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Wall Leaves A Legacy of Land

August 8, 1991

BERLIN (AP) _ Tourists typically buy a chunk of the Berlin Wall when they visit this newly united boomtown. More ambitious types want a piece of the land where the wall stood.

Once one of the world’s deadliest stretches of real estate, the 100-mile- long swath cut by the wall around former West Berlin has suddenly become a gift of space for a bustling city looking for room to sprawl.

With the federal government preparing to move from Bonn to Berlin, the wall’s ″death strip″ is being coveted by developers, would-be homeowners and environmentalists.

Very little wall will still be standing come Tuesday, the 30th anniversary of the day Soviet-backed East Germany stunned the world by sealing off East Berlin.

But the heavily guarded strip that ran between the wall’s parallel pieces is a legacy that will last generations.

″The strip is very important to the future plans for physically uniting Berlin,″ says Ralf Niepelt, a Berlin city planner.

Besides being a building block for the new Berlin, it is a cultural petri dish of sorts for two very different people suddenly sharing the same neighborhoods.

There once was a time when surly men with loaded guns and large dogs would pound on Guido Kohlhagen’s door and look inside his cellar.

″They wanted to make sure I wasn’t building a tunnel,″ the 31-year-old east German says.

Such strong-arm inspections were routine on Kohlhagen’s block, where the Berlin Wall loomed from backyards like a monolithic lawn ornament.

Now, all Kohlhagen sees is field and forest. Beyond the trees lies a rich residential area of former West Berlin.

Kohlhagen, recently laid off by a construction company, says the house he paid the equivalent of $2,420 in East German marks in 1982 is now worth $167,000.

″This land will only become more valuable,″ he said.

Such cultural, emotional and economic factors figure into the multi-colored map that Niepelt laid on a table in his office recently.

The plan, the work of a regional committee, includes bike paths, parks, homes, businesses and even remaining sections of wall to memorialize people who died trying to scale it.

But it is only a proposal for the Berlin Senate, which must sort through conflicting ideas by disparate interests.

″There are a lot of plans,″ Niepelt said. ″We have to deal with a lot of opinions and emotions.″

Almost every spot along the strip has become a battleground.

Residents of Bernauer Street, cut in half by the wall, disagree over whether a section should remain as a memorial to people who jumped and died as their homes were sealed with mortar.

Some people want parkland, others want houses rebuilt, still others want a new thoroughfare.

Another battlefront is Potsdamer Platz, the former central square reduced to a desolate no-man’s land by the wall.

Environmentalists are upset that Daimler-Benz, Germany’s largest conglomerate, and Japan’s Sony Corp. plan to build office buildings on the empty expanse.

Further hampering definitive plans are numerous claims on the land by former owners. Much of the strip may wind up in court.

″If one person decides to build a home in the place we’d like to put a park, there can’t be a park,″ says Niepelt.

Nevertheless, some groups have unilaterally begun projects, laying sod and planting trees on sections they hope to save from a developer’s bulldozer. Counter-culture squatters have erected colorful encampments.

Because the strip retains a narrow asphalt road, it has become a gigantic bicycle path that offers an intimate tour of lives once lived in the wall’s shadow.

For some, the strip remains a barrier. Dimiter and Baerbel Welitschkow recently walked the strip, which they had never seen.

The eastern German couple, both 62 and former Communist Party members, stood in the center but wouldn’t walk the last 200 yards into western Berlin.

″We have no interest in going to the west and they don’t want contact with us,″ Mrs. Welitschkow said. ″Our entire generation is estranged.″

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