Tear Down This Wall


I have a hard time conceiving of the Berlin Wall. The above photo, taken in 1985 by Robin McMorran, a visiting British tourist, only adds to my incomprehension. Look at the way it snakes through the city almost arbitrarily, cutting off squares, streets, streetcar tracks. It was absurd and surreal yet it defined the day-to-day reality of Berlin for more than a generation.

The first incarnation of the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, when Soviet and East German leaders agreed that the flow of refugees towards the West needed to be stemmed. Over the next two decades, the wall was rebuilt four times, until it reached its final and most infamous state in 1975. The wall became a backdrop to speeches by Western leaders; it was there, in front of the Brandenburg Gate, that Ronald Reagan uttered his most famous pronouncement: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Despite its rhetoric, though, the West did little to prevent the construction of the wall in the first place. For nearly three decades, it divided families and neighbourhoods. Even Berlin’s complex subway system was cut in two by the wall.

Berlin’s wall was far from unique. Walls have, for centuries, divided cities from their hinterland, but they are increasingly being used to restrict movement within cities themselves. In the early 1980s, the Turkish and Greek halves of the Cypriot capital of Nicosia were separated by a barrier. Jerusalem has long been divided by the border between Israel and Palestine, a border that has been reinforced in recent years by the addition of a tall separation barrier. In Baghdad, military forces have laid the groundwork for a new wall that will separate Shia neighbourhoods from Sunni ones.

In some ways, the walls that exist along many stretches of the US-Mexico border, dividing otherwise contiguous urban areas like Nogales, can be seen in the same light. (Compare this photo of the border, marked by an imposing wall, with this one from 1898 in which there is no barrier whatsoever.) This is especially true as border cities grow larger and even more intertwined, despite the ever more burdensome restrictions on movement.

Andrew Chau, on his blog urban-ism, looked last month at the “(un)intended consequences of building walls. “In our capitalist system, goods and capital are allowed to move freely, but migrants cannot,” he wrote. “For the corporate elite and their companies, this is essential to distance themselves from the growing inequities between the rich and the poor.”

In cities divided, their main effect is to entrench social inequality by restricting free movement, just as the Berlin Wall did for 28 years. That wall was torn down, but in its place have risen many others.


This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Wednesday December 12 2007at 09:12 pm , filed under History, Public Space, Society and Culture, United States and tagged . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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