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Iconic Berlin

Tempelhofer Feld: A field for the people

Is Tempelhofer Feld the greatest, strangest park in Europe? Nathaniel Flakin pays tribute to one of Berlin's most iconic spaces.

The entrance to the former airport. Photo: IMAGO / Bildgehege

On May 24, 2001, an airplane crashed into an apartment building on Neukölln’s Karl-Marx-Straße. The explosion was heard as far away as Treptow. But no one except the two people on board died.

What was an airplane doing in the middle of the city? What indeed! That was the magic of Flughafen Tempelhof. Today, Neukölln’s Schillerkiez stands for hip, if rapidly gentrifying, multikulti. But just two decades ago, this Kiez was under the flight path of a major airport. Residents claimed they didn’t mind – they barely even noticed it! However, studies have shown that transportation noise impairs sleep, damages the cardiovascular system, and releases stress hormones.

In the middle of the city, Berlin has an enormous field, more than two kilometres wide, that is almost completely empty

On Hermannstraße, you can still see a yellow tower that looks kind of like an Olympic diving board without the pool. Old landing lights jut out of what is today Anita-Berber-Park, sinking as they point long-disappeared flying machines to their goal.

It’s getting harder to remember that Tempelhofer Feld was anything other than what it is today: the strangest park in Europe.

Right in the middle of the city, Berlin has an enormous field, more than two kilometres wide, that is almost completely empty. There are not even many trees – just endless expanses of grass broken up by asphalt streams. Look closer, however, and Tempelhofer Feld is full of tiny urban ecosystems. There are protected areas for nesting birds, sprawling community gardens, and even a baseball diamond (a rare bird in these latitudes). Every spring for the last three years, Skudde sheep have been brought in to keep the grass short — a natural method that protects birds and insects. In the Allmende-Kontor community garden, 500 locals have built a labyrinth of raised beds for a potpourri of plants.

Photo: Iinaroosa Viitanen

Tempelhofer Feld was once a parade ground for the Prussian military. Hitler held a rally here on May 1, 1933, co-opting workers’ May Day traditions with a massive rally for the “Day of National Labour”. In 1936, the Nazis built Tempelhof Airport in their gargantuan style, with a hall that stretches for 1.2 kilometres.

If true, rumours of cavernous basements below the field remain unsubstantiated, at least by me. More sinister was the establishment, in 1934, of the Columbia Concentration Camp – a memorial marks its place just north of the field at the corner of Columbiadamm and Züllichauer Straße.

The United States military took over the airport after the war, and this is where most of the planes landed during the Berlin Airlift 1948-49. Tempelhof lost its status as West Berlin’s main airport around 1968, with Tegel’s iconic hexagonal terminal opening in 1974. But Tempelhof remained a commercial airport where large propeller planes could land right in the middle of the city.

I used the airport exactly once. I needed to get to Bilbao and a tiny airline offered a connection via Brussels. From my apartment in Kreuzberg, it took just 10 minutes on the U-Bahn to reach my gate, where I got onto a propeller plane parked underneath the roof of the curved hangar.

The airport finally closed in 2008. Berlin’s right-wing parties, the CDU and the FDP, launched a referendum to keep the airport open. It’s not that many people were travelling with propeller planes – but Cold War nostalgia is catnip for reactionary voters. On April 27, 2008, a full 60.1 percent of votes were in favour of the airport. But only 21 percent of eligible voters had checked “Ja”, missing out on the 25 percent quorum.

The Nazis built Tempelhof Airport in their gargantuan style, with a hall that stretches for 1.2 kilometres.

The now-empty field nonetheless remained sealed off with barbed wire. Attempts to “squat an airport” in 2009 were beaten back by 1800 police with water cannons. But this created political pressure, and a park was opened in 2010 – a much-needed green lung for the overcrowded working-class district of Neukölln to the east. City planners intended this space to be temporary – soon, luxury condos would be built around a reduced and manicured park in the centre. But in 2011, the initiative 100% Tempelhofer Feld was launched to keep the space empty. It was soon collecting tens of thousands of signatures.

Berlin’s government made all kinds of promises: they would sprinkle a few units of affordable housing amongst the properties for speculators, and maybe even a library. In an experiment for tipBerlin, I decided to test whether the realty speculators and their politicians were truly speaking for the silent majority. So a few of us put up a huge banner at the entrance to collect signatures for construction on the field. Everyone wants apartments, right? After two hours of arguing, we got plenty of abuse but not one signature.

Photo: Iinaroosa Viitanen

The referendum was held in 2014, with 64.3 percent voting to ban all construction. There were not only huge majorities in Neukölln and Kreuzberg, as had been expected, but in every single Berlin district.

In 2015, the massive former airport was transformed into emergency accommodation for refugees, primarily from Syria. Up to 3,000 people were sheltered in the hangar at any one time. By 2017, many of them moved into container apartments, called “Tempohomes”, next to the old terminal. The law that had been passed by the 2014 referendum was changed to allow construction.

Today, millions of people visit Tempelhofer Feld every year, for everything from drinking to kiteboarding to reading. I went there while quarantining for Covid, riding my bike in enormous circles, alone and masked.

The successful referendum showed that mass campaigns can succeed in keeping public space out of the hands of capital. It was a direct inspiration for the campaign to expropriate the city’s biggest landlords that began collecting signatures in 2020. That initiative gathered 330,000 signatures in just four months – and the number one spot to find supporters, as I was able to see myself, was this enormous field.

The future of the field remains precarious, despite its enormous popularity. In 2020, the FDP attempted to launch a new referendum for construction on the field – and failed because no one wanted to sign. SPD Mayor Giffey has said her coalition will respect the referendum during this legislative period – but she also wouldn’t mind if someone else were to initiate a new referendum. The real estate here is so valuable that only ongoing campaigning will save our strangest of parks.

Nathaniel Flakin’s new anticapitalist guide book Revolutionary Berlin is available now from Pluto Press. 304 pages, €18.99 / £14.99.