Wednesday, November 11, 2009

East Berlin, c1976

There are lots of stories in the papers and MSM these days about the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

After graduating from University I went backpacking in Europe for a few weeks. Airfare was $640 on a 747; it is not much more today for advance purchases.

I crossed into East Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie. It was compulsory to convert some West Marks into East Marks at the (poor) official exchange rate. It was not permitted to reconvert the East Marks upon exiting the "Democratic Republic". I had to wait for several minutes at the crossing while the guards photocopied my passport and visa (chargex?) card. [Is it filed in Stasi archives somewhere?]

After strolling about the main square, visiting the big department store, being chased everywhere by people wanting to buy my Quebec jeans or convert money, seeing the Pope's Revenge, etc, I took the metro to a distant stop with the intention of walking back for a half day just to see the non-downtown parts of the city.

I got off near Treptower Park (?) where there was a huge Soviet War Memorial and cemetary. Many of the neighborhoods were built in "super blocks", the latest socialist urban layout. Each block was huge and would encompass several of our city blocks. Each one consisted of peeling-stucco identical dirty gray apartment blocks around the perimeter, with some more towers in the mid block. A few units had balconies, most did not. In the centre was a park and primary school. A sidewalk ran around the perimeter of the superblock, and then there was a boulevard space between the walk and the road surface. The boulevard was thickly planted with shrubs and had one or two barbed-wire fences in it. Crossing the street was only possible at the corners and one mid-block crossing. Several superblocks were connected at mid-block crossings to feed into a high school. Around this neighborhood of superblocks ran very wide barren boulevarded avenues, often with no crossings and lots of barbed-wire in the shrubs. The system was designed to keep kids "safe" in a sanitized zone. While understandable in a society traumetized by war and oppression, the resulting urban grid was dreadfully depressing.

I stopped in at a small bakery on a street. My friend and I talked in English, looking at the buns. The few other shoppers, all women, all in dowdy coats and kerchiefs, looked alarmed and left, shuffling along the wall behind us to get to the door. The shop keeping lady pulled down the blinds in the window. We selected our "lunch" and she refused our payment of East Marks, putting her hands behind her, her back crazy-glued to the rear wall behind the counter, her face twisted in .. fear? As we left, she locked the door behind us. I hadn't exactly considered myself an intimidating person until that time.


  1. That superblock model, sans barbed wire, is common across the former Soviet Union. If you can get over the crappy architecture, it actually works well. The blocks are dense enough to support a lot of retail, and you can get most of what you need with a short walk. Often, you don't even need to cross a road. Commie urban planning was quite good - far better than commie architecture.

  2. You quite correct that is good planning/architecture in some senses. The superblock model was also common in Austria and presumably was some of the influence in Lower Town urban renewal and Rochester Heights and Regent's Park in toronto, where houses are located on pedestrian walks in mid-blocks and street patterns are interrupted or streets removed. However, Jane Jacobs gives some devastating criticisms of that model, in favour of public streets, urban action and vitality (which is usually missing from ped malls unless a very high critical mass can be achieved). I understand its merits, but don't think we will see that model -- only its suburban bastard descendants of looping cresents -- employed much again. Note for example the latest urban planning exercises for the Escarpment area, LeBreton Flats, or Bayview Yards: all housing faces streets with animated sidewalks.