Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization

Division of Social Sciences, The University of Chicago

Issue 6 | Winter 2024

Memories in Two Dimensions
On Sidewalks in Berlin


In Berlin, I spent most of my time on the sidewalk. Sidewalks are where I waited for incoming buses, chatted with friends outside on benches, became acquainted with some of the best street food I’ve ever had, marched up blocks to get to a U-bahn stop and then blocks back when I realized it was the wrong one. I learned about graffiti from the sidewalk pointing up at building facades, strolled along streets to window-shop, and did quite a bit of wandering.  

Before I arrived in Germany, I was at a dinner with my roommate’s mother, who spent a year in Prenzlauer Berg in former East Berlin writing her art history dissertation. I’m going to spend a few weeks in Berlin at the end of the summer, I told her, searching for recommendations of art or history museums, cafés, concert halls. She replied,

Berlin! They have great sidewalks.

In cities like Paris, she told me, her days were plagued with cramped, convoluted, inefficient sidewalks. But in her Berlin, she was never claustrophobic walking to a café. Her Berlin had sidewalks with room enough for three or four to comfortably stroll side by side, sidewalks with built-in bike lanes, sidewalks with outdoor dining and café seating that never got in the way. In Berlin, she had elbow room

At the time, I doubted very much that I’d ever become as passionate about pavement as she seemed to be. But she was right. I arrived in Berlin to discover that the sidewalks are distinct. They have three parts: a wide row of paved concrete in the middle, small cobblestones placed together like jigsaw pieces on the edges, and a red brick bike lane closest to the street. Everyone in Berlin seems to know their lane when navigating across any given block. I had to learn fast that red brick meant bikes, often ending up leaping out of the way of an incoming cyclist mid-conversation. In my defense, the street signals had moved from the bike lane signposts I was used to in the U.S. to an unmarked spot underneath my shoes, and I wasn’t used to giving the ground such attention.

Not only are the Berlin sidewalks spacious and orderly with their designated lanes, but they are, above all, used. In 2021, Berlin passed a law in an effort to reduce the city’s dependency on cars, instead promoting cycling, public transit, and pedestrianism. The law included measures like better lighting, longer crossing times, more sitting space, and more ‘play streets’ (side roads closed to traffic for children to play). Improving the experience of pedestrian traffic doesn’t just address street crossings or mobility—it looks at sitting and playing. This law is underpinned by the desire to make sidewalks a part of the city’s public life, recognizing them as valuable strips of land rather than just a means to an end.

And it’s true that people use them not just for walking, but for playing, chatting, sitting, and drinking. While I was spending all that time looking down to make sure I wasn’t in a bike lane, I started noticing something peculiar: bottlecaps. In the gaps between each cobblestone, more often than not, a bottlecap sat nestled in the paving. In, not on, because these bottlecaps weren’t just loose bits of litter that to be kicked along the street. They were tucked in safely, for the long haul, lodged inside the sidewalk’s fabric.

The more I noticed them, the more I became fascinated by these bottle caps—they were proof of a vibrant life on the sidewalk that I had never really experienced before. At ten in the morning, the street is covered in caps; by ten at night, the streets are full of the people who drop them, spilling out from bars or spätis—late-night convenience stores with outdoor seating—and lingering outside. The caps of Berliner Kindl beers clatter to the ground, and all that foot traffic slowly wedges the bottle caps in until, by the next day, they become part of the street. Hammered in between cobblestones, they dot sidewalks with their distinct fonts and logos, becoming mosaics of green and brown and red when spotted from an apartment balcony. Streets made and marked by a process I could see, and feel, and participate in.  

These little caps on the street became memories to me, all of them. In the morning, two beer caps beside each other were markers of a first date—I imagined a girl wearing a thin red scarf, a guy with a faded band t-shirt. Five caps all together were a group of old friends who have known each other since grade school, finally making the time to catch up, exchanging photos from the past few months. A cap just outside the subway station meant someone had been on the move, in a rush, to a bar—late to meet her friends, putting mascara on in the train car and sipping her beer. Every night, real people drinking, every morning, their stories written out on the pavement for me to find and muse about on my way to a café.

These bottlecaps caught my imagination completely unintentionally—underneath all my fabrications, I know they are glorified litter. But with my attention already called to the ground, I discovered places where the sidewalks were purposefully drawing my eye. On Chaussestrasse, I spotted a brass rabbit tucked into the middle of the walkway. A few feet later, there was another. I followed them like Alice chasing down her white rabbit, discovering them in the crosswalk leading towards the gas station. Without knowing exactly what they should be for, I dreamt up speckled brown and white fur dashing and leaping across the street, always just ahead of me. As it turns out, these brass silhouettes are an art installation sanctioned by the city to commemorate rabbits from decades ago. While the Berlin Wall stood and separated East and West Berlin with a no-man’s-land in between, rabbits burrowed beneath the wall and travel between each zone, hopping through the vacant stretch of land as much as they pleased. In 1999, artist Karla Sachse and her brass rabbit installations thought they ought to be remembered. 

I started seeing these kinds of street-inscribed histories everywhere. Going back to my room at the end of the day, I passed through Alexanderplatz, a square and transportation hub in the middle of the city. I walked right over a memorial plaque for the German Revolution of 1848, which commemorates the square as a site of barricade construction and fighting. From what I can tell, the plaque is referred to as a “begehbare Gedenktafel,” or “walkable memorial plaque,” on a website sponsored by Berlin’s Culture Department. This site collects and maps the memorial plaques in the city—which, despite being exclusive to plaques and not including other commemorations, includes 3,567 entries, each with a photo, location, and detailed description. Berlin is committed to engaging memory of its past, and looking through their culture department’s website, a translated page tells me they try to support diverse forms of remembering. 

On my way to a dinner, I came out of the subway stop and walked right over a brass letter a. I stopped for a moment and saw that the a was attached to a string of words in German in a rectangular strip of concrete sitting in the sidewalk. I couldn’t understand it, so I kept walking—over more and more strips of these rectangles of words, placed in the pavement and street surrounding the square seemingly at random angles and directions. It was dark, I couldn’t read German, and I was late, so I moved on. I learned later this square is a street-based memorial to Rosa Luxemburg, a martyred leader of the German Communist Party in the early 1900s. Artist Hans Haacke placed sixty of Luxemburg’s quotes into the pavement and street as a way of memorializing her. Her words don’t tower over passersby and boldly demand attention, but they do ask for a kind of quotidian recognition. Even though I didn’t read her quotes, I stopped for a moment, I wondered about them, and later I looked her up. If visitors read every single word written in the square, I doubt they would have a complete picture of Rosa Luxemburg’s life. But I do think that even reading some of them can give a sense, in Luxemburg’s own words, of what she knew and believed. A nontraditional kind of memorial, this square relies on the daily authority of the street. 

When I think of memorials, I tend to think of big, grand structures. A statue on horseback with a five-foot pedestal looking forward with a defiant expression, or a building with ornate corinthian columns I can see from miles away. Eye-catching, impossible to miss, and siloed away from my routine. Berlin has plenty of these, but the city is also interested in more everyday memorials, little flags to get our attention the way that bottlecaps caught mine. It approaches the question of memory from many dimensions.  

The famous East Side Gallery on the longest surviving stretch of the Berlin Wall towers over visitors, an unmistakable memorial to the division of the city. But along other streets where the wall once stood, it’s difficult to imagine any trace of it. So the city marked the wall’s route with two rows of bricks racing across streets and through sidewalks. The thin line of bricks can be easy to write off as a nondescript part of the sidewalk—standing next to pieces of the wall at the East Side Gallery and Bernauer Strasse to helped me picture what used to physically divide the city—but it’s also a seamlessly integrated reminder of where the wall used to be throughout the center of Berlin, not just at fragmented memorial sites. I needed both forms of remembrance to try to see something I never witnessed. 

Throughout the city, almost every day, I would notice small brass squares embedded into the streets. These squares are a part of the most widespread and significant use of the sidewalks as a part of public memory, the Stolpersteine project. Stolpersteine, “stumbling stones” in English, is a project that lays a ten by ten centimeter concrete block into the sidewalk, covered in a brass plate, and engraved with names of victims of the Nazis at their last recorded residences in Berlin. They were first installed by Gunter Demnig, a Berlin-based artist who began the project in the 1990s. They have since been formalized, and new brass memorials involve an official permission process, so local communities or families are the ones who often initiate their installation. The Stolpersteine project site has a database of the 9,298 in the Berlin area with a listed name and location, and the project has extended throughout Europe as well. The blocks serve as memorials, as gravestones, as intimate records of the specific people and families lost. I would notice one, or two, or five together and know nothing about the people who used to live there, except I would learn their names. Coming across one of these squares on the exact street they used to live conjures up detail even to people completely unfamiliar with the specific families. The brass squares recall life, close and particular and specific life. 

These stones sit in contrast to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a ground in roughly the center of the city covering 19,000 square meters with concrete slabs of different heights over uneven ground. It is disorienting and immersive and evocative. In the center of the city, this memorial gets, through abstraction, at the immensity of the Holocaust. This conceptual kind of memorial is one scale of remembering that the city needs, memorializing loss at an enormous scale—but so are the localized brass names that would stop me in the middle of my steps and surface an imagined memory of someone I have never met and will never get to meet. 

There’s an overwriting inherent to cities as new people walk on old streets. Berlin uses this to make some of these records explicit, purposefully incorporating memory into the daily lives of passersby. Berlin’s sidewalk memorials, though vastly different, share the street. They share the people who walk on those streets, and all encode some kind of other life into the pavement. These two-dimensional memories call our attention in a very different way than a museum or a statue might: they ask to be incorporated into our everyday. Berlin, known for its obligation to remember the past, is also a living, breathing, changing city. As the city moves into the future, it has chosen to make this dynamic, everyday commitment to keep remembering all that came before. 

Streets are the largest public space we have. They should be spacious and lively and loved, and Berlin has taken it a step further, making them project sites of public memory. On every block, even when no one is there, the streets of Berlin have some trace of past existence.