An estimated 400 demonstrators succeeded on Friday in halting construction workers from dismantling part of a historic stretch of the Berlin Wall. Plans call for relocating a roughly 20-meter (66-foot) section of the so-called East Side Gallery, the longest remaining part of the wall, so that a luxury apartment complex can be built on prime real estate along the River Spree.
The crew only removed one roughly 1.5-meter (5-foot) section before their work was halted. Demonstrators then filled the gap with a mock section of the wall.
The gallery dates back to early 1990, when about 120 international artists were invited to paint a 1.3-kilometer (0.8-mile) stretch of the Berlin Wall overlooking the River Spree.
The open-air gallery is close to the Ostbahnhof station in the trendy district of Friedrichshain. During the 28 years of the city's division, this stretch was on the interior eastern side of the elaborate border strip, so it did not bear any of the graffiti that covered the parts exposed to what was then West Berlin.
Today, the East Side Gallery is thought to be the biggest outdoor gallery in the world and has become a major tourist draw. In 2008, the city restored the paintings at a cost of more than 2 million ($2.6 million).
The Gentrification Debate
Despite its popularity, local city district chairman Franz Schulz told the daily Bild newspaper that historical preservation authorities had granted a construction firm permission to remove a section so that a road could be built to allow access to a new luxury apartment complex currently in development.
Volker Thoms, a spokesman for the developer Living Bauhaus, responded to the interruption by saying that work would resume in the "coming days." He also sought to allay public concerns, pointing out that the sections being removed would be set back up in the riverside park that runs behind the gallery.
"The artists aren't very happy about this," Thoms told the Associated Press. "But, in the end, their paintings and their art will not disappear; it will just not be in the wall, but behind it."
The dispute comes at a time when debate over gentrification is rife in the German capital. Rising rents and a squeeze on urban housing are undermining the democratic spirit that defined Berlin's image in the post-reunification era and made it a magnet for creative types. To many, the city is losing its unique appeal and selling out to investors.
"Is culture no longer worth anything?" read one banner held aloft by demonstrators at Friday's protests. Below it, in smaller letters, it said: "Die Yuppie Scum!"
Protecting a Symbol
"It's unbearable to see that the wall here is being so brutally torn down," artist Thierry Noir, whose painted section of the wall is one likely to be relocated, told the dpa news agency.
"We painted these images for future generations, as a memorial, and now it's simply being removed," he said.
Meanwhile, Antje Kapek, a trained urban planner and politician with the local Green Party, blamed the city government. "It is ignoring the historical, cultural and tourist significance of this gallery and memorial," she told the Berlin daily Tagesspiegel.
Her counterpart in the center-right Christian Democrats, Florian Graf, called for a "moratorium that would give us the time we need to let the building project go ahead as well as preserve the historic wall installation."
"It is a symbol of the city's identity," he said.