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The Eastern side is now undergoing a much needed face-lifting. The city fathers have renovated some of the oldest and finest buildings, including the twin-spired St. Nicholas Church in the historic heart of Berlin. They have embarked on an ambitious construction scheme that aims to enliven the city with dozens of new gathering places and 117,000 apartments by 1990. "When the construction is finished, there will be more cafes, restaurants and beer gardens," says Rolf Liebold, a spokesman for the Berlin City Council. "No one will be able to say anymore that East Berliners are dour and unsocial."
A perceptible easing of hostilities between the sister cities has helped dispel the East Berlin reputation for gloominess. The process of normalization was set in motion in the early 1980s by Richard von Weizsacker, who was then West Berlin's mayor and is today West Germany's Federal President. Von Weizsacker became the first West Berlin mayor to meet with Erich Honecker, East Germany's Communist Party leader. Small signs of cooperation began to emerge on areas of mutual concern like waste disposal and pollution. Although the almost daily contacts are still conducted on an unofficial basis, the numbing silence of the early 1960s has ended. "The present climate is good," says West Berlin Senator Rupert Scholz. "One Berlin is Communist, the other is not. But when we speak together, it is Berliner to Berliner."
Still, tensions persist. The bitterest quarrel concerns the human tide of refugees that washes through the two Berlins. Drawn by advertisements for East Germany's Interflug airline and the Soviet Union's Aeroflot, the impoverished and the war weary from Africa and the Middle East have arrived in East Berlin in droves. Most of them then hop on the elevated railway that connects East Berlin's Friedrichstrasse station with West Berlin's Zoo station. Once over the border, the newcomers take advantage of a liberal provision in West German law that guarantees asylum to political refugees. In the first six months of this year alone, some 42,000 refugees, most of them Lebanese and Iranians, registered with West German authorities.
The result has been severe overcrowding. In desperation, West Berlin officials have commandeered a soccer field in the district of Neukolln and erected tents to accommodate the overflow. They have repeatedly demanded that their Eastern counterparts take steps to stop the traffic. But East Berlin, which earns valuable hard currency from selling airplane tickets to the refugees, contends that it is up to the Western allied forces, which still occupy West Berlin, to apply passport controls on their side. The allies refuse to do that on the grounds that it would amount to recognition of the boundary that divides the two Berlins as an international border. The irony, of course, is that West Berliners want East Berliners to close one door that has opened in the Wall.