The Given Field

Berlin Tempelhofer Feld

It’s not often you are given a field
Although, truth to tell, no-one gave it to us.
We campaigned for it, fought for it, voted for it in a referendum
So that in the end
Our voices couldn’t be ignored.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Tempelhofer Feld
Is a kind of park – although the weirdest park you’ve ever seen –
Eight hundred acres of open space
Smack in the middle of Berlin.
It used to be an airport
First for civilian use, then for the Nazis, then for the Allies,
Until it was decomissioned in 2010.
And of course, all the years it was in use,
It was out of bounds to anyone who lived around its perimeter.
So when the decision came
To close it down,
When the last plane had taken off, never to return,
We suddenly found ourselves
Faced with a huge expanse
Of grassland, crisscrossed with runways and access roads
With a fringe of trees and a scattering of strangely shaped buildings
Often painted in red and white squares
To highlight their presence
To air traffic.
Of course, as Berliners, we were wary of this kind of thing,
This sudden opening up of spaces
That can disappear as quickly as they are given.
When the Berlin Wall came down
Back in ‘89
The death strip separating the two halves of the city
Became a kind of playground
A cycle-superhighway, connecting North and South, East and West
A place where you could go and hang out by the canal
Behind the Reichstag
And just enjoy being on a strip of wasteland
In the middle of the city,
With no-one trying to shoot you, or arrest you.
That was a grand thing, after so many years of Cold War standoff.
But then, after a while, the strip disappeared.
They took it away, built on it, privatised it, divided it up, urbanised it,
Sterilised it, modernised it, and made it part of their plans
For a big new concrete and steel metropolis.
It happened gradually, and nobody really protested against it.
But this time round, with the Tempelhofer Feld, things were different.
As soon as it opened, they started making plans, schemes, grand designs,
To carve it up, reduce its scope, close it down, build on it, deprive us of it.
But this time round, we were having none of it.
Or rather, we were determined to have all of it.
So there was a campaign, to put it to a popular vote,
To let all Berliners decide, whether to keep this weird and wonderful
Wide open breathing space
That had appeared in the middle of our city
Or to let them make more city out of it
With streets and tower blocks and cars
And all of that.
That was a big thing back then,
A huge public debate
On who owns the city and
What makes a place liveable and
What do people actually want.
And the unbelievable thing, the wildly spectacular thing,
Is that we won the vote, won the referendum,
And it’s ours now
And you have to see it to believe it,
The way that people have taken to it
The walkers and runners and skaters and boarders
– the kiteboarders and wingboarders and longboard windsurfers –
The parents with their prams and the lovers in the long grass,
The guerilla gardeners and the cross-country skiwheelers,
The barbecuing families and kids out flying their kites.
I’m not really any of those by the way –
Just a guy who has turned a ten minute bike ride to work
Into an hour-long morning detour
To just be in the field
To watch the hooded crows chasing the kestrels,
To feel the wind across the wide open space
Or to be down in among the grasses
Taking close-ups of the plantscapes.
Or I’ll ride across the field
On my way home
Just to catch the sunset,
Because it’s one of the few places in the city
Where you can actually get
A panoramic view of the sun going down,
And people come and hang out
Just for that,
A bit like being by the ocean,
It has that beachy, wide-open feel to it,
And if there’s wind, if there’s a storm,
Then you really know it on Tempelhofer Feld.
I love the trees, especially in winter
When they stand out so stark and bare
against the snow
And I love the way that whole chunks of the field
Get cordoned off in the summer
So that larks and nightingales
Can nest in the long grass.
That’s so unlike any park I’ve encountered up till now.
It’s a field, a real field, with sheep and cows and buzzards and owls
It’s such a strange and wonderful thing to have in the middle of a city.
Last winter, when the snow came
The whole place turned into a surreal covid escape zone
– we were in lockdown, but allowed out for recreation –
And after so many months of stir craziness
People just went snow-figure mad:
Not just snow-men and -women
But giant snow-dragons, snow-dogs, tree-dwelling snow families
of woodland elves
Snow mermaids, snow queens
We were just kids let out into our favourite playground.
Because that’s what this has become,
A kind of life-saver,
A heart-space
A place for us Berliners old and new
To be grounded in the city,
To feel the earth beneath our feet
To let the kids play on bales of hay
And maybe listen to a mournful clarinettist
Practicing among the trees
Or a lone cellist
Playing in the dark
Next to the skate park.
And just the other week
They had a “Sheep Day” –
I can’t tell you
How incongrous that feels
In a city of three and a half million people.
But it feels gloriously, incongruously right
And you can be sure
That we’ll be doing our best
Our very utmost
To keep it that way.