A quiet capital for half a century Bonn: The city on the Rhine will depart the world stage when Germany's government moves to Berlin, and with it will go a 1950s patch of small-town, postwar Americana.

Sun Journal

October 05, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BONN, Germany -- There is a place along the Rhine River where baseball diamonds are groomed, hamburgers sizzle on barbecues and worshipers pray inside a church that could come from the pages of a Norman Rockwell sketchbook.

This is a bucolic diplomatic enclave, nicknamed "Little America," where for nearly 50 years U.S. State Department employees and their families put down roots on the southern edge of Germany's capital.

"This was the U.S. showing what it could do right after World War II -- the pride of the Yankees," said Mike Hoff, the housing officer. "We were building to be here a long, long time."

But by 2000, when Germany is due to complete the move of its capital from Bonn to Berlin, the neighborhood will fade into history.

In some ways, so will Bonn, birthplace of Beethoven, the sleepy university center that thriller writer John Le Carre perfectly captured with one memorable book title, "A Small Town in Germany." Bonn became the quiet world capital that matched Germany's postwar aspirations of living in peace, creating prosperity and coming to grips with its bloody past.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the reunification of Germany, the country's politicians decided in 1991 that a new spirit and new century called for a new capital in Berlin. Germany's new parliament is due to open in Berlin next year, with government workers arriving on the heels of the politicians.

Bonn hasn't been left out in the cold, though it will have to change.

Germany's gray government buildings won't be shutting down and all the bureaucrats won't be leaving town. But the business of Bonn and its 310,000 inhabitants will be business, science and tourism -- instead of just government.

Yet there is a past to be celebrated.

"Small is beautiful," said Michael Swoboda, head of Bonn's chamber of commerce. "This is what we wanted after World War II. We wanted to be a small country with a small capital."

When the Federal Republic of Germany was formed in 1949, Bonn was chosen as its provisional capital in part because it had enough big buildings to house a fledgling government. There was ample land to build on, so the American government created its diplomatic compound in 1951.

A walk through Little America is like a trip to the 1950s. The streets are broad, the trees are tall. The Cub Scouts thrive here, and so do the Brownies. There is a 500-seat movie theater, two schools, tennis courts, a gymnasium, an embassy social club, a New England-style church and low-rise apartment buildings.

There is also a small strip shopping mall, featuring a fast-food joint called the American Cafi, a barber shop, a dry cleaner and a grocery store stocked with items like Glad bags, Sara Lee cakes and Lay's potato chips.

There's a Kennedy-allee, a Martin Luther King-strasse and traffic signs in German and English.

"This isn't the way most diplomats live now, and it won't be the way they live in the future," Hoff said. "This is a relic."

But it's a relic that served a purpose in the years before globalization and the fall of communism made American goods ubiquitous. Little America provided a storage depot for supplies that could be shipped east to diplomats serving behind the Iron Curtain.

The Americans are already clearing out. Of the more than 400 original apartments, half have been sold to a local developer for more than $50 million. The other half will be turned over to the German government in a swap for housing in Berlin.

The high school and embassy club are up for sale as one parcel, a sale complicated by their designation as historic landmarks. The Germans want to preserve these blocky, 1950s-style buildings as a reminder of the patch of America that was planted on European soil.

"It's proving to be a rather difficult sale. A school and restaurant doesn't seem to be a common sale," said Hoff, who once sold real estate in northern California.

"Selling churches is always unusual," he adds.

The problems of disposing of these parcels pale in comparison to the tasks that remain for the Germans.

The cost of moving and creating a grand capital in Berlin is about $10 billion -- so far. It's awfully daunting to move and house a government of 15,000 offices. It will take some 1,500 truckloads just to transfer the German parliament, the Bundestag, to Berlin. The movers will handle everything from pots and pans to an organ.

Germany is keeping a foot in both cities. Some ministries are moving east. Others, like defense, are staying put. In effect, Bonn will become the back office of the German government, while Berlin emerges as the glittering storefront.

At first, Germany's bureaucrats balked at making the move because of family commitments and the higher cost of living in Berlin. The government cushioned the blow with generous benefits, including the promise to fly workers back and forth to Bonn if their spouses stay behind.

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