What a city!
If you would rather not read the below, then just skip straight to the gallery for my impressions.
My first visit to Berlin was for the Love Parade when I was an Erasmus student in Bavaria. My motley crew rented a wagon, stayed out of the way of the screaming fast lane on the Autobahn and set up camp somewhere on the fringes of East Berlin. When we arrived on the Strasse des 17. Juni in the middle of the Tiergarten, a six-lane wide version of the main avenue in the Phoenix Park in Dublin, we couldn’t believe our eyes. It was the most fun party ever; 40 open-top buses with incredible DJs driving 3mph in a lap ploughing their way through 1 million people. There was no need to move from tent to tent like at other festivals, you simply stayed on your spot and waited for the techno from one passing truck to be overwhelmed by the bass of the next approaching truck. For those with the energy (or the pills) the party moved from the street to the all-night after-parties in the clubs that Berlin is famous for.
That was my introduction to Berlin, so obviously I was keen to return. A lot has happened since then including the death of the Love Parade. The parade was forced to emigrate and become a transient festival playing across different German cities each year. Unfortunately a crush in Duisburg in 2010 led to the death of 21 people. You can’t get more of a buzz-kill than that for a party, the end. Naturally, the German electronic scene survived meaning Berlin remains a must-visit city for those who like industrial-sized clubs.
There was more than nostalgia at the root of my recent visit. The city promised to be a cheap hang-out for the winter. The relative lack of industry and commerce in the city (owing to the legacy of the wall) compared to a Munich, a Frankfurt or a Stuttgart means that there is a high level of unemployment. As the wall and East Berlin crumbled so too did the state jobs provided to East Berliners. This means that the project that is capitalism and reunification has to figure out how best to absorb a swell of newly unemployed. Inevitably these things take time to work out. The plus side is that if you ever need someone to play a game of ping-pong with on a Tuesday afternoon then you’ll never be stuck as the likelihood is that you’ll have plenty of unemployed friends to choose from. Indeed, every day feels like a lazy Sunday afternoon, such that when Sunday actually comes around it feels like a day of the week that needs a whole new name. Weekends in Berlin are off the hook.
Although Berlin is pumped with 20th century history being at the centre of two World Wars and at the front of the Cold War, this wasn’t what was appealing to me. I was interested in the vibe of the place. The fall of the wall created a flood of cheap rentals in what was East Berlin. This allowed lots of creatives, bohemians, anarchists and non-commercial sorts to commune together and pursue their way of life free from the stress of the rat-race. A lot of cool was created in the eastern districts of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg making them great cheap places to hang-out and relax. In contrast, West Berlin is, as you would expect, much more refined, developed and affluent although Kreuzberg does stand apart. This was one of the poorest parts of West Berlin so it exists in isolation and became a haven for immigrants and creatives much like parts of the East were to become. What is particularly interesting (to me) about Berlin is that the legacy of East and West, communism and capitalism, remains. While the divide is no longer political and tangible it is still ideological and intangible. West Berlin has learnt to accept challenges to its economic creed and East Berlin has come to learn that its own people can sell out its more social model. What is happening on the ground is predictable. Developers have discovered their holy grail of cheap land in downtown locations. Properties that were falling into disrepair and no longer inhabitable because their owners couldn’t invest in them have been snapped up and redeveloped. These new developments have been bought by non-creative types who consume culture but only in boxes of safe straight lines and smooth edges. The premium a developer requires to put up these installations has put prices beyond the creative types that made these areas cool in the first place. As more and more developments go up the balance of things changes; people with money overpower those without forcing the creatives to move to different more affordable suburbs off the radar to do whatever it is that they do. While there is a role for developers in any city to renew the housing stock and shape the city in accordance with the city planners' needs, the result is inevitable. The inspiration and diversity that is harboured at the pulse of a city becomes distorted as a price is put on it leaving only those with money to shape it and enjoy it how they wish.
When the likes of me turn up in a city to check out the vibe it is because I heard about it first as opposed to stumbled upon it. While Berlin desperately needs its tourists’ euros the last thing it needs is people like me sniffing around to see if I can leech off the vibe that others have created under the radar. While it may be a city, the result is the same as an interpretive centre at the heart of a beautiful piece of nature. People with no appreciation for the thing turn up to see it because they have heard so much about it. They take the photo having only experienced 2% of the national park or the vibe of a city and then disappear again. Locals and wildlife don't particularly benefit from this, only people who profit from selling said view or vibe. Unfortunately Berlin needs its tourists as this is the only influx of ready money it can get its hands on. In this way the city feels kind of third world.
Indeed, once a cool ambience emerges and ripples to a broader consciousness it ultimately gets packaged into a product and sold. In the case of a city, its culture is at its heart. This culture, in terms of the arts, radiates through its creatives and visionaries and causes like-minded people from diverse backgrounds and artistic disciplines to move to the city. When the power of so much artistic energy in one place becomes apparent commercial sorts start to sense that something is happening and move in to capitalise. These filter the art into saleable and non-saleable works. They then sell the package to consumers of culture. The consequence is that some artists profit and survive. However, commerce and consumption can be a toxic mix for creative endeavour as some artists are more commercial than others. As interest in a locale increases so too does a developer’s interest and rents and house-prices rise. Inevitably the non-saleable art and non-commercial artists are forced out to other locales thereby reducing the diversity and strength of the original creative energy. This spells the end of the original vibe although the commercial sorts will try to replicate and recreate it to prolong the essence of the attractive atmosphere in the area. The problem with this is that once art is created as a replica it becomes about the money and it loses its soul. The soul of art and culture remains with the creatives who established the vibe in the first place. Although the original vibe is dissolved in this particular area, a new artistic vibe will inevitably pop up in time elsewhere in another city or country when the right mix of people, energy and art combusts.
Thus, introducing money into the equation leads to the death of the original x-factor that until now was never quantified and thus, capitalised. There is nothing new in this. City officials and governments around the world are constantly confronted by the need to plan their cities taking into account both economic and social arguments. How do you include those who contribute so much but who can’t afford the cost of living to stay? This is what is/was special about Berlin. For a time at least, the city was an anomaly. Creatives and thinkers could afford to stay and go about their work in the heart of the city without too much economic distraction. It was essentially an economic model and a social model cohabiting the same space. The fall of the wall challenged the city to extract the best from both worlds to benefit and include all. As an example, while Prenzlauer Berg is a great part of town in the old East Berlin it is becoming even more refined and affluent. This means that modern Prenzlauer Berg is in danger of becoming a replica of its past if it hasn’t done so already. The vibe has in essence dissolved and morphed into something else even if people will still come to check it out. Eventually its spark will seem dim relative to another city’s renaissance and the crowd will go and check that one out instead. Perhaps that is the nature of art, to pop-up, startle and inspire us, only to disappear and be reborn elsewhere. Even a classic piece of art or a beautiful piece of nature has the capacity to disappear from view when it becomes familiar. Such is the tendency of things to blend into the background and become part of the furniture.
Regardless of the social and economic front that still exists in Berlin, there is the non-art aspect of its culture that marks it out. Drinking in public is allowed and there is no curfew for bars and clubs. The bars are so much fun. There are ping-pong bars, Fussball bars, swing-dancing bars, jive bars, electronic clubs, after-party chill-out clubs, living-room style bars, jazz bars, grunge bars and these are just the ones I went to. You would think that such good nightlife would spell disaster but it doesn’t. This is not a city where the majority works 9-5 Monday-Friday. This exists but it is balanced with those who work irregular hours and days (or not at all). It is as likely that somebody is working off their laptop in a café as in a shop, bar, factory or office etc. the result is that people are a lot more time-free and with such a great public transport system there is no excuse not to go out and have a cheap night. Just as people leave a bar at mid-night to get home for work in the morning a whole new wave of people rock in. This gets repeated at 3am and it might only be a Monday. The city doesn’t seem to suffer the consequence of such liberal drinking and partying laws. Any pool of vomit on the U-Bahn is likely the result of a tourist who couldn’t handle having 24hour access to quality cheap beer. The bars stay open until the party is over and there is always an after party in the clubs, which can play right through from Friday evening to Sunday evening by simply rotating DJs. When I left Berghain at 8am there were people queuing up to get in, nuts. Eating out is dirt-cheap and people don’t tolerate prices for meals going up. You can get breakfast until 4pm, which is great if you only come home at 9am and need all morning to nap. All in all, the people seem to get along … although I’m not sure what a Turkish person might say. Certainly, guys in suits can be out clubbing with guys wearing next to nothing. Old people have no problem engaging young punks in the street and the gay community is welcome to add plenty of colour to nights out. Everybody just seems mature. This is possibly because the city has been through so much that modern-day problems seem trite in comparison.
Berlin – a phenomenal city, it definitely flies the flag for Euro-cool.
Mind how you go