A lot of my time in Berlin is spent in the car since the Reporter has no dedicated office here. As a result I listen to a lot of NHPR. Today the news was consistently about Berlin, Germany, and the fall of the Berlin wall. The wall fell twenty years ago today (I was eight), but it still affects the people who lived through the transition.
I can’t remember the exact quote, but the NPR newscaster paraphrased Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying Berlin has to remember its past while pursuing a new future.
The debates that have raged lately in Berlin, N.H., have carried the same rhetoric. I spoke to Paul Grenier last night about the election, and he said one of the things motivated him most was the council’s decision to change the city seal. He said in the past that the seal was a tie to the city’s heritage, and the council disrespected that heritage when they voted to change it.
David Bertrand argued the council was not disrespecting the city’s past but instead was looking to the city’s future. The stack on the city seal was a reminder of the old Berlin, and this administration is one looking to create the new Berlin.
Remember your past while pursuing a new future. What does that mean? How carefully do you have to tread on the past to keep from desecrating it? What should be the litmus test for “progress,” and how much of a loss of heritage is acceptable?
There is bound to be change. On another program today, I heard a story about in Istanbul how middle class people are displacing the poor. They are moving into the city and taking over neighborhoods, pushing out people who have lived there all their lives. The picture of progress is good for some, but for others represents the loss of the community they knew.
Berlin is launching into a balancing act. It needs to embrace change, because the economic base the city relied on for a century isn’t coming back, and it also needs to remember its heritage to a sufficient degree that residents don’t get offended. History can become a problem when too much pride is attached to it, but at the same time it shouldn’t be dropped without consideration. Add to this that many residents are reluctant to face the challenging times they live in, as evidenced by the recent election, and elected officials will have to tread carefully.
Mr. Grenier drew an ominous picture of the Berlin economy, one that I think ignores many positives, but the picture connected with many residents. They, like him, may pine for when the mill was spewing yellow dust on the city and there were more jobs that there were working adults. Those residents may be tough to bring into a discussion about the changing economy, and they may not be open to changing the image of a city they grew up in.
How do you preserve a community that is wasting away? What changes do you make? The people who stay behind might be the most stubborn ones; how do you get them on board with those changes?
These questions, I think, are why the election went the way it did. The current council was proactive, and they worked with a long-range plan in mind. There isn’t much they could do about the world economy, but they suffered the consequences nonetheless.
They got caught off kilter on this tenuous path of heritage, future and change, at least according to the voters. I’m not sure what sticking to the path looks like, because my heritage is much different than Berlin’s. I am interested to see what the new council brings to the table, and how the electorate responds to their attempt to walk the line. They gave Mr. Bertrand two years to fulfill his promises, and when they weren’t to voters’ expectations they tossed him out. Mr. Grenier needs to deliver jobs in his two years, or he’ll face the same fate. Two years is not a lot of time to affect change in municipal government; I’ll be interested the see how he does.
Berlin is like a thousand communities around the country and around the world, all trying to find the right path forward. I hear fiery election rhetoric and read the online mudslinging and I get pessimistic, but then I take a ride into the city. I talk to people on the streets and in the businesses, and I watch the progress every day. It brings back my confidence for the future. Berlin too alive to pin down. It has too much passion and too many people who care to continue to wane. I realize the debates online and in city hall are between people for whom the city drives them. They will continue to boil over, and in so doing they will restore life to Berlin. That ride into the city is a rejuvenating experience for me, a validating one. It reminds me of why I love to report from Berlin, and what I know its future can be. I know not everyone sees it, but its there. Just walk downtown and you’ll see.