Jon Crispin's Notebook


Posted in Abandoned Buildings, Architecture, Buildings, Community, Government, History, Travel by joncrispin on 10/11/2014

I moved to Berlin in January of 1986.  I really needed to get away from Ithaca, and I had some issues which needed attention.  I spent mornings at the Goethe Institute studying German and the rest of the day photographing.  I was drawn to the city because of the division; one could see the extremes of Capitalism on the West side, then go through a checkpoint on the same day and see what the Commies were up to.  It was like stepping back forty years.

I like the phrase “wer mauert hat’s nötig” which I always took to mean “whoever builds walls needs them”.  Which is relevant here as the East Germans built the thing and then called it an “anti-facist barrier”.

In looking over my contact sheets this morning I realized that there are very few people in any of my wall photographs.  It always amazed me that even on the West side, people stayed away from it (except the graffiti folks who must have worked at odd hours, as I never saw anyone writing on the thing).

I used to like to take the bus to Steinstücken and wander around.  It was an odd little Western enclave almost totally surrounded by the East.  You can read about it here.  There was a rail line running straight through it and you could stick your head around a corner and be face to face with a guard tower.  It always seemed a likely place for a crossing, but I never heard of one. / I met a lot of Berliners and was always interested to hear stories of unique situations with the wall.  I was once told that at some locations there were gates where Westerners could use a key to access their gardens in the East.  Probably not true, but interesting to think about.

Here is Checkpoint Charlie at night.

The wall has been down for 25 years now.  I seriously doubt it was Reagan’s “Mr Gorbachev, bring down this wall” plea that had anything to do with it opening up.  More like the East Germans made some really stupid mistakes, which is not surprising as they were running a completely effed up and vile organization.

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    • joncrispin said, on 10/11/2014 at 4:31 pm

      Stephen, yes I saw it. Pretty interesting. I was actually doing work for the Times back then, and in fact was on the Glienicke Bridge for the Sharansky exchange. What an interesting day.

  1. Martha Kennedy said, on 10/11/2014 at 6:48 pm

    I enjoyed these photos very much; they’re haunting/beautiful/ugly — and your discussion.

  2. Hank. said, on 13/11/2014 at 6:47 pm

    What a time, huh? I remember it well, though it wasn’t until living in Prague in the early 90s and traveling around the former eastern bloc countries that the enormity of the failed system really clicked for me. That and reading Timothy Garton Ash’s The File, an account of the author’s travels in East Germany in the late 70s-80s and then *reading about it* in his Stasi file after unification. Ash had been spied on comprehensively during his stays in East Germany, but surprisingly little of the information the Stasi network gathered revealed much about what he was actually doing. It was all just a lot of data. A great case study for how a society based on everyone spying on everyone else – family, friends, strangers – eventually results in a system crippled by paranoia, distrust, and an overwhelming amount of information minus any real intelligence. It’s just unsustainable. I think about it now in the context of all the voluntary spying and disclosure we seem to be doing today, if only under the more friendly guise of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc.

  3. Andrea said, on 17/11/2014 at 2:26 am

    I never heard of West Berliners actually owning a key to the wall, but there were two Laubenkolonien (allotment gardens) called Erlengrund and Fichtewiese, which were Western exclaves much like Steinstücken, only without direct access from West Berlin. Reportedly people who wanted to access their gardens could ring a bell at a gate. (after having applied for a permit beforehand).
    Still the key story is not entirely impossible. I think I heard of a crossing once through gardens that were accessible from both sides, probably in the first months or so after the building of the wall.

    These are in German, but still…:

    • joncrispin said, on 17/11/2014 at 9:51 am

      Andrea, thank you so much for the comment and the links. All best, jon

  4. […] belonging to Communist East German territory. Jon Crispin’s pro photos, featured here and in his Berlin Notebook, offer a glimpse of how it looked in the winter and also summer of 1986—a year before I visited […]

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