Transforming a City Once Divided- Reflections on the Fall of the Berlin Wall

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This year on November 9, the people of Berlin celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  A business trip to explore partnerships with German universities took me to Berlin one month before that anniversary to see what has been, and continues to be, an amazing transformation.  What I saw taking place there truly is a beacon of hope and a testimonial to the potential of people to co-create a desired future.

I was in Berlin in 1980, a time when no one yet imagined the Wall coming down.  I was 30 years old and both eager and scared to travel into East Berlin with German friends.  I knew it was an opportunity of a lifetime to see and experience firsthand what most others only could see in movies.  I remember the fear as we passed through Checkpoint Charlie and the anguish of a woman in front of us who was trying to bring basic supplies to family members in the east, but not allowed to do so. As we entered the eastern part of the city walled off from the vibrant western section, I could only hope that we would have an uneventful experience and return safely to the West at the end of the day. 

Once inside East Berlin, I was shocked to see a reality much like that depicted in the movies.  Everything was so grey, so dim, so uncared for.  It was like time had stopped there and people were just existing – not really living.  The spirit of people individually and relationally was dramatically different from what I experienced in the West.  I saw very few people smiling and laughing. I thought it must be like being in a prison for life, unable to see one’s friends and family who resided on the other side of the Wall.

Today, a portion of the Wall still is in place, located not far from the hotel where I stayed during my recent business trip.  A memorial at this small section of what was once a barricade tells the story of the construction of the Wall, the destruction of the homes that lined the street to make a vacant space that would allow for anyone who attempted to escape to easily be seen, captured or shot.  Stories and videos of people jumping out of third or fourth story windows before their homes were destroyed showed the desperation that was such a large part of this story.  A total of 136 people died trying to escape to the West over the 40+ years that the Wall was in place, including at least two people who died this way within a year of the wall being torn down.  These and other stories of what happens when a community is intentionally divided serve as a vivid reminder of the need for people to be free and connected.

I doubt if many people who experienced life as defined by the Berlin Wall could have imagined that it would come down during their lifetime.  I recall how I was shocked when I heard the news;  this barrier that for so long had separated families and friends and divided a city had fallen seemingly in an instant. 

What were the cracks in the social and organizational systems that opened up the possibility of removing the Wall?  What enabled this once divided city to become whole in a fairly short period of time? These are questions that have no easy answers but would make great research questions. What could we learn from better understanding the fall of the Berlin Wall and reconstruction of a great city that could inform the work needed to develop sustainable communities?

Berlin is a city in transformation.  One needs to pay close attention to notice when passing over what used to be a border between west and east.  Buildings that were grey and drab are now multicolored and families have moved in and created thriving neighborhoods.  Abandoned factories are being converted into space for innovative businesses.  The amazing buildings that house the museums have been mostly cleaned of the soot that previously covered them and many are in the middle of major renovation.  New construction is taking place throughout Berlin and one can only imagine what a beautiful city it will be, following the completion of this renovation..

Berlin is a city full of young people,  Seeing how they are co-creating new living and working spaces inspired me. While my generation, the baby boomers, sought to escape cities to a large degree, younger people today are seeing cities as desirable places to live.  They seek the connection to the vibrancy of city life, the diversity of people, and the convenience of having so much in terms of goods and services close by.  One young couple I met just moved to Berlin and into a renovated space in a neighborhood which has experienced gentrification. They spoke of the sense of community that can be developed when people connect as neighbors and frequent the businesses that are close by. 

Those of us who study transformational learning and change can learn from what is taking place in Berlin in hopes of creating the conditions for reviving other cities and towns, large and small.  Creating spaces where people can build a sustainable life and connect in community could help us greatly reduce many of the human and social problems that emerged during the 20th century; problems exacerbated by separation and lack of community.  How can we all support the efforts taking place to reimagine, renovate, and redesign the way we live, work, and organize ourselves in thriving communities?

Read other posts by Nancy Southern

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