Mobility and Mutability: Lessons from Two Infrastructural Icons

John Munro*

An imposing monument to ideology and power, it stood as a marker of urban division from its construction during the height of the Cold War until its fate was sealed in 1989. Featured in films from noir to arthouse, its austere aesthetics absorbed observers on the scene and around the world. With its grey, alienating appearance, it also attracted no shortage of denunciators. “Oppressive,” one urban design expert opined in retrospect, “does not begin to describe it.” It’s still remembered by history, even if most people now enjoy inhabiting or traversing the public space its absence affords with little thought to this once formidable fabrication.

I refer, of course, to San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway.

Construction of the Embarcadero Freeway, January 1958 (San Francisco Chronicle)

But this reference also recalls that structure’s infrastructural doppelgänger; Berlin’s infamous edifice was also built to control mobility and to shore up a system of unequally distributed power.

Installing Berlin Wall reinforcements, 1961 (

Standing as they did across the same temporal span, the Freeway and the Wall, despite their differences, invite comparison for the lessons they hold. Two of those lessons – that mobility is power, and that nothing lasts forever – might issue from the twentieth century, but they are particularly salient for thinking about the city of the twenty-first.

In Berlin back in the early Cold War days of Conrad Adenauer and Walter Ulbricht, the East German state faced the problem of an unmanageably mobile citizenry. Farmers, artists, academics, and doctors were prominent among those departing across the open border. Between the fall of the Nazis and the rise of the Wall, three and a half million people fled the German Democratic Republic. 1 in 6, in other words, went west.

From 1961 to 1989, the GDR’s solution brought a brutal stability to the situation, with comings and goings strictly controlled. The greatest symbol of the Cold War caught the attention of the world. And as was true of the Embarcadero Freeway, the Berlin Wall also drew the eye of the camera., perhaps most memorably in the moody reverie of Wings of Desire (1987). Though difficult to see at the time, when the angels of that film looked upon the Wall, their faces were turned toward a past that would be radically altered by the political storms of the near future.

Angels facing the Wall in Wings of Desire (Magic Lantern)

The Wall, like the Freeway, was a symbol of power but also a site of political ambiguity that offered oppression and freedom in complex combinations. In San Francisco, this quality lent itself to the noir sensibility of director Don Segal’s The Lineup (1958), with its ruthless drug runners and trigger-happy cops.

Dangerous driving on the unfinished Embarcadero Freeway in The Lineup (Hometowns to Hollywood)

In Berlin, it inspired the shadowy evocations of Martin Ritt’s 1965 adaptation of John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, in which authoritarianism in the East meets its amoral match in Western treachery. Infrastructure often seems impersonal, and yet it is always open to interpretation.

Mobility controlled at the East-West divide in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (Hometowns to Hollywood)

Beyond the big screen, interpretations of the Berlin Wall were shaped by ideology. The very name one used to refer to what had bifurcated the city was itself an indication of one’s political inclinations. Viewed from the West, this was a wall that kept people in. From the other side, it was an antifascist rampart designed to protect the citizens of the GDR from ongoing Nazi influence in the Federal Republic, propped up by American imperialism.

Meanwhile, in Dwight Eisenhower-era San Francisco, as in the rest of the United States, “freeways” conveyed cars, but also ideology. As a memorable shot in 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi depicted, this elevated roadway had the power to grant an undeniable liberty to the motorist.

Gridlock could seize roads above as much as those on or below the ground, but between those times lay the promise of convenience and even the thrill of stunning views taken in at breathtaking speed.

The Embarcadero Freeway was put up to move people who had cars, whereas the Berlin Wall was built to hem in those not possessed of government approval. But both exemplified how the politics of mobility reflected the arrangements of power in each society.

In the Communist case, this worked in fairly straightforward fashion. By staunching the westward flow of people and expertise, the Wall, complete with the GDR’s “shooting order” that ensured lethal force would meet unauthorized attempts to move across, represented a crude if successful solution to the legitimation crisis facing the East German state. A draconian management of mobility provided staying power to the social order. With emigration impossible for most GDR citizens, some retreated into a kind of psychological inner escape from public life while others found ways to get along without going anywhere.

In capitalist circumstances, freeways might make for efficient movement, but they also entrenched interlocking structures of unequal power. Most obviously, only those with the means to own or access an automobile could avail themselves of the benefits of the highway. For everyone else, this smog-and-cement eyesore made approaching San Francisco’s docks an unpleasant proposition. While drivers sped along above, pedestrians below had little incentive to visit one of the world’s best-located waterfronts. Given the ways racial and gendered hierarchies have been intertwined with the US economy, freeways like the Embarcadero privileged the movement of men over women and reinforced racial segregation while further stratifying the urban experience along class lines. Throughout the United States, freeways have been a tool of gendered racial capitalism.

Granted, the Embarcadero Freeway and the Berlin Wall were obviously different in important ways. People trying to make their way from San Francisco’s Financial District to the Ferry Building were not shot at by guards, just as those who were permitted to cross the Wall did not need to own an automobile to do so.

And yet, these infrastructural icons performed parallel functions.

Both were physically imposing, and both stood in an ideological context that garnered consent to their existence. In the US, discourses that associated automobility with freedom through privatized social isolation helped make disruptive projects like the Embarcadero Freeway possible. In the GDR, as historian Ned Richardson-Little has shown, repression was not enough to hold the Stalinist structure together, with opposition to fascism and promotion of socialist human rights serving to justify the Berlin Wall and Communist system more broadly. In both locations, such ideological veneers were insufficient to stifle dissent, and defiance beset both projects before they were even completed. Seismic events, one literal on 17 October 1989 in the form of the Loma Pietra Earthquake, the other a geopolitical upsurge occurring four weeks later on 9 November, catalyzed opposition, and a double demolition unfolded over the next few years.

Demolition of the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate, 1990 (Getty Images)

These levellings, and the long awaited public access to formerly no-go swaths of urban space they made possible, saw some celebrants draw specific connections between the two sites.

Razing the Embarcadero Freeway, 1991 (Getty Images)

These democratizations of public space in Berlin and San Francisco were welcomed by many, but the exultations they gave rise to resulted in part because the fall of the Wall and the Freeway were so unexpected.

Jubilation, yes, but also a sense of surprise.

These structures had their supporters and complainants, but for most observers they had seemed eternal. It is not uncommon for grand monuments to mobility and power to have a feeling of permanence about them. That, in a fundamental way, is their point. But where once the Freeway and the Wall demanded that everyone look upon them and despair, came plazas, housing, and indeed, ongoing space for cars.

Beyond enabling us to more clearly perceive how hierarchies express themselves through control over mobility, then, Berlin and San Francisco point to a second important lesson that cities of the twenty-first century can learn from those of the twentieth: infrastructure is not immutable.

Learning this lesson means being able to rethink, and perhaps undo, infrastructural expressions of power over human (and animal) mobility. Critics of the militarized US-Mexico border or West Bank barrier are, like their historical counterparts who denounced the Berlin Wall, perhaps most obviously engaged with this idea of refusing to accept mobility controls as givens. But freeway detractors are also calling to rethink and undo this form of infrastructure that offers hypermobility and convenience for some at the expense of the health and safe movement for others.

The more one looks, the more this impermanence is in evidence. Seoul’s Cheonggye Freeway is now a public park, Paris has pedestrianized the Right Bank of the Seine with more roads to follow, Glasgow has a vibrant campaign to replace its M8, the days are now numbered for Vancouver’s Georgia Viaduct, Michigan has just received over $100 million to get rid of Detroit’s I-375, and Houston has become a battleground over contentious plans to build new freeways and widen existing ones. Highlighting how highways have exacerbated racial in justice in the United States, architectural designer Adam Paul Susaneck has channeled Ronald Reagan’s famous demand of Mikhail Gorbachev at the Brandenburg Gate. It’s time to tear them down.

It was once hard to imagine a Berlin without its Wall or a San Francisco without the Embarcadero Freeway. But now these expressions of power over mobility are gone. Other seemingly permanent obstacles to democratic movement, almost certainly standing in the city or town in which you might be reading this, should follow them.

*John Munro teaches US and international history at the University of Birmingham.