Tempelhofer Freiheit

A Park Takes Flight

All images are author's unless otherwise noted

Warm weather in the air and some odd and sudden urge to move caused me to go for a run, and having seen an odd looking park nearby on Google Maps, I decided I’d make an exploration of it. As I got closer, I quickly grew confused, for I saw what looked to be a large warehouse with empty concrete behind it and spanning well into the distance. As I ventured into the “park”, though, I began to discover that what I had stumbled upon was much more important and indeed one of the most popular parks in all of Berlin, not to mention the most unique. That’s because Tempelhofer Freiheit is a former airport with a rich history now left to the devices of bikers, runners, skaters, and grillers, who enjoy the vast 877-acre park and its abandoned runways.

Orville Wright at Tempelhof Field Airport

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In 1884 a number of soldiers were stationed on the former parade grounds by the Prussian army. The unit was to care for Prussian airships and experiment with air balloon flight. Although the increase in importance of the unit led to its being moved north of the city, balloon races remained popular on the park’s grounds. In 1908 a new model of balloon was launched by David Schwarz and was observed by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin (the one who would go on to create the Zeppelin Blimp). As balloon flight evolved, so did the park. It was from here in 1909 that the Wright Brothers took off when they set the world record for altitude and for the first time stayed in the air for a full hour. In 1923, the park officially became the Tempelhof Field Airport and a small volume of civil flights began from the area. Traffic quickly grew and by 1930 Tempelhof was Europe’s biggest airport by volume of passenger traffic.

The concentration camp was demolished in 1938.

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During the Nazi era, plans were made for the airport’s expansion, both for military and civil use and in 1936 construction began. The airport was to be the Third Reich’s airport, but never completed it would be occupied by the soviets and eventually controlled by the US after the end of the second war. The grounds are also home to a darker history. The Columbia-Haus concentration camp, Berlin’s only official concentration camp, made use of an empty prison space built in 1896 in the area and was known to be an especially terrible camp, so rough in its treatment of prisoners that there were even interventions by the government to reduce its cruelty. Over 8000 individuals were imprisoned here before the camp closed in 1936.

Trucks transport the planes' goods from the airport to the residents of West Berlin.

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After the war, a more uplifting period in the park’s history began. It was Tempelhof Airport that Western nations used as a base for the airlift that fed West Berlin during the Soviet blockade from 1948-1949. More than 28,000 flights and 2.3 million tons of cargo would come through Tempelhof and it quickly becomes a “symbol of freedom” for West Berlin. During the 1950s, the park was a also a refugee camp. West Berlin retook control of the airport in 1951 and in the following years traffic declined as larger jet aircraft landed at Tegel Airport instead. The airport was only officially closed in 2008. But already by 2010 the airport became a hub again, as Tempelhofer Freiheit opened, inviting residents to partake in sports or simple relaxation on the airport’s grounds. (The park's site provided the rich information for the preceding history). 

Just last year in spring 2014, Berliners voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to keep the park as an area for free time and protect it from commercial interests. Over the last few years, and after the vote even more strongly, efforts have been undertaken to restore native habitat to the area and several young preserves can be found across the park. Personal gardens define one corner of the park and an area already spewing with sustainability will just continue to get greener. And the success of the referendum vote demonstrates that the park has managed to engage the public and prove the value of open spaces over more "development" in urban environments. A park that has witnessed countless inaugural flights is now experiencing something else entirely take off.