The traveler’s great temptation is to fix a place with a phrase and then be done with it. Sometimes, despite all the possibilities for error, a phrase does work: Florence lives in its stones, as Mary McCarthy saw; Paris remains the capital of the nineteenth century, as Walter Benjamin knew. Offering such a phrase for Berlin, though, seems riskier because what happened there happened so much more recently. It is a place where history is not yet history, or, more exactly, where the past has a way of returning just when it seemed safe to file it away as dead and gone.
When Berliners asked me last summer, usually with some apprehension, how I liked the city, they would immediately understand my response that “like” was not the word for the place. But that easy point made, one still needed to talk about the city. At such moments, I fell into a phrase that seemed to satisfy Berliners and that allowed me to evade the force of their question. I would say that Berlin was history interrupted by construction. And if I said this in Mitte, the center of the city, there was a quick nod of recognition, for everywhere on its streets you stumble over construction and reconstruction, you feel the vibration of heavy equipment, you hear the Arabic, Polish, and English spoken by workers on scaffolds. As you walk through Mitte, your shoes pick up a thin coat of dust from its building sites. Here, construction-watching has been made into an art form: from the elevated “Red Box” overlooking Potsdamer Platz, where once there was only the “death strip,” you can gaze out at what is called—in the inevitable formula, whether English or German—“the largest construction site in the world.” Here the cranes have been, quite literally, choreographed to perform a ballet of mechanical movement as public performance....
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