BERLIN (Reuters Life!) - When Berlin’s high street Kurfuerstendamm was developed more than a century ago, Germany’s “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck hoped the boulevard would eclipse the Champs-Elysees of Paris in prestige.
Some 125 years later, Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit and city officials are marking its birthday with a six-month marketing spree, highlighting the street’s comeback from a declining West Berlin tract to reunited Berlin’s main shopping mile.
“In a polycentric city like Berlin, it’s the top of the class of shopping streets,” said Nils Busch-Petersen, the director of the German Retail Federation’s Berlin office.
While Bismarck’s vision has not gone to plan, Wowereit still has good reason to celebrate.
Each year the tree-lined boulevard generates nearly 1 billion euros ($1.44 billion) in revenue for business. It is one of the busiest streets in Germany with an average of some 7,600 people walking past the posh shops each hour, the group said.
Two decades after reunification the revitalized Kurfuerstendamm, or Ku’damm to locals, has helped the German capital become the third most-visited city in Europe behind only London and Paris.
“Ku’damm was invigorated rather than being unsettled by development in the East after the wall fell,” Busch-Petersen said, adding that development elsewhere in the city allowed the high street to enhance its upscale reputation.
The leafy boulevard boasts such high-end retailers as Prada, Gucci and Hermes among its some four dozen luxury shops.
“It’s unlike any other high street in Europe,” Busch-Petersen said. “It’s accessible by car. You can simply park and go shopping. Try doing that in London.”
In Ku’damm’s early years a century ago it transformed the city’s undeveloped swampy west into a runway for bourgeois strollers and provided a marked contrast to Berlin’s military parade avenue Unter den Linden in the city center.
“It was an important meeting place for writers and artists at that time,” said Michael Bienert, an author of more than a dozen books about the German capital.
“Ku’damm was an expression of modern Berlin and modern culture,” he added. “It was praised and celebrated as the expression of a new, democratic-republican culture” after World War One.
Ku’damm — lined with exquisite turn-of-the-century architecture built into expensive apartment houses, luxury hotels and cafes — had its detractors, too.
Those on the far right at the time thought it a symbol of cultural decline and immorality, Bienert said.
But after the destruction of World War Two and the division of Germany into East and West, Ku’damm symbolized a nostalgia for a “lost, destroyed and annihilated metropolitan culture,” Bienert said.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, the boulevard was a place for shopping, flashy showrooms, cinemas, student protests as well as a somewhat seedy nightlife.
Still, the street has endured after much post-reunification investment was diverted to commercial projects in the city’s former East.
“Ku’damm has a special atmosphere about it that’s often underestimated,” Busch-Petersen said. “It’s a very green street. When you look at it from above, you’d think it was a park.”
One of the first anniversary events is an exhibition of 125 glass cases along Ku’damm documenting its history. Other events include exhibitions and tours of street’s historic buildings and five-star hotels.
“It’s a basic matter of city marketing,” Bienert said of the anniversary celebrations.
Something the boulevard’s proponents, like Busch-Petersen, will not miss out on.
Editing by Paul Casciato