Letter from Berlin: “We are now beginning our descent”

By Stan Persky | April 29, 2008


When the nice Lufthansa captain, piloting an airbus or a 7-something-7 somewhere in the heavens above Berlin, announces in a mild German accent that we’re beginning our approach for a landing, the only question these days is, We’re descending, but into which airport?

Last week, some of Berlin’s 2.4 million eligible voters cast their ballots in the city’s first referendum in recent history over the question of the region’s airports. This probably isn’t the sort of story that will make the news in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, but it is exactly the kind of issue that would have interested the late Jane Jacobs, the Toronto-based urban thinker who worried about how we should go about living together in cities in her classic text, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and a half dozen other books. Since the Berlin airport referendum story is a typically complicated, politics-makes-strange-bedfellows, Germanically loquacious debate, I’ll explain it slowly enough for beleaguered passengers in major and minor Canadian air terminals to follow the flight path while waiting for your own delayed air carrier.

I’ve been flying once-a-year from Vancouver-to-Berlin and back again since 1990, shortly after the Berlin Wall came down, which is about when I inadvertently decided to live part-time in Berlin. Actually, since there aren’t direct flights from Vancouver to Berlin, I don’t fly from Vancouver to Berlin, but stop at Germany’s gigantic Frankfurt Airport, where I change planes for the hourly commuter flight to Berlin. The changeover is a slight pain-in-the-butt, I suppose, but nothing compared to the literal pain in the butt of flying for 10 hours out of Vancouver. Anyway, it’s nice to stretch your legs again and discover that you haven’t died of in-flight thrombosis as a result of being cramped into your economy seat and, what’s more, you don’t have to worry too much about the connecting flight to Berlin because there’s one every hour in case you missed the one you were planning to board.

Some 45 minutes later, you land at Berlin’s Tegel Airport. Tegel is one of three Berlin area airports. In addition to Tegel, located in northwest Berlin, there’s the famous Tempelhof airport, which is also located right in the city. It’s famous because not only is it a notable example of Nazi architecture but, more important, it’s the site of the 1948 Berlin Airlift, when the Americans defied Russian attempts to close off the borders to the Allied sectors of Berlin by flying in food and supplies for an entire chunk of the city in the largest airlift in political history. Finally, there’s the still-under-construction Berlin-Brandenburg International (BBI) airport, located some distance southwest of the city in a place called Shoenefeld, and slated for completion sometime early in the next decade.

Tegel is my favourite airport in the world. Here’s why. I’m generally intimidated by the non-human scale of airports, and find them overwhelming, confusing, disorienting and downright mildly terrifying—and I’m not even including the for-your-own-good harrassment of security procedures. I cheerfully hate London’s Heathrow, Amsterdam’s Schipohl, Toronto’s Pearson, the monstrous one at Frankfurt, and just about every other airport in the vicinity of a major city—okay, maybe Bangkok International is a comic exception just because it’s so surreal to arrive at midnight and discover yourself in perpetual 33-degree heat. And of course I also hate the usual 40 minute or more traffic-clogged drive that takes the dazed, exhausted traveller from the airport’s final duty-free shop to the centre of whatever city you’re heading for.

Because there are few direct flights from international destinations into Berlin as a result of historical accident, Tegel, which opened in the mid-1970s to drain off some of the traffic at Tempelhof, is a relatively small, but spacious enough facility. Its scale is about as human as an airport can be. You get your bag from a little carousel, walk 10 steps into the terminal, then another 10 steps and you’re on the street, breathing free Berlin air, and 10 steps or so later you’re on a regular city bus, and in downtown Berlin in 10 or 15 minutes or, in my case, since the city bus line runs right by it, at my Berlin front door. There are no Kafkaesque gloomy luggage halls, no endless airport corridors to navigate, no complicated air porter buses to make the long haul into the city. In short, it’s not the least bit disorienting, and anyway you’re disoriented enough from having come from Vancouver. Rather, it’s orienting—it points you right toward the place you’re going. Since this is such a rare “nice” air travel experience, I’ve dwelled on it a bit just to make the point.

The pleasures of Tegel airport only play a tangential, but still important role in last week’s referendum. The plebiscite came about in the following way. Ever since the fall of the Wall in 1989, Berlin governments of all political stripes have been pushing for a big international airport in the vicinity. The current Berlin government, a leftist coalition of social democratic and other left parties, headed by the dapper Klaus Wowereit, is no exception. Wowereit, or “Vovie” as he’s locally known, now in his second term, made a splash when he first ran for office by casually announcing a day or so before the vote, “I’m gay, and that’s okay, too.” Berliners liked the offhanded, understated declaration, which seemed to fit nicely with the city’s European reputation for tolerance. Gay or otherwise, Wowereit shares the conventional view about the need for a big airport.

Although such airports are presented to the public as an almost natural necessity of big cities, as well as being convenient, efficient and profitable (none of which they necessarily are), in fact there’s quite a bit of civic booster ideology involved in their promotion. Big airports are a kind of symbolic confirmation, or at least a component, of a city’s world class status. How can a city be really important if it doesn’t have a steady traffic flow of international and connecting flights coursing through its hub? And if you have international flights landing every minute, won’t you soon have the headquarters of international corporations landing shortly afterwards?

As long as I’m on the subject of travel modernization, a brief digression is required. The Berlin airport squabble is probably just a squabble rather than a major issue. As it happens, there is indeed a major transportation issue in Germany. The same kind of people plumping for a big international airport are the people in the German parliament who are proposing the privitization of the efficient, pleasant, and comfortable national railway system, Deutsche Bahn (DB). Notwithstanding the disastrous experience of railway privatization in England, the German government, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel and her conservative Christian Democratic Union party, in coalition with the Social Democratic Party, is proposing to sell off one of Europe’s better rail systems in the name of profit and ideology. The resolution of that issue is still a ways off, but I mention it because a lot of the ideas and values involved are similar to those underlying the local airport debate in Berlin. (Update: on April 28, the German parliament voted to privatize 25 per cent of the Deutsche Bahn.)

One of the ways to increase and focus the pressure for plans to develop an international airport, and to make it more of a fait accompli, is to eliminate any existing small airports, thus intensifying the impetus for the project. That’s what happened in the case of Berlin. Currently, Tegel handles commuter flights from Frankfurt, as well as direct flights from western European capitals, and there’s even a direct flight from New York. All other western international flights make it to Tegel by way of connecting flights, usually through Frankfurt, but also via London and Amsterdam. Tempelhof, the city’s historic airport (Orville Wright once took off from Tempelhof field at the beginning of the 20th century), mainly handles small private planes, as well as corporate jet traffic and smaller commercial jets. BBI, or Schoenefeld, while undergoing further massive construction, already handles traffic to eastern Europe, and points east, like Bangkok.

In order to concentrate attention on BBI, Mayor Wowereit announced that Tempelhof would be completely closed in October 2008, and that Tegel, too, would be closed as construction at Schoenefeld progressed. Although the Tempelhof terminal would be preserved as an architectural monument and the building put to other uses, the several hundred acre site would be turned into park, roller skating facility, and about 5,000 housing units. The plans for the transformation of this valuable piece of civic real estate are far from being anything more than a gleam in a model-maker’s eye, but the scheme is familiar enough.

And then something slightly unusual happened. A lot of people said they didn’t want Tempelhof closed, mainly it seemed for historical and nostalgic reasons. Their thoroughly modern mayor pooh-poohed their concerns, so the people who wanted Tempelhof to stay open as an airport started a petition to get a non-binding referendum held. The people who wanted Tempelhof to stay open were mostly elderly and conservative, but they were joined by a segment of the business class who liked the notion of corporate jetting right into Berlin, politically backed by the conservative CDU party, and eventually supported by a more amorphous collection of people whose views I tend to share. I’ll get to those views in a second.

The advocates of closing Tempelhof included Berlin’s governing Social Democratic Party (SPD), their Left Party coalition partners, the Greens, and various labour and civic organizations, a left-of-centre establishment whose motives included everything from an enthusiasm for modernization to various arguments about environmental and civic benefits. Lurking in the political shadows, no doubt, are various lobbyists and developers who hope to get in on the eventual construction boom.

The view that I and apparently at least a few others hold about all of this is one that didn’t get a huge amount of airtime during the debate, but it’s a perspective that probably would be appreciated by urban thinkers like Jane Jacobs. It’s a view that advocates, as much as possible and as is practical, a human scale and a human pace (preferably walking, bikes and a good public transportation system) for city living and a more diverse sense of place (that means neighbourhoods). This way of thinking about cities comes with the caveat, as much as is practical, since of course there’s also going to be private mechanized travel and big buildings.

Leaving aside the dictates of capitalism for just a micro-second, it doesn’t seem altogether irrational to believe that air traffic for a big city could be handled through a multiplicity of moderate-sized facilities rather than insisting upon a monolithic one-XXL-size-fits-all international airport. The thing at the back of my mind in thinking about this is the recurrently pleasant experience of arriving at Tegel airport. That experience converges with a particular set of values about what life in a city, even a big city, ought to be like. Admittedly, these values are slightly amorphous, even anachronistic, and they fly in the face of standards of efficiency, convenience, profit, and modernization that drive projects like giant international airports and the privitization of railway systems. It should be noted, however, that such projects seldom produce the alleged and much advertised benefits.

Well, the would-be conservers of Templehof as a working airport rather than a heritage site museum got enough signatures on their petitions, and last week, on the first spring-like Sunday of the season, the city-wide referendum was held. Of the 800,000 or so citizens who voted—a not-bad slightly over one-third of eligible voters participation rate—530,000 of them, just over 60 per cent, voted “Yes,” in favour of keeping Tempelhof open, while the remaining 39 per cent voted against. Getting a half million people in a city of 3.5 million to come out on a spring-like Sunday to endorse what is hardly a burning issue strikes me as fairly impressive, as these things go. So, the unexpected public uprising triumphed?

Not so fast. There are some tricky rules about referenda around here. Not malevolent, but tricky. To win even a non-binding referendum advising the government to do or not do something, your side not only has to gain a majority of the votes cast, but 25 per cent of all eligible votes. In this case, the Yes side, which won by a clear majority, only received 21 per cent of all eligible votes. So, the referendum failed on a technicality. To rub a little salt into the wound, Mayor Vovie, who even before the referendum said he would ignore the results, declared, “I understand the feelings of people who for emotional or historical reasons” don’t want the airport closed, “but since the results show that more than three-quarters of Berliners either voted No or didn’t participate, I ask the referendum’s proponents to please accept the results.”

To claim that the two-thirds of eligible voters who didn’t vote represent an endorsement of your position would be a smarmy remark by any politician, but I somehow find it a bit more repulsive when such sentiments are uttered by a social democratic politician. Two cheers for apathy?

Of course, since German politics are nothing if not loquacious, this is probably not the end of it. The construction of the big airport still has several years to run, and one can almost predict that there will be cost squabbles, scandals, and enough other political fodder to keep the tabloids busy for the forseeable future.

But the practical-minded people who say that it’s really too late to do anything about the big airport idea, the basic decision was made more than a decade ago, and we’ve just got to live with it, are probably right, in their practical-minded way. Those of us who want to argue for a different idea of a liveable city are no doubt justly accused of sentimentality, or worse, a kind of utopianism. Since people don’t turn over in their graves (and don’t do anything else in their graves), I won’t haul out any clichés about what the late Jane Jacobs might posthumously be doing or thinking. I’ll only note that her final book was titled Dark Age Ahead. As for those of us descending from the heavens above Berlin, seeking, in Blake’s words, “that sweet golden clime / Where the traveller’s journey is done,” the landing may be slightly bumpy.


Berlin, April 29, 2008.


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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