The Berlin Wall was a literal iron curtain; it was a tangible representation of the divide–physical, cultural and ideological–between communism and the West during the Cold War. Erected overnight in 1961 by the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the wall stemmed the flow of immigrants from East to West. Prior to its construction, Germans could easily cross between the two Berlins. Afterward, many were caught on opposite sides of the wall, unable to see their loved ones until the wall’s eventual fall in 1989. Over time, the wall became more and more impenetrable as the GDR added miles of armed guards, attack dogs, freshly brushed sand (in order to track defectors’ footsteps), floodlights, barbed wire, beds of spikes and other hazards to make escape extremely difficult (about 5,000 managed the feat, while about 200 died attempting to cross the border).
Five slabs of the wall are nondescriptly displayed at 520 East 53rd St, between 5th and Madison, in a small plaza outside Valbella, a fancy Italian restaurant. According to the New York Times, the wall was purchased in 1990 by developer Jerry Speyer of Tishman Speyer Properties, which owns the adjoining building.
If you don’t know to look for it, you might miss it. Office workers and tourists eat and rest in white Bertoia chairs in the shadow of the concrete. Most seem uninterested, or perhaps more likely, unaware of its historical prominence. The plaque that identifies the decorated concrete as the Berlin Wall is small and positioned far below eye level.
The slabs are covered in graffiti by French artist Thierry Noir, who spent five years–working nearly every day–painting the western side of the Berlin wall in the 1980s, and German artist Kiddy Citny. The graffiti artists’ work is striking, but what caused me to catch my breath was a date spray painted on the two left-most slabs: 3-5-89. Looking at it feels a bit like traveling back in time. I imagined myself there on the western side, months from the wall’s collapse, on the precipice of one of the most exciting moments of the 20th century. How would it feel? Would I be able to fully grasp the importance of what was about to happen?