The Berlin Wall…in New York City? You heard that right. And there’s not just one piece, but five. In the early 1980s, artist Thierry Noir began painting the surfaces on the west side of the Berlin Wall, close to his apartment. In an effort to make the wall seem less menacing, other artists joined in, covering various sections of the wall with painted figures and graffiti. The 14-foot tall wall became a huge canvas, giving voice to artists from around the world, and a popular tourist destination.
The dismantling of the Wall was completed in 1991, with more than 40,000 wall sections recycled into building materials used for German reconstruction projects. However a few hundred sections were preserved, sold, auctioned off or given away. Five of these sections are here in New York City. While we previously published this article in 2015, we’re updating it with the latest information on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 10th, 1989.
A documentary “The American Sector” is releasing soon, which traces an effort to track down the Berlin Wall segments that are in the United States. According to the director of a government think tank in Germany, only 650 pieces are known to exist out of an estimated 88,000 original panels.
1. The United Nations Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall piece from Potzdamer Platz that stands in the United Nations Sculpture Garden, which contains gifts from many member countries of the UN, and this three-slab section was gifted from Germany in 2002, presented by the President of the German Bundestag, Wolfgang Thierse to then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.
At the ceremony, Annan said, “The Berlin Wall was an offence to the human spirit. It not only marked the division of Germany and Europe, but also 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.”
The Berlin Wall section is painted on both sides. The side facing the East River is entitled Trophy of Civil Rights and depicts two people reaching over the top of the wall to embrace each other. It is believed that this painting was made between 1989 and 1990, following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The other side of the wall, facing 1st Avenue, is a graffiti work made German artist Kani Alavi, who has painted other sections along the wall’s East Side Gallery as one of the leaders of the initiative to retain the remnant section of the wall as an open-air gallery.
While the United Nations Sculpture Garden was previously off-limits to the public, an attempt to raise awareness about an forgotten Eleanor Roosevelt monument inside has led to the opening of the garden on select times for tours that happen each summer.