One Big Berlin

Gleaming modern structures frame the new face of Berlin.

Yelling over the noise of a huge construction site, I ask a worker where I can see remains of the Wall. He shrugs as if to say, "Why would anyone care?" Berlin's Wall lasted 28 years. It's been gone almost 19 — its stubby remains nibbled to near oblivion by "wall-peckers."

The city of Berlin, which is celebrated its 750th birthday in 1987, is striding into the future like a town half its age. Today Berlin is Europe's biggest construction zone. Potsdamer Platz — once the bustling Times Square of Europe, then a vast no-man's zone — is now a forest of sparkling new skyscrapers. A super train, levitated by magnets, will literally fly between Hamburg and Berlin's futuristic city center.

I walk a block away to Berlin's long-dreamed-of "Kulturforum." Here the city's vast collection of art treasures — scattered awkwardly between east and west for 50 years — is reuniting. The Kulturforum's Gemäldegalerie is Germany's top collection of 13th- through 18th-century European paintings (over 1,400 canvases), beautifully displayed in a building that is a work of art in itself.

After meeting up with Sarah, my long-time Berliner friend, we wander through a lush park along the Spree River. These days, Eastern Berlin's newest attraction is a stroll along this pedestrian-friendly riverbank, as the city incorporates the river thoughtfully into a people-friendly cityscape. I tell her I wish we had a people zone like this in my city. She says, "With all the bombing and bulldozing in our history, you have to be suspicious when you see a nice green park. This will soon be a construction zone."

Berlin is developing so fast it's impossible to predict what will be "in" next year. In 1996, I explored the trendy arty café zone around Oranienburger Strasse in eastern Berlin. Describing the bombed-out but cutting-edge ambience of this bohemian zone, I wrote, "On this bizarre street, hopelessness is hip and rust and rot are a happening." When I walked the same street in 1998, I found only candle-lit pubs and cafés, trendy theaters, and fancy galleries with a power-suit clientele. By 2003, Oranienburger Strasse was still trendy but was being challenged by Prenzlauer Berg, to the northeast. These days, Prenzlauer Berg is crawling with strollers, and the scene has moved to hipper Friedrichshain, yet farther east.

At night "techno-prostitutes" — dolled up like cage dancers on the Starship Enterprise — line the street. Prostitution is legal here, but there's a big debate about taxation. Since they don't get unemployment insurance, why should they pay taxes?

As we walk through the former East Berlin, I tell Sarah, "I've heard that many Easterners long for the more predictable and secure days before the Wall fell. It's called ost-algia, right?" Sarah says, "Yes. Older Easterners are the lost generation. Perhaps these are the people who keep the Wall in their mind. They are the so-called ost-algic ones."

Pointing to the once-grand, now-decrepit Palace of the Republic, she continues, "I hope this will soon be destroyed by a wrecking ball. But some easterners argue that this 'peoples' palace' of the Communists should be saved." (It was torn down in 2008.)

Stalled at an intersection along Unter den Linden, I find the only bit of the old East that Sarah seems to like. She points at the stoplight's "walk" symbol showing a perky little striding man with a felt hat. "These are from the DDR," she says. "As they burn out, they are replaced by the boring western green men. As these get more rare, maybe even I feel a little bit ost-algic."

We stroll down Unter den Linden. Sarah reminisces as if she actually lived through the ages. "In Berlin's good old days, this was one of Europe's grand boulevards. Named centuries ago for its thousand linden trees, it was the most elegant street of Berlin before the Nazis, and the grand boulevard of East Berlin after."

Hitler replaced the venerable trees — many 250 years old — with Nazi flags. Popular discontent actually drove him to replant linden trees. With a strong economy, the strolling café-ambience of Unter den Linden has returned.

Travel in Berlin is great. The last 20 years have taken Berlin through a frenzy of rebuilding. And while there's still plenty of work to be done, a new Berlin is emerging. Berliners joke they don't need to go anywhere because their city is always changing. Spin a postcard rack to see what's new. A five-year-old guidebook on Berlin covers a different city. This high energy, along with the grand building schemes and new museums, makes Berlin more enjoyable than ever.