“Build the Wall” versus “Tear Down the Wall”

We have all seen walls and felt, as Robert Frost said, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” I have seen the wall that was between East and West Berlin, and the wall between San Diego and Tijuana. I share Frost’s sentiment. There are also more subtle walls in New Jersey and throughout the USA and the world that separate people based on income, race, creed, color, nationality and sexual identity.

Trump claims,“Good fences make good neighbors. Frost continues, “If I could put a notion in his head: “Why do they make good neighbors?” Trump has never stopped to consider that question. He has always lived on the fortunate side. All of this is reminiscent of a certain mesmerizing German house painter in the 1930’s who rose to power with vicious, vindictive efforts against the “others” – in his case Jews, homosexuals, communists, and those who were not blue-eyed and white. 

In the early 1970’s I twice crossed the border wall separating East and West Berlin. The difference between the two sectors was literally light and darkness. For an America in West Berlin it was easy to cross the border. Traveling on a  subway with steel bars on the windows, I passed under the wall, and arrived in East Berlin. West Berlin was a bustling city alive with light. Bright posters, advertisements, illumination emanating from houses, shiny stores, offices and street lights. It was a bustling city full of energy and rebuilding its war-torn infrastructure. In the East where electricity was scarce there was darkness everywhere. On the left the wall with burial plots of those who did not get over it into the West.

Walking on Unter Der Linden, the street was dark, few people around, and the only signs were political ones extolling the Communist leader. That leadership could not provide enough food, had done little to rid itself of bombed-out buildings and had left its populace impoverished and desperate. On the left an earlier picture in the 60’s of two mothers who can only wave to their children and grandchildren in the Soviet sector of Berlin from across the  wall.


The difference between San Diego and Tijuana was also stark. San Diego in the late 60’s was already a prosperous modern city, a lot of navy money spent on its installations there, middle class retirees, beautiful beaches, and all the amenities including shiny fast-food franchises. An American had only to walk through a border patrol gate, show a passport or other US document and enter the city of Tijuana. Its unpaved streets, urchins begging for a peso, its run-down stores, and its tawdry night-life joints.

Tijuana now is more prosperous, but the wall remains. A writer living in San Diego says,“As the drumbeat for a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico has grown louder over the past year thanks to Donald Trump, I’ve shared a lot of the typical reactions against it: Vilifying immigrants is ignorant and cruel. The desire to keep others out is un-American.” Pictured to the left are Americans easily entering into Tijuana. The preview picture is of US agents firing tear gas as some migrants try to breach a fence into San Diego. In East Berlin such people would have been shot by sentries atop the wall. In the US we use tear gas and separate children from their parents.

In New Jersey we too have walls. I remember that while living in NYC and wanting to move here, I worked with a real estate agent to buy a home. One I liked, I was told by the agent in no uncertain terms, I should not purchase, so I chose another. Only later did I realize the one I liked was in an area designated for Blacks. As it happened, the property I acquired had on the left side a white catholic husband and a Black Jewish wife, and on the right side a Jewish wife and a Muslim husband. In the middle were I and my gay partner. I have been happy here for 38 years, but am reminded that there are still all kinds of walls in New Jersey and the world which divide us.  

Toward the end of Frost’s poem he says,
“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out, 
And to whom I was like to give offence.”

There is irony in all of this. Republican President Ronald Reagan said, “Gorbachev, tear down that wall.” The current Republican incumbent says the opposite. But there is also a need for Americans to stand on principle. We all might like some measure of sane border security, and Democratic legislators have offered Trump funds for such security. His wall, however, is not the solution.

Robert Frost’s poem: MENDING WALL

Credits: Photo of Americans entering Tijuana (Associated Press); US agents use tear gas against migrants from Tijuana trying to enter USA (Guillermo Aria/AFP). The other photos are from historical archives.

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