Lost Pieces of the Berlin Wall in New York City
Where are pieces of history hidden in plain sight?
The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 to divide the communist East side from the democratic West side. The massive concrete border was 12 feet tall and over 100 miles long, a harrowing reminder of extreme political unrest, ideological differences, and a nation at war.
In the early 1980s, French artist Thierry Noir began painting the West side of the wall near his home. His hope, he said, was to “demystify” the wall by painting large, simple, colorful figures. Artists from all over the city, and then all over the world, joined in throughout the next 8 years to cover the concrete canvas in art.
When the wall was demolished in 1989, it was broken into over 40,000 sections. Most of it was repurposed, used as raw materials in German reconstruction projects. But a couple hundred sections were redistributed. Today, 4 sections of the Berlin Wall can be found in New York City.
These intricate, graffiti-style painted slabs are settled in with the bustling urban landscape in highly-populated areas. Because New York City is known for its street art, bold architecture, and vivid environment, these major pieces of history blend in. Some people travel across the world to see them. Some people pass them every day completely unaware of their significance. In New York City, important things are easy to ignore.
When Secretary-General Kofi Annan presented one piece of the Wall to the United Nations in 2002, he said the Berlin Wall expressed, “in a uniquely horrible way, the propensity of human beings to erect walls and borders and then glare across them, hearts filled with hate, minds full of fear and distrust, all the while numb to the notion that there might be a better way.”
These pieces of the Berlin Wall can serve as daily reminders of our human tendency to judge rather than empathize, and divide before unifying; that boundaries can change and unity is possible. Or, they may be ignored entirely, depending on the stories told.
What would change if these pieces were featured in a museum, rather than on display in public? If hundreds of pieces are distributed throughout the world, how many do you think are presented with context, information, or a story? Whose responsibility is it to tell these stories? What might happen if the context of these historical artifacts is forgotten?
Here are the three places to find the Berlin Wall in New York right now:
- Kowsky Plaza (Battery Park, between Gateway Plaza and the North Cove Marina)
- United Nations Park (Murray Hill, in the garden near the sculptures)
- Ripley’s Believe It Or Not (234 W 42nd St) (Times Square)