Can The Crumbling Berlin Wall Be Saved?

Deterioration like this break in the wall's concrete, exposing inner metal beams, is becoming more common in the East Side Gallery, as tourists' touches and scavenging bits of the artefact add to natural weather wear from years of exposure. Damaso Reyes/www.theeuropeans.net

CBSNews.com's Christine Lagorio is filing weekly dispatches from Berlin while writing for the Financial Times Deutschland as part of the Arthur F. Burns Fellowship Program.



One of Germany's most beloved tourist attractions is crumbling.

The Berlin Wall has been battered by age, the elements, souvenir-hunting tourists and commercial development. This once-detested symbol of the Cold War and a divided nation is desperately in need of a makeover.

Now a group of artists is trying to keep the most iconic part of the Communist-era barrier standing.

The .81-mile stretch of the wall along the Spree River holds a Thierry Noir painting of bright tall cartoon faces and Brigit Kinder's famous image of an East German Trabi car breaking through the wall.

In 1990, Noir and Kinder, along with 116 other artists from 24 countries, transformed the eastern side of the wall into the attraction it is today by coating it with more than 100 bright murals.

"It wasn't immediately clear that by painting it the wall was being preserved," said Kani Alavi, an artist who organized the 1990 effort. Before the artists began their work, the wall had only been covered in graffiti.

In hopes of keeping it intact as a reminder of the divided city, Alavi and other artists registered the stretch of wall as an art gallery. It is now formally known as Küstlerinitiative (artists' initiative) East Side Gallery e.V.

The 52-year-old Iranian-born Alavi has been the cornerstone of the preservation effort for nearly two decades.

"I come from a country where the wall is in the heads of the people, there are walls between the cultures, but in the end those people share the same fates," he said.

But this segment of the wall, which follows the curve of the Spree River in Berlin's Freidrichshain neighborhood, was originally constructed in 1961. And it looks weary. Holes in its concrete frame reveal the metal skeleton underneath.

And its vibrant pop-art colors are now faded. Most of the paintings circa 1990 are just a shadow of themselves, worn away by the elements. Even a 333-meter stretch that was re-surfaced in 2000 seems shabby now - parts of it have been chipped away by tourists eager to take home a chunk of history.

Most of the paintings are tattooed with graffiti. "Ich liebe Berlin!" and "Paul was here 2002" are typical entries.

Earlier this week, 19-year-old Albert Mendez, a Barcelona resident, was sightseeing at the wall with his family during their vacation in Berlin. This reporter questioned him after watching Mendez and his younger brothers use pieces of metal to chip away at the wall's façade.

"Because of the communist history we wanted to see it," Mendez said of the wall.

And what about the excavation?

"I got a piece to take back. We all did!" he said.

Another development that adds to the urgency of protecting the wall is encroachment by the vibrant neighborhood where it sits. Outdoor nightclubs, cafes and music venues are popping up along the Spree. These establishments often use breaks in the wall as entranceways.

But help may be on the way.

Alavi said the Berlin city government has accepted the importance of preserving the East Side Gallery portion of the wall - and has promised funding of up to 1.4 million euros (about $3.1 million) to renovate the barrier. The work would include resurfacing the concrete and adding a protective layer, plus the repainting of the 1990 murals.

But the gallery hasn't seen the money yet, and has been for years trying to rally the original artists to return to Berlin for the months-long repainting process. Most are on board - but several have grown frustrated with repeated delays due to weather or the budget.

Alavi says the renovation is slated for next month, and he's hopeful that it can be completed before Berlin's frigid winter temperatures interfere.

Translation of interviews provided by Kerstin Ruskowsk
  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for CBSNews.com.

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