August 15, 2011

Berlin might give Washington some hope

Fifty years ago, the Berlin Wall went up, blocking East and West Germans from crossing the dividing line left from the end of World War II (which Germany lost). By the time my parents drove us across Europe ten summers later, East German guards were sticking mirror-ended spars under our car to make sure we weren't smuggling anyone out to the West. (Of course, as I grew up, I would learn exhaustively about the Holocaust, but that's for a separate post.)

The next time I'd see anything like that was on Capitol Hill following 9/11, in Washington, DC, of all places (we had won WWII). The deserted expanse of public spaces, where cars once roamed freely, may be of necessity, but it's still jarring. Our architecture, after all, follows the dual American ethos of automobile access and public participation.

I used to aspire to work in government, because it seemed like a worthwhile experience (despite the constant complaints by federal workers who are free to join the private sector at any time). Since 9/11, the added incentive is just to be able to enter buildings without waiting for clearance and being escorted around like a tourist (even when I am a tourist).

The State Department, which has helped to spread freedom around the world, requires that most visitors be escorted at all times throughout the building. This is one reason many of us make sure to use a lavatory BEFORE heading over there -- it's a bit disconcerting to know you're keeping a State staffer and the other escortees waiting out in the corridor... Ironically, the White House annex where most of the President's key staffers are based does not require American citizens to be escorted, but that may be because no one seems to have stolen any official laptops from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

The White House has its own inconveniences, like the breaking up of Pennsylvania Avenue, which used to symbolize the organic flow between Executive and Legislative. Instead, Capitol Hill and the White House now symbolize the backlog of intellectual and automotive traffic between them.

Back to Berlin for a moment: Twenty years ago, my brother hopped a flight to help tear down the Wall we had walked past as kids. And ten years ago, after two World Wars and a Cold War... the war came to us. And since 9/11, I miss no opportunity to return to Berlin and stroll across the Tiergarten and through the Brandenburg Gate, unobstructed, and maybe -- if I have time -- trek up the hill to Prenzlauer and take a look back toward the West. And the post-Wende architecture doesn't get any hotter.

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