Berlin in America

[Note: This is a short unpublished paper I wrote in 2002. It related to a “Berlin in America” symposium I had organized at the University of Iowa concerning the interrelationship between urban public spaces and the long-term sustainability of democracy. Although now quite dated in some ways, the themes and concerns it addresses seem no less significant now.]

In Billy Wilder’s 1948 film, A Foreign Affair, a Congressional committee flies into war-ravaged Berlin seeking to assess the morale of the American occupying force. One of them, a Republican Congresswoman from Iowa, finds herself becoming romantically involved with a Captain in the U. S. Army, who in turn is romantically involved with a former Nazi entertainer (played by Marlene Dietrich). At one point, Dietrich’s character plies the Congresswoman with one too many drinks, and the inebriated politician begins leading a cabaret crowd into singing, of all things, “Ioway, Ioway, state of all the land, joy on every hand. We are from Ioway, Ioway. That’s where the tall corn grows. Everybody sing.” It was Iowa in Berlin.

On June 21 and 22 of this year [2002], an interdisciplinary group of scholars also sang “Ioway, Ioway.” They sang it, not at a cabaret in Berlin, but in the Jefferson Building in downtown Iowa City midway through a “Berlin in America” symposium I had organized. And they sang it, not as Americans in Berlin, but (with one exception) as Americans who sought to discuss the relationship between urban public spaces and the long-term viability of democracy. They did so by looking at U. S. cities through the “lens” provided by Berlin. It was Berlin in Iowa.

As a professor of urban planning and a former elected city councilor in Iowa City, I already had a keen interest in the sustainability of American cities. Conducting a “sustainable cities” study abroad course in 1998 and participating in a 1999 German Studies Seminar sponsored by the Fulbright Commission had deepened my interest. Both of these activities led me to suspect that the sustainability of democracy itself was tightly linked to the physical design of urban places. And then I made two lengthy visits to Berlin in 2000 and 2001. There I found a city of unintended ugly beauty, a city filled with ghosts, a city whose built environment almost literally groaned under the burden of painful memories.

Walking amid the ghosts in Hackesche Markt, in the Tiergarten, along Oranienburger Strasse, in Potsdamer Platz, and along Karl-Marx-Allee, I continually encountered juxtapositions of the old and the new, the renovating and the deteriorating, the ugly and the beautiful, the joyous and the horrific. Time and again I saw Ossis and Wessis (former east and west Berliners), Muslim Turks, foreign tourists, migrants from the former Soviet Union, global investors, and a range of familiar and unfamiliar strangers mixing with one another, with varying degrees of comfort and security. The more I walked, and the more I saw and read, the more confident I became that Berlin had something important to tell us about the relationship between physical design and democracy. I started envisioning a symposium that would give an interdisciplinary group of scholars, all knowledgeable about Berlin, a chance to probe that relationship. A major projects grant from the U. of Iowa’s Office of International Programs made it possible. The scholars made it come alive.

At the outset of the symposium I argued that Berlin helps us understand that, if we want to sustain a vital democracy in the U. S., we need to simultaneously design inclusive places and construct inclusive processes.

Consider any one urban place you know well, whether in Berlin, in the U. S., or elsewhere. What does it mean to be connected to that place? Surely it means, in part, thinking of it as home. It means feeling an emotional attachment to the house in which you live, to the familiar surroundings of your neighborhood, and – with decreasing intimacy – to your city, your region, and perhaps even larger areas. But as literary critic Lawrence Buell observes, there are at least four other ways of being connected to a place.

One type of connection might be thought of as a scattergram or archipelago of locales, some quite remote from one another. “Tenticular radiations” connect your home to those other locales. Think, for example, of the electric power transmission lines that lead away from your home, of the carbon dioxide that billows from your car’s tail pipe, or of products you use that are fabricated in distant places.

Places also have histories and are constantly changing. These changes superimpose upon the visible surface an unseen layer of usage, memory, and significance. In almost every place, some people display an acute awareness of this invisible layer. But whose “unseen layer” should be remembered, and how should that memory be embodied in the built environment?

A fourth type of connection derives from the fact that people are constantly moving into or departing from places. Thus any one place contains its residents’ accumulated or composite memories of all places that have been significant to them over time. When Muslim Turks move to Kreuzberg or Prenzlauer Berg, or when migrants from Central America move to Iowa, they bring with them memories of those other places.

Lastly, fictive or virtual places can also matter. Past imagined places such as Ludwig Hilberseimer’s 1924 Hochhausstadt (skyscraper city), Albert Speer’s Germania, the cacatopian cityscape of the film Bladerunner, and many others have influenced thought and action, for good and for bad.

These five dimensions combine in diverse ways for diverse users. Consequently, as American studies scholar Carlo Rotella puts it in October Cities, urban dwellers live in diverse “cities of feeling” as they traverse through the “city of fact.”

To gain a deeper understanding of the connection between these diverse cities of feeling (democracy) and the design of urban places (the city of fact), it is helpful to focus on the concentric areas of affiliation which begin in one’s home and neighborhood. One could view such a place purely in physical terms as, for example, the coalition of architects, planners, and others known in the U.S. as the New Urbanists tend to do.

Over the past decade or so, the New Urbanists have been having brilliant success in arguing that we should transform American cities into a more compact and diverse pedestrian-friendly form that facilitates face-to-face community. Indeed, many of them claim that a sense of community cannot emerge without physical places where people can come together. It cannot emerge, they would say, in east Berlin’s Marzahn district, which lacks well-designed public spaces and is designed only to house large numbers of workers and transport them efficiently to and from their sites of labor. But it can emerge, they would say, in a well-designed place like Kirchsteigfeld, a new development located near Potsdam just outside of Berlin. They imply that a well-designed public realm of streets, squares, and parks will, by itself, engender a harmonious community. To state their claim most baldly, cities construct people.

Their focus on physical design blinds these New Urbanists to the four other dimensions of place and the cities of feeling associated with them. Design of the built environment does indeed structure human interaction and shape public realm social life. But, as sociologists like Lyn Lofland argue, the physical design of a public space (of the new Marlene Dietrich Platz in Berlin, for example) cannot determine precisely who will use that space, what they will do there, or who they will talk with while in it. Nor, I would argue, can it determine how the actual users of a place will redesign the place over time. If one draws on this kind of sociological research, one is likely to conclude that people construct cities.

Many people in the U.S. actively dislike, indeed fear, the very kinds of encounters that could be facilitated by New Urbanist designs. In the U. S. at least, such people worry that the public realm contains the wrong kind of people who don’t behave properly. In their view, the public realm should be avoided or cleansed. Moreover, such people often find the uncontrolled character of mingling within the public realm to be especially noxious or politically threatening. As I can attest from my prior experience as an elected councilor, such people express their dislike, fear and loathing of unfamiliar strangers, of being polluted by “flawed” people, to locally elected officials. They press these local officials to control where certain people can be or activities can take place, to construct environments that provide virtually no room for public interaction, and thereby to discourage the formation of a public realm.

Where successful, this effort to control by design and regulation produces a “privatized city” of autostreets, autoresidences, megamononeighborhoods, antiparks, and megastructures. It also produces “counterlocales” in which both entry and behavior are monitored and controlled so as to reduce the possibility for discomforting interactions. Counterlocales like Peabody Place in Memphis, a privately-owned enclosed shopping mall which simulates vital street life but turns its back on the actual public space of the debilitated downtown that surrounds it.

That some fearful people believe the urban public realm should be cleansed of contaminated people evokes memories of the most problematic aspect of Berlin’s history and thereby reveals the entwined character of physical design and democracy. Prior to World War II, Berlin was eminently compact, walkable, and full of vibrant public spaces. It afforded ideal space for the art of taking a walk, or flanerie. And it is this walkable pre-war city that city building director Hans Stimmann sought to recreate in the early 1990s with his Planwerk Innenstadt (master plan for the central city) and his policy of “critical reconstruction.” “We must bring this city back so that when we look in the mirror,” he said, “we will know that it is our face” (emp. added). But who is the “we” Stimmann refers to? It was in these very public spaces that the Freikorps crushed the revolutionary Spartacists in 1919 and Nazis battled communists and terrorized Jews. So Berlin tells us that, when not supported by richly democratic processes, even the most beautifully designed public spaces can become sites of gruesome oppression and control. It also tells us that, when conceived too narrowly, physical design can enable ethnically homogenous native-born residents to design cities that reproduce a singular, essentialist notion of national identity.

Berlin helps us understand, therefore, that good design is important but also that, for democracy to thrive in “cities of difference,” such designs must presume and accommodate a diverse range of people. To remain vital and viable over the long-term, democracy requires well-designed urban places that enable unfamiliar strangers to encounter one another routinely and safely. People must be able to routinely rub shoulders with persons of whom they disapprove or with whom they disagree, maybe even fear just a bit. To sustain a vital democracy and public realm, the city must have a hard edge and not be a cleaned-up, purified, Disneyland kind of place like Seaside or Celebration, Florida.

But such places will not be created unless democratic processes enable diverse unfamiliar strangers to influence design decisions at both the local and regional scale. These processes must enable the diverse users of such spaces to negotiate their fears of one another. This negotiation of fear among unfamiliar strangers requires, not just public participation and the formal procedures of representative democracy, but also a democracy rooted in talk, negotiation, mediation, and social interaction. In a word, it requires inclusive political spaces that facilitate discursive democracy.

The problem for the long-term viability of democracy is this: 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.

What this points to is 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. If diverse people have the opportunity to walk within public places, they will have the opportunity to have unscreened encounters with people who differ from themselves. They will be able to hear diverse stories of everyday practice, to learn that they live in different cities of feeling, and to learn that the meaning of buildings and places (and hence what should be done to them and within them) depends on the narratives and social orders of which they are a part.

Conversely, if public policies continue to develop the built environment of a city such that diverse unfamiliar strangers will not encounter one another routinely as part of their everyday lives, those people will grow apart and become increasingly ignorant, fearful and distrustful of one another. When struck by deeply felt emotions, such as fear, anger, loss, grief, and greed, they will have no (or at least highly atrophied) informal public means for understanding why they have such different views, for processing their emotional reactions collectively, or for resolving the conflicts that come with them. They will find themselves crying and shouting at one another in formal public hearings, completely unable to understand their differing points of view. Blinded by these impoverished understandings of one another, they will continually pass through familiar places, seeing them through familiar thoughts, forever trapped in a “walled” landscape of banal repetition, and they will never be able to find what they do not know they are looking for. They will end up designing cities that, to paraphrase Berliners, reproduce “the walls in their heads.”

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