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Stations of a divided city: Searching for the real Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall is no longer there, but it's still a tourist magnet. On the anniversary of the fall of the Wall, DW's Jefferson Chase set out to trace the history and stories of the structure that divided East and West.

In mid-October 1989, I visited Berlin, in part to get a look at the Berlin Wall. By May of the following year, the Wall as a historical phenomenon was already essentially gone, notwithstanding the stretches of concrete waiting to be torn down around the city. So I ask myself what tourists today, 26 years after the fact, are getting when they come to the German capital and try to form an impression of what the Wall was like.

To answer that question, I hop on my bike and cycle to the most famous "remaining" section of that edifice. The East Side Gallery stretches for more than 1.3 kilometers (0.8 miles) along the Spree River in the eastern part of the city. Tourists flock there to get a glimpse of 100 of the "greatest hits" works of wall graffiti, including the iconographic heads done by French artist Thierry Noir.

Cruising past them on my bike, I have to say that the graffiti art from the Cold War has stood the test of time quite well. The only problem is that the East Side Gallery is a remake and a fake. The works on display are reproductions, made as part of a 1990 project involving 118 artists from 21 countries, of street art from various points on the Western side of the Wall. Here in the East, of course, the structure was monochrome grey and inhuman.

Along the Berlin Wall, Copyright: Jefferson Chase

The wall that was built to keep out capitalism is now a commodity

That doesn't deter thousands of tourists from taking selfies in front of the East Side Gallery and occasionally leaving something of themselves behind in the form of tags and other graffiti. Fortunately, the city is planning to erect an 80- to 90-centimeter tall barrier to protect the East Side Gallery from vandalism. A wall to protect the "Wall" - what would the Communist ideologues of yore have made of that?

Recreated and devoid of the original context, the East Side Gallery is no more fearsome than a museum exhibit. The lethal stretch of no man's land, which was mined and guarded by sentinels with shoot-to-kill orders, is now home to a discotheque, a hostel, a sausage stand and a souvenir shop. You can even reside there - in a 14-story luxury high-rise nausea-inducingly dubbed the "Living Levels."

A treehouse in a concrete shadow

I turn left and cycle across the river to Engeldamm, a curved road with separated lanes. Often the Wall ran roughshod over the existing contours of the city. Here it followed them. Communist authorities laid out this section of the "anti-fascist rampart of protection," as they called it, over a drained 19th-century canal. And this led to probably the most bizarre allotment garden in the city's history.

Along the Berlin Wall, Copyright: Jefferson Chase

Osman Kalin's treehouse at the Wall symbolizes one individual's defiance of a system

In the mid-1980s, an ageing Turkish migrant to Germany, Osman Kalin, began to plant garlic and onions on an empty 350-square-meter triangle of soil directly on the Western side of the wall. Over the years, this guerilla-gardening pioneer built himself a small hut from scrap wood and other stuff people had thrown away. The "treehouse at the wall" still stands today, whereas the steel of concrete of the wall have long been carted off to the dump. That puts a smile on my face.

What was once no-man's land on Engeldamm has become a narrow park overgrown with foliage that leads to a picturesque lake with reeds and swans. From the café there, you can clearly see the architectural signs of Berlin's former division. To the right, all of the buildings are new. There's even a pre-fab Plattenbau for which Communist East Germany was famous. The cityscape to the right is dominated by the turn-of-the-century apartment buildings so typical of the Western neighborhood of Kreuzberg.

Fake GIs and tragic victims

Along the Berlin Wall, Copyright: Jefferson Chase

At Checkpoint Charlie, history is the star of the show

The epicenter of Wall tourism in Kreuzberg is naturally Checkpoint Charlie, so it's there I head next. If you're looking for major preserved steel-and-concrete Wall remnants, you'll be disappointed. On the other hand, you can pay 10 euros ($10.75), enter a round building and gawp at a 15-meter-high panorama of typical Wall scenes.

You can also take your picture with two GIs standing watch outside a guard house on a traffic island - although the GIs speak mostly German and their accent is Eastern European. The presentation of the past at Checkpoint Charlie has about as much to do with a legitimate culture of memory as the surrounding kebab stands have to do with Turkish cuisine.

Along the Berlin Wall, Copyright: Jefferson Chase

These GIs are friendly and enthusiastic, but they ain't real

Serious history buffs have to travel to the other end of Friedrichstrasse to the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse which divides the districts of Mitte in the East from Wedding in the West.

Here you can see preserved sections of the Wall without decorative graffiti. Steel pillars on what was no-man's land play informational videos and sound recordings, while circular metal signs in the ground pay tribute to those who lost their lives trying to flee Communism. The first of the victims was a woman named Ida Siekmann. She was 58 years old and preferred to jump out of her apartment window rather than enjoy the paternalistic care of the East German "state for workers and farmers."

What's gone is gone

Along the Berlin Wall, Copyright: Maurizio Gambarini/dpa (zu dpa

People can get closer to history at the Berlin Wall Memorial in Bernauer Strasse

The memorial and the adjoining documentary information center is a must for everyone who wants to learn the facts of the Wall, and it attracts a continuous stream of earnest tourists, many of them on bicycles like me. What no memorial can do, however, in the year 2015 is convey the sense of oppressive dread that the Wall inspired in people a quarter century ago.

I cycle on to the spot where the beginning of the end of intimidation took place. The border crossing Bornholmer Strasse at the Bösebrücke bridge was the first transit point to be opened on November 9, 1989.

Today all there is to see is a small section of the wall, a couple of photographs from that historical evening and some cherry trees on the former no man's land. The trees were donated by a Japanese television station in the hope that they would bring "peace and tranquility" to Berlin. A discount chain grocery store occupies the spot of the former border control checkpoint.

Along the Berlin Wall, Copyright: Jefferson Chase

This picture is the main reminder of the past at a bridge where history was made

From the bridge you have an overview of both the pre-war apartment buildings of the eastern neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg and the pre-fab 1960s social housing estates of Wedding. On the evening of November 9, 1989, tens of thousands of East Germans poured across this bridge into a district of West Berlin that many West Germans considered an irredeemable ghetto.

In the two decades that followed, droves of West Germans headed to Prenzlauer Berg, lured by the relatively cheap pre-war apartments and availability of good kindergartens. Nowadays, hardly a week goes by without Wedding being touted as the new up-and-coming neighborhood. It's considered cheap, creative and edgy. "Poor but sexy" - to use the city's well-worn unofficial slogan.

You can complain about a lot of aspects of recent history, but in one respect you have to give history its due. It's never short on irony.

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