Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Field Trip: Germany's Role in the European Union

Now that we've all returned from our field trip to Germany, the remainder of our posts will focus on the highlights and content of our trip. While our trip was organized based on the theme of Germany's role in the European Union, we were also able to include a few tours and meetings that covered more localized topics that were relevant to the three cities we visited (Frankfurt, Berlin, and Leipzig). These have contributed to our understanding of contemporary German culture and community in some of Germany's cities. Since most of us were visiting Germany for the first time, incorporating a look at more localized aspects of German culture has helped us to articulate a more complex understanding of how Germany operates at both the localized and international level.

Kreuzberg Walking Tour with Dr. Thomas Bürk
On our first day in Berlin, we woke up bright and early to meet Dr. Thomas Bürk in Kreuzberg, a working class neighborhood located in the eastern part of Berlin where we were given an insightful tour which focused on the ongoing process of gentrification in the city, as well as some of the major developments that have taken place in the area from the Second World War onward.  
Oberbaum Bridge
We started out near Oberbaum Bridge, which we learned was used as a boarder crossing between former East and West Berlin. Having just arrived in Berlin the night before, we were exited to have our first glimpse of the former East/West divide, as this was a major topic of interest for a number of us when we initially took interest in Germany as the focus of the International Studies Symposium for 2012.
 As we made our way through the residential streets of Kreuzberg, we learned that the neighborhood was mainly inhabited by working-class and immigrant communities who have been faced with the problem of rising rent costs, an issue which has emerged in a number of Germany cities in recent years, especially those that are located in the former East. For more information on gentrification in Berlin, here are a couple of online articles written from different perspectives:

Pre-war, post-war, and post modern buildings in Kreuzberg
            An interesting insight Dr. Bürk noted during the tour was the varied ages and styles of housing found in the area. The neighborhood was composed of an interesting mix of pre- and post-war buildings juxtaposed with post-modern structures.  As we were led through Görlitzer Park (where the scene was somewhat reminiscent of Trinity Bellwoods Park here in Toronto) we spotted families, couples, and groups of young people relaxing and enjoying the warm weather. We were fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of what some might call left-wing propaganda in preparation for the May Day protests, which would be taking place just a few days later.
Dr. Bürk and Nancy at Tempelhofer Park
View of Tempelhofer Park
            Our last stop was Tempelhof Park, a former airstrip used during the Second World War, which was recently turned into a huge, beautiful community park and is currently the subject of heated debates surrounding the future use of the space, much like the rest of Kreuzberg’s neighborhoods.

A Tour of West Leipzig – Art & Reunification, Traces of the GDR with Dr. Bernd Adamek-Schyma
East Leipzig
During our brief stay in Leipzig we met with Dr. Bernd Adamek-Schyma, a local cultural geographer who took us on a tour of the western parts of the city. The tour focused on a mixture of reunification, traces of the former GDR, gentrification, and local art. What was initially striking was how the developments currently taking place in the western parts of Leipzig seemed to contrast heavily with those in eastern Leipzig where our hostel was located.  While the west was undergoing a process of restoration and renewal (much to the dismay of some of the area's inhabitants), the east seemed quiet and dismal with its empty streets and abandoned storefronts.
Urban development in west Leipzig
Dr. Adamek-Schyma’s tour was an excellent supplement to the knowledge we gained during our earlier appointments with the City of Leipzig and the Helmholtz Institute, which focused on urban development in Leipzig and the issue of shrinking cities in Europe (Leipzig is one of many) respectively. Leipzig has been undergoing a heavy overhaul of urban renewal in the years since reunification took place and has only begun to see some regrowth in its population since a massive amount of its former inhabitants migrated to the former West once the border was opened.

Interior of a typical Leipzig apartment.
The Spinnerei
As our tour began, we walked past a local market to a old apartment building in the mist of renovations.  Here we were given an introduction to Leipzig’s alternative art community at a small public gallery located inside. We were fortunate to be able to take a look at one of the apartments inside the building, which gave us an idea of what it might have been like to live in a typical Leipzig dwelling during GDR times. As we continued through the streets of west Leipzig we passed through a community garden, which sadly will only serve its current purpose until the property it is located on is sold for development. We then ventured to a slightly more up-scale neighborhood located along the river and made our way to the Spinnerei, an old cotton factory-turned art district. Here we were very fortunate to visit HALLE 14, a not-for-profit art space promoting contemporary art. After a day of meetings and a long trek on foot the exhibits at HALLE 14 made for an intriguing end to our study-tour agenda.
Contemporary art at HALLE 14
While the majority of our scheduled meetings, presentations, and tours during our field trip focused Germany’s role in the European Union, these alternative walking tours shed light on the fact that although Germany may hold a strong international reputation of being a global economic heavy-weight and a central figure in the workings of the European Union, it continues to experience its own internal difficulties at the local level. Having visited to Germany for the first time, it was surprising to discover that remnants of the former East/West divide are not so hard to come by especially in parts of the former East.  
The alternative walking tours focused on aspects of contemporary German society and culture, which might not have been obvious to the average visitor. They gave us a sense of the existing importance of community involvement in some of Germany’s cities. They also provided insight to some of the obstacles faced by of the working-class and immigrant populations in Germany. For us, this has culminated in a more complex understanding of Germany at the social level and has allowed us to articulate a more realistic understanding of German culture and society, which are sometimes overshadowed by a more dominant focus German politics and economics as Germany tries to mitigate some of the pressures being faced by the European Union.

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