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Historic Art, Luxury Apartments Battle Over Berlin's Famous Wall

Kani Alavi stands before his painting It Happened in November, part of the open-air East Side Gallery built on fragments of the old Berlin Wall. He's fighting proposed development that would overshadow, relocate or remove segments of the gallery. "The fight to keep this wall intact, to preserve it, has become [my] life," he says. Irene Noguchi for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Irene Noguchi for NPR

Kani Alavi stands before his painting It Happened in November, part of the open-air East Side Gallery built on fragments of the old Berlin Wall. He's fighting proposed development that would overshadow, relocate or remove segments of the gallery. "The fight to keep this wall intact, to preserve it, has become [my] life," he says.

Irene Noguchi for NPR

When the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, Kani Alavi was a young artist living in an apartment overlooking the border between East and West Berlin. He remembers seeing East Berliners streaming through "like a wave of water," he said through an interpreter. "Some were joyful, some were doubtful, some were afraid they might not [have the chance to] cross again."

Alavi painted that moment: a flowing river of faces he calls "Es geschah im November," or "It happened in November."

Today, tourists can see that painting, alongside more than 100 others, covering a nearly mile-long stretch of the original cement Berlin Wall. It's called the East Side Gallery.

Alavi and a group of artists created it in 1990, soon after the wall fell. They wanted to preserve part of history, and felt it was symbolic to paint on the East side — which was blank during the East-West division, since East German soldiers patrolled the area dubbed the "death strip."

Dmitri Vrubel's painting of the Soviet Union's Leonid Brezhnev and East Germany's Erich Honecker kissing — under a Russian phrase that reads, "My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love" — is a popular part of the East Side Gallery. Adam Berry/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Adam Berry/Getty Images

Dmitri Vrubel's painting of the Soviet Union's Leonid Brezhnev and East Germany's Erich Honecker kissing — under a Russian phrase that reads, "My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love" — is a popular part of the East Side Gallery.

Adam Berry/Getty Images

Today, it's covered in colorful paintings, including one depicting the famous "kiss" between former Soviet head Leonid Brezhnev and East German leader Erich Honecker. The open-air gallery gets an estimated 800,000 visitors each year, including graffiti artists and vandals who scribble across the colorful paintings.

But for Alavi, the wall's biggest threat isn't vandalism. It's developers.

Alavi and his supporters have spent the past few years fighting developers from building alongside the gallery wall. While he has taken some to court and won, one developer managed to get building permits off Alavi's radar and recently constructed a luxury tower. The 14-story building with aquamarine windows overlooks the nearby Spree River, and as of this spring, had reportedly sold 80 percent of its units.

When construction started two years ago, 6,000 protesters showed up — including former Baywatch actor David Hasselhoff, who happens to be a popular singer in Germany. (He sang "Looking for Freedom," which he originally performed at the Berlin Wall in 1989 before a pro-reunification crowd.)

A luxury apartment building towers over the East Side Gallery, despite the objections of artists like Kani Alavi. Irene Noguchi for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Irene Noguchi for NPR

A luxury apartment building towers over the East Side Gallery, despite the objections of artists like Kani Alavi.

Irene Noguchi for NPR

But 10 days later, construction workers removed a 6-meter portion of the wall under heavy police protection, so they could start building. A hotel was also granted a building permit right next to the luxury tower, though no construction date is set.

Standing in front of his painting on the wall, Kani says he hopes the East Side Gallery will one day become a UNESCO World Heritage site and be protected from further development. But the shiny new apartments tower behind him, and tourists strain to hear him above the rush of traffic.

It might seem like a losing battle (the Mercedes-Benz Arena sits right across the street, and already had part of the wall sliced out and relocated for an unobstructed view of the water). But Alavi feels it's crucial to preserve the Berlin Wall so people remember the struggle for reunification, and how borders are treated as barriers — especially in light of Germany's migrant crisis today.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel made the controversial announcement earlier this summer that the country would take in 800,000 refugees — far more than any European Union nation. The media photos of Syrians streaming across the border look eerily similar to Alavi's own painting of East Berliners crossing the Berlin Wall.

"This painting has determined my future for 25 years," says Alavi, who migrated from Iran himself in 1980. "The fight to keep this wall intact, to preserve it, has become [my] life."

In 2011, Germany awarded him the prestigious Federal Cross of Merit for his efforts. Then in March 2014, he gave the South Korean president Park Geun-hye a tour of the East Side Gallery. She invited him to build a similar version along the DMZ border between North and South Korea, which he says will begin construction next year.

As Germany celebrates 25 years of reunification this Saturday, Alavi says, "We should get rid of psychological walls in our minds and our heads ... to get rid of the physical walls around the world."

Ironically, the man who was inspired by the fall of a wall is now determined to keep this one standing. It's a physical reminder of the borders people once crossed, and the change that is possible.

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