw away as is the huge KaDeWe department store. Movie theaters and popular discos are also nearby.

"There is something mythic about the station, because it was at the very heart of West Berlin life for so many years," said Damianakis.

Disaffected youth

But Zoo Station did not just represent the glitzy side of life in the fishbowl that was on the front lines of the Cold War. The station was also a magnet for the disaffected youth who hinted at a darker side of postwar West Germany's economic prosperity.

Berlin was often a destination for young people who wanted to escape the constraints of West German middle-class smugness. Zoo Station, in turn, often caught those who fell victim to some of the excesses of these alternative lifestyles. In the 1970s and 80s, it became known as a gathering place for drop-outs and punks. The street running along the back of the station, Jebensstrasse, became notorious for its prostitution and drug scene.

Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo

That world was documented in a biographical film called "We Children from Bahnhof Zoo." Based on a biography by Christiane Felscherinow, it recounts the descent of a teenage young girl into a vortex of drugs and sex for hire, all from the perspective of her and her friends. The film used the station and its environs as a gritty, hopeless backdrop.

In the 1990s, the city stepped in to try and rid the station of its more undesirable elements and improve the atmosphere for the many tourists and commuters who pass through every day. Police patrols were stepped up and in the mid-90s, much of the station was renovated. However, it still serves as a gathering place for the homeless, and teenage prostitutes still ply their trade behind the station.

Nina Hagen wird für ihr Lebenswerk ausgezeichnet

Nina Hagen

The station has been the topic of books, songs by artists like U2 and Nina Hagen (photo) and a popular musical, called "Line 1," which tells the story of a West German girl arriving at Zoo Station to experience life and love in the big city.

History

Zoo Station was originally opened in 1882, but was not a railway station, rather handled traffic for the city's Stadtbahn, or municipal light-rail system. Two years later, long-distance trains began running through the station.

In 1902, the first subway line in Berlin, the east-west U2 line, began operation at Zoo Station. In the 1930s, a new commuter train, or S-Bahn, hall was constructed and the railway hall was expanded. And in 1961, the year the Berlin Wall was built, the north-south U9 subway line also began running through Bahnhof Zoo.

Zoologischer Garten

Der Bahnhof Zoologischer Garten in Berlin, aufgenommen im Juli 1946. Foto: Landesbildstelle Berlin

The station had been damaged in the bombing of Berlin during WWII and during the final battle for the German capital. It only reopened for both S-Bahn and long-distance trains in 1955.

Loss of Stature

Although the station has bounced back from bombs and rehabilitated itself, partially, from its image as the center of Berlin's drug culture, it appears that it will finally fall victim to German reunification.

When the Wall fell, Berlin's center of gravity shifted back to where it originally was, to the neighborhood of Mitte.

ICE vor Bundestag

High-speed train in front of the Reichstag

Zoo Station began to lose some of its importance and with last week's decision by German Rail to strike the station from its list of stops for long-distance and high-speed trains, its fate appears to be sealed. Zoo Station will return to its original role as one district station among others.

But it's not going down without a fight. Emotions have been running high since German Rail announced its decision and Monika Thiemen, district mayor, is lobbying to maintain the station as a western hub.

"We do not agree with this decision and want German Rail to reconsider," she said. "It's not right that the trains can't make just a four-minute stop that makes the lives of citizens here so much easier."

Lehrter Bahnhof

Lehrter Bahnhof, Berlin's soon-to-be-complete central train station

Another resident, Helga Fischer, is starting a citizen's initiative to save the station. She can't understand German Rail's decision to have some trains simply bypass Zoo Station for Berlin's new central train station further east, Lehrter Bahnhof (photo).

"It's simply idiotic to stop having long-distance trains there just before the soccer World Cup next year," she said. "It's going to affect local business, increase traffic on the streets, and it's caused a great deal of outrage here."

Indeed, the daily Tagesspiegel, mostly read in the west, notes that it has received more letters protesting the changes to the station than it has for almost any other municipal issue that has surfaced in Berlin. On the contrary, readers of the Berliner Zeitung, a daily read primarily in the east, have hardly made a peep.

Perhaps the band U2 summed it up well, and presciently, in their song Zoo Station from the early 90s.

Time is a train

Makes the future the past

Leaves you standing in the station

Your face pressed up against the glass

The train has left the station.

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