Berlin in America: A Symposium about the Relationship between Urban Spaces and the Term Viability of Democracy

James A. Throgmorton. 2002. International Accents 3, 1 (Fall/Winter): 1 ff.

On June 21-22, 2002, an interdisciplinary group of scholars gathered at the University of Iowa to discuss and explore the relationship between the physical design of urban spaces and the practice of democracy. They did so by looking at U. S. cities with Berlin in mind. Hence the title: “Berlin in America.” The scholars included Peter Chametzky, Douglas McBride, Sharon Jones, David Caldwell, Dick Winchell, Christine Gerhardt, Janet Ward, Brian Ladd, Myron Levine, and myself (the symposium’s organizer).

In my introduction, I argued that people can overcome their “fear of otherness” by safely encountering unfamiliar strangers in public places, but they won’t create such public spaces until they overcome their fear of otherness. In my view, this points to the need to create, gradually and simultaneously, both inclusive processes and inclusive spaces. The processes of spatial planning in U. S. city-regions must be transformed into more open, inclusive, and deliberative processes that include all of the city-region’s relevant residents, citizens, stakeholders, and users. And the privatized city must be transformed into a city-region full of public spaces that enable people to engage in public realm social life.

In “Global Art, National Values,” Peter Chametzky of Southern Illinois University’s School of Art and Design contended that local attitudes, customs and activities, as well as still-active histories inherited from the past, produce “discursive sites” for the reception and interpretation of internationally exchanged and globally available objects, images, and ideas.  Consequently, the meanings of art works, images, and ideas often shift with their movement from one place to another, as well as with their movement through time. He pointed to the newly-renovated Reichstag as a place which welcomes critical dialogue on emotionally-charged issues that help to define national identity.

In “The Fallacy of Neutrality,” Douglas Brent McBride of Modern and Classical Languages at College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University critically assessed the widespread belief that “public” space is somehow neutral.  Drawing upon the work of political theorist Richard Sennett, McBride argued that, to have any significance for democratic practices, public spaces must offer fora in which historically- and socially-situated conflicts can be worked out through nonviolent forms of contestation.

In “Privatization of Urban Infrastructure,” Sharon Jones of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Lafayette College compared privatization efforts in Berlin and Indianapolis, Indiana.  After observing that infrastructure (water lines, sewers, airports, etc.) shapes the urban environment much like a skeleton shapes a human body, she compared privatization efforts in the two cities in terms of reasons for privatization, mechanisms of privatization, and success.

David Caldwell from the University of Northern Colorado’s Department Film Studies and Foreign Languages provided a very different view of urban infrastructure in his essay, “Berlin from Below.”  Critically assessing various films set in Berlin (Berlin: Symphony of a City, Metropolis) in terms of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, Caldwell argued that Berlin can best be understood if conceived and imagined along the “archaeological lines” of history, memory, fears and dreams, rather than horizontally in terms of the “tectonic model” of abutting surface spaces (of which the Wall is the greatest signifier). He concluded by relating his “tectonic model” to the U. S. context.

In “Planning as Architecture,” Dick Winchell from Urban Planning, Public Health, and Administration at Eastern Washington University critiqued planning in post-Wende (post-1989) Berlin. In his view, Berlin’s city builders (planners, architects and others) have tried to solve the city’s complex problems by imposing large-scale physical design solutions.  (This can best be seen by looking carefully at debates over the redevelopment of Potsdamer Platz and the new federal complex.)  He urged Berlin’s planners to engage the complexity by applying a more American-style (problem-solving) form of planning.

Christine Gerhardt from the Institut fur Anglistik/Amerikanistik at the Universitat Dortmund considered Berlin’s position in America’s cultural imagination and its impact on the identity of the American Self in her paper, “In This City Full of Shadows.”  She did so by focusing on three American texts that have been published since 1989: Susan Neiman’s Slow Fire: Jewish Notes from Berlin, Robert Darnton’s Berlin Journal, 1989-1990, and Audre Lorde’s poem “East Berlin.”  Berlin emerges in these texts as an imaginative site onto which Americans have externalized and projected their home-grown contradictions.

My own “Wo die Mauer War? (Where Was the Wall?)” explored some of these home-grown contradictions by contrasting mid-1950s planning in a spatially- and ideologically-divided Berlin with Harland Bartholomew’s mid-1950s planning in a racially-divided Louisville, Kentucky, and then juxtaposing the latter against Anne Braden’s mid-1950s narrative (The Wall Between) about efforts to desegregate housing in Louisville.

In “(Anti-)Americanism in the New Berlin,” Janet Ward from History and Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, related “the Las Vegas metaphor of city-creation” to Berlin.  Rightly earning the condemnation of many German intellectuals, the post-Wende rush to fill Berlin’s many voids and to make Berlin look as “Western” as possible has, as best exemplified by Potsdamer Platz, produced a “building-site tourism” that is creating a “Vegas on the Spree” and transforming the Mitte into a Disneyfied historical theme park.

In “Does History Matter in America Too?” Brian Ladd (an unaffiliated scholar who has written two fine books about planning in Germany) considered several possible reasons why history seems to weigh so much more heavily in Berlin’s physical planning than it does in U. S. cities.  (To a degree he found Berlin’s recent obsession with history and its effort to recreate “the European city” of Wilhelmine or Weimar Berlin to be rather ironic, for Berlin used to be known as “Chicago on the Spree,” the most “American” of all European cities.)

Myron Levine from Political Science and Leadership Studies at Albion College concluded the symposium with his paper, “Inner-City Revitalization and Gentrification.”  Using Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district as a case study, he argued that post-Wende German urban planning has not focused as exclusively on economic development and gentrification as many critics have alleged; rather it has shown an appropriate concern for housing conditions, social inclusion, maintaining a city-suburban balance, and environmental sustainability, and it has been marked by a new culture of citizen participation.

This symposium was supported by a major projects grant from University of Iowa’s International Programs. It was also co-sponsored by the Graduate Program of Urban and Regional Planning, the Departments of German and Political Science, and the Project on Rhetoric of Inquiry.

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