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Quaint Crosswalk Symbol Starts a German Movement

Culture: He's dorky and thought a bit sexist, but 'Ossie' endures as a sign that not all things East should go kaput.

April 28, 1999|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — Of all the advocates of East German cultural preservation to halt the steamrollering West Germans since the fall of the Berlin Wall a decade ago, the little Ossie Crosswalk Man seems the unlikeliest of victors.

But where eastern authors and artists have been relegated to the margins, and eastern, or ossie, distinctions of speech and dress dismissed as declasse, this Ossie beams bright in the hearts of Germans on both sides of the lingering divide, shining evidence that some eastern oddities are worth saving.

He's hopelessly old-fashioned, with his squashed fedora and dorky stride, and he's as politically incorrect as an ethnic joke in this assimilation-crazed center of integrating Europe, where even crosswalk signal figures are supposed to be gender-neutral. And in the red "stop" version of the signal, his arms, imperatively open wide, are decidedly more reminiscent of the east's dictatorial era than the wimpy western figure who waits with arms docilely hanging by his/her/its side.

But Ossie, or das Ost-Ampelmaennchen, as the illuminated crossing guard of the east is formally known here, has won over municipal traffic authorities in Berlin and Dresden as well as a cross-cultural population.

From now on, the traditional hatted gent will be restored at eastern intersections undergoing reconstruction and traffic revision--ubiquitous road works that have already uprooted all but 170 of the original 2,000 Ossie figures.

By order of Berlin's transport minister, Juergen Klemann, Ossie will also stand guard over some key western crossings in the name of cultural integration.

"I have a hard time taking this whole thing seriously, but yes, this has been decided," confirmed Dagmar Buchholz, a spokeswoman for Klemann, vainly trying to explain the city's signalization policy with a straight face.

After East Germany was siphoned into the economic whirling dervish of West Germany with unification in October 1990, the well-heeled wardens of the west worked furiously to bring eastern infrastructure up to their purportedly higher standards.

This has resulted in a frenzy of building and road reconstruction, including the routine "upgrading" of pedestrian crosswalk lights with the sexless sentinels approved for use throughout the 15-nation European Union.

"What makes him worth saving is that he is a symbol we can all agree on--he's friendlier and more human than the Euro version," said Joerg Davids, head of the Committee to Rescue the Little Crosswalk Man, whose three-year campaign has finally succeeded. "I don't see him at all as an allegory for remaining problems between east and west; rather as a nicely nonpolitical cult symbol that unifies the two populations."

Because most of the intersections undergoing reconstruction are in the eastern sector of Berlin, Ossie will be much slower to emerge at western crossings unless private funding covers the cost of nonessential replacement.

Making new crosswalk signals in the old eastern style is no more expensive than making the western version, because the only difference is the shape of the stencil overlay on a standard glass traffic light, said Dietmar Jessat, an advisor to Klemann, the city transport minister.

What dissuades municipal authorities from restoring Ossie in his rightful numbers, Jessat said, is the cost of sending out road crews and disrupting traffic just to change stencils on signals that are otherwise in working order.

This is where Davids' committee comes into the picture. The group, which links eastern civic activists with counterculture gurus on both sides of this city, has launched fund-raising initiatives to secure private-sector sponsors and cobble together the cash to ensure that Ossie regains control of more corners.

Three years into a movement to stop the heedless eradication of the eastern figure, the cultural-preservation team has spread its mission into virtually every souvenir shop here and in other cities in the east.

Sales of T-shirts, coffee mugs, ski caps and key chains bearing the red "stop" or green "go" versions of Ossie generate funds for elective replacement of Euro-figures. Donations are also sought and the mission outlined on a committee Web site (all in German) at http://www.interactive.de.

In Berlin's tony Charlottenburg neighborhood, far from the thicket of construction cranes and traffic detours of the city's east, merchants are doing their part to boost support for Ossie by giving the crosswalk signal kitsch pride of place on their shelves and in their windows.

"For easterners, he's a pleasant reminder that not everything from the old days was bad," said Sigurd Wurl, owner of the Roxy gift shop, where Ossie is on sale in every form from $5 fridge magnets to $97 night lights.

And how do Berlin's feminists feel about the return of male domination to their crosswalks?

"Well, I can't speak for the entire feminist community, but as someone who doesn't drive, I have developed a friendly attitude toward him," Anja Kofbinger, a member of the leftist Greens party, said of Ossie and the movement to save him. "I think all but the most extreme feminists support keeping him. He's sweet."

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