The cliché of Berlin as "poor but sexy," its image of freedom, has never been totally accurate. But even in late capitalism there remains hope for a "still harbour away from conflict or chaos," writes Hannah Gregory, a freelance writer, editor, and translator living there.
The “New Berlin” is a kind of shibboleth for the creative class. In recent decades (not to mention those original hedonists of the Weimar years), artists, writers and musicians have been drawn to its once burgeoning, now outdated, bohemian reputation. Yet as Berlin’s identifiable signifiers — artist studios (cheap space) and club culture (an escape from time) — have solidified into clichés, the city continues to be claimed as the next new version of itself. There is reinvention, always anticipating the next new era, and then there is regeneration, with the usual tying of creativity to capital.
As the developers caught up with the artists in Berlin, rents rose, and globalized businesses landed. So the mobile and liquid hipster class sought to pinpoint another easy-living destination. Maybe the New Berlin was Lisbon? Or Athens, or Tbilisi? This search is in vain, itself an unaware flattening of local specificities. The value that was once recovered is now too recognizable, the early signs of (creative) capital clearly visible to real-estate agents and trend forecasters.
The idea of any “New Berlin” is at best utopian; at worst, bankrupt. Meanwhile, the life of the actual Berlin keeps on being lived in the aftermath of any prescribed “moment.” But when it comes to the romantic myth of a creative lifestyle, the truth is that Berlin has been “over” for a long time.
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There was a brief moment after the Wall fell in 1991, when amidst historical and political upheaval, the stakes for new forms of living were high. With the deindustrialization of the old East German center, as the city was re-announced Germany’s capital, new arrivals gravitated toward the promise of emptiness. The freeing up of vast power plants for the repetitive anti-count of techno meant that where workers once clocked in, a newly unified generation could check out of routine altogether. There were the stories of friends, since moved out and on, walking into dusty, half-deserted buildings, choosing an apartment they liked the look of, and calling up the building owner: a dirt-cheap done deal. These are the legends of space and time, expansive and elongated, some measures of which still remain, even as the stakes of Berlin change.
Space and time were what I was seeking, some 25 years after the Wall, as the cracks of London became narrower and narrower for me to live in let alone write in. Unlike when I had moved as an idealistic twenty-year-old to Paris, when I moved as an almost thirty-year-old to Berlin, I was not chasing any sense of romanticism. The city’s wide streets, while spacious, had always seemed austere and bleak when I visited, which had always been in winter. The narrative of the city’s creative life already seemed overexploited, though the fact of there being local art scenes and publishing houses, which were also plugged into global art networks, assured me that I could continue in my work as an arts writer and editor. London’s cracks closed up fast behind me as I left, and I had little desire to pry them back open. As for many who come here, Berlin began as a personal trial run, for an indefinite amount of time.
All cities have their clichés, and all cities contain many cities. The choice of where to live is less a chase of what’s novel — following the “X Is the New Berlin” articles, that have themselves become so old (see Leipzig, Brussels, Budapest, Warsaw, among many others over the years) — than a choice between which trusted tropes one would prefer to live among.
Between Berlin and London, it’s the option of the former’s slow beers and leafy benches, or the pseudo-shelter, on a busy main road in Zone 1, of a brightly lit Pret. Berlin’s old hippies on houseboats who seem to subsist only on sociality, or London’s suits chasing bonuses, eyes down on the tube. Maybe the real choices of living are pragmatic, and as per that other stereotype of German functionalism, I chose Berlin because I thought it might work for me, in ways that London wasn’t.
What are the narratives of a city if not axes (space, time) to hang one’s ideas off from afar or hold up in comparison to one’s day? They mostly recede into the rhythms of ordinary living, until, cycling along the canal bank, lush and green for the summer, a cliché seizes the scene. The city suddenly appears as a leisurely image of itself, which I seem to fit into for that moment, which is not quite the same as feeling at home.
In this Berlin scene, people are sipping, have been sipping, beers for hours, legs dangling and obligations on hold. There’s the eternal sound of children playing, of kids sodcasting gabba, or crusties with cassette boomboxes. There are white women in bikinis seeking to become brown, taking thirsty selfies on the grass. There are extended Turkish-German families whose enviable barbecue spreads include lamb roasts, cool boxes, shisha. There are trios of friends or lovers tossing dinghies into the water beneath the willow fronds, unregulated and carefree. There are club crews in black activewear, creatives in black activewear, writers or artists in black activewear, like me. The trove of clichés is deep and dry, like paper tickets in a tombola. Each ticket rewards either cultural kitsch or, if you’re luckier, a timeless prize — the rare joy of being in the right place at the right time.
As I serve you another such narrative from these backwaters, backhanded, I do so with the recognition of my own irrelevance, witnessing or experiencing what has become, as the poet Ed Attlee has written of cliché, “devalued over time.” In the case of Berlin, the imagination of the city as a home to cultural vanguards declines as its actual value (property prices, average wages) increases. Several rounds of redevelopment have polished away its edge. “Neukölln bleibt dreckig,” demands the graffiti in the once undesirable south-eastern neighborhood, which has seen some of the highest rent hikes: “Keep Neukölln dirty.”
A local distrust of globalized forces, however legitimate, manifests as a willingness to linger on, unchanged. If the cliché in language amounts to “congealed communication,” as Attlee phrases it, the clichéd situation can feel like congealed existence — sticky, familiar, and formerly sweet. Like the infamous dogshit littering Neukölln’s cobbled streets; like Shelley’s comment about the self: “I can’t seem to get it off.”
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There is a reassurance to living in the reality of hype having passed, hype being a speculative pressure, devoid of what matters. When I was leaving London, my German flatmate told me that when he moved to Berlin from his hometown in 1995 he felt he had already missed “the moment.” Shortly after I arrived on this trial run for settling in 2015, I bought the “Berlin Update” issue of the bilingual art journal Texte zur Kunst (founded in Berlin in 1990), which was already six months old, to read a status report of the city’s art scenes as summarized by some of their main players.
Even this update was already over, it turned out. The scene hangout the New Theater, described as “a reorganization of the social” among a select crowd, was by the time I read the article, in its last month of shows. The issue was illustrated with photographs by the venue’s artist-founders, Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff, of empty glasses stacked up on the bar of Times, their previous short-term venue. Critic Philipp Ekhart notes how the absence of people in this series — which nonetheless mythologizes a moment — is in contrast to the revelling subjects of Wolfgang Tillmans among Berlin’s gay techno scene a decade earlier. (What Seurat was for representations of leisurely Paris in the 1880s, Tillmans was for Berlin’s hedonists of the 1990s, though during that century, the divisions between work and leisure changed dramatically.) The message communicated in Henkel and Pitegoff’s aestheticized emptiness: “Our party’s over.” I didn’t mind.
Elsewhere in this “Berlin update” (was its message “hang on in there”?) was the identification of a tipping point in the city’s creative life, if any such monolithic characterization can be trusted. A turn from a not-for-profit spirit of art for art’s sake, reliant on the city’s cheapness, to the take-over of the Sekt-fueled art market, which would nonetheless fund some artist’s, and many art workers’, careers.
The scales have since tipped further, though the “poor but sexy” brand persists as a marketing tactic. Ahead of a vernissage I attended in a stripped-out ex-brothel, now a gallery space with scraps of faded wallpaper left on the walls, a huge advertising banner for an urban sports label was installed on the exterior of the adjacent building. The banner was hung to be in clear view of both the increasingly well-heeled street below and the yung-art-clique about to congregate on the terrace that evening. Of course, the founder of the art space, itself a “nonprofit,” also has a hand in local real estate.
Meanwhile, artist studios become Bitcoin hubs and old postal depots are branded as “factories for innovation,” housing “communities” formed by venture capital. Inside the ex-GDR club architectures, the new crowd still wears black (a more expensive black) and sips charcoal-mezcal cocktails amid multi-dimensional sound systems. For the most avant-garde participants of such trends, invite-only sex parties are superseded by crypto-raves arranged on the blockchain, where digital currency and clubbing become one. The ghostly buildings, at one time a leftover of post-Wall desertion, have long been subject to total refurbishment jobs.
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When I began the search for a long-term apartment in 2015, a few months into the trial run, viewings of entire buildings, gutted and painted white, suggested that all former residents had been asked to vacate at once. Then, I believed I was moving at the most expensive, most saturated point in Berlin’s rental market. Soon after, Mietpreisbremse (rent-price caps) would be introduced to try to slow gentrification and reign in developers. I viewed more than 30 apartments with my partner, who, full disclosure, has the gentrifying hallmark of a tech salary, and put in eight or so applications over several months before finding somewhere permanent. This, friends told me, was pretty good-going for the current state of play. In 2019, apartment viewings continue to create queues down the street and rents are up at least 70 percent since 2011. A bill to freeze rents for five years is on the table at the Senate, but rent-related legislation has proved hard to enforce when the demand for housing is so high. Moreover, with the byzantine structures of German bureaucracy and a latent (or blatant) racism influencing many landlords’ application selection, the basic task of finding a home can be at odds with Berlin’s “laid-back” and “liberal” reputation.
With perseverance, there are havens to be found, but there is an outdated rose-tint to the ongoing, Anglo-centric reports, like the New York Times’s “In Berlin, Artists Find A Home”, detailing the atmospheric studio spaces accessible to the likes of the established artists interviewed. For those people coming from Southern and Eastern Europe, Turkey, the Levant, North and West Africa, for anyone with a foreign-sounding name, or without a financial safety net, an affordable room to live or work in is far from easy to find. The population continues to catch up with its Golden Twenties peak of 4.5 million — today at around 3.5 million, its highest since. The city is still “over,” and yet more in demand than ever.
The clichés of a city endure long after its everyday details have evolved or modernized. As Tess Edmonson writes on the perseverance of Berlin’s myths, “the material realities on which these assessments [of the city and its cultural production] are based mostly no longer exist.” She’s writing “in the aftermath” of the 9th Berlin Biennale, curated by New York collective DIS in 2016 and seen to be representative of “the surrender of the city’s creative capital to capitalism.” Hannah Black’s summation of BB9 for Artforum could equally stand for the state of the scene-y city — Berlin, yes, or Brooklyn, or wherever — and its transient users in the Easyjet end-times. Black described “the despairing atomization, and the compromised longing for solidarity, of a post-bourgeois creative class hovering on the brink of its own obsolescence.” The artist-writer lights a roll-up and walks out of the room — or, in actuality, moves again, to New York.
I had hoped this somewhat infamous biennale might dig a grave for Berlin’s broader aspirations toward New York City, not only in terms of the hungry realtors, but as seen in the replicant burger joints and speakeasies. Downstairs at the Akademie der Künste, one of the biennale’s venues, there was a health-washed green juice bar; upstairs, possibly ironic power yoga classes. These are trends rebranded by the West that could now just as easily be found in old-East-German Mitte, as in the relational aesthetics of the artwork.
What’s more cloying than the city’s self-made clichés — graffiti on old mattresses left out in the flowerbeds or candlelit cafés furnished with ostalgic artifacts — is the seemingly smooth importing of those from other cities. Commercial concepts invade from the moodboard of global homogeneity: bare pendant light bulbs and brick walls, craft beer, minimally furnished co-working spaces.
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Beyond the atomized realities of laptop-workers in the cafés, Berlin has solid communities that are coherent and relevant to the political everyday. They are present at the neighborhood markets, where different generations of immigrants sell or consume salep and borek, or coconut rice and pork larb; they are present among the elaborate social and cultural strata of shops and street-sellers on Sonnenallee. They are present, too, in the intersecting factions of gentrification resistance. I receive pamphlets on local planning and invitations to civic meetings through my postbox, encouraging involvement in the polis.
When an aggressive British developer renovated a building on my block into holiday flats, then tried to evict the well-used, working-class bakery next door, I doubt he expected that every weekend there would be a crowd of more than 50 people protesting outside the could-be-Dalston restaurant on the flats’ ground floor. I doubt he expected every business in the vicinity would put up posters and signs in the name of the bakery (“We Want Bread Not Cake”), or for his name to be emblazoned across walls (“Dein Geld Stinkt,” Your Money Stinks). With any ounce of foresight, he might have expected the anarchists would break his windows, but not that the children of the kindergarten opposite would paint theirs up brightly, for the beloved bakery and its staff. The protest was not an encouraging image for the restaurant’s cosy Sonntag brunchers, and the crowd came back until the developer backed down.
When Google announced it would open a campus in a 3,000m2 ex-electricity substation in the same postcode, the whole Kiez became covered in Anti-Google graffiti. “Google ist kein guter Nachbar” (Google is not a good neighbor) was the prevailing sentiment of the flyers distributed in postboxes; “FUCK GOOGLE,” that of the posters stuck on every lamppost and message board, including in my doctor’s waiting room. I took all this to be symbolic: Google’s name a giant target in the ongoing struggle against displacement, and, particularly given Berlin’s reputation as a retreat for digital privacy activists, a statement of local identity.
I appreciated the sloganeering persistence, while wondering if the residents making noise demos in the building’s main Hof really went home and searched on DuckDuckGo instead of Google. Finally, the story ran that the big G would not proceed, and would hand over the space (though they still quietly hold the lease) to two socially oriented non-profits. It was an alliance of several community groups that strategized the win against the odds — at least for now, always for now — one which feels almost unimaginable in other capitals.
Each city contains many cities, and as is the case here, the alternate realities exist in sharp contrast. From the English-speaking outside, Berlin today has a reputation both as a site of relatively affordable “creative” space, and as a site of resistance to the generic gentrification of tech companies. Yet to Berliners, the possibilities of the former have been lost while the start-ups have arrived with assurance. The resistance rises up to prevent big tech and the globalized tastes of its employees, or itinerant users (in the case of the heavily regulated Airbnb), from taking over completely.
There can be a murky mix of xenophobia, localism, nostalgia, and hopeful resistance stirring within this anti-gentrification sentiment. The first graffiti to appear on the aforementioned holiday flats read “Ausländer Bonzen Raus” — “Foreign Yuppies Out.” The next day when I passed, the “foreign” had been cleaned off and “yuppies” left intact.
This small quarter’s polling place counted almost equal votes for the Greens and the Left parties in the 2017 general election, with 3 percent for right extremists, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Crossing the canal to the East, votes for AfD rise to between 8 and 20 percent. On my street I count three Stolpersteine, brass stumbling stones, laid on doorsteps in memory of those deported and killed during the Shoah. The neo-Nazi skinheads still skulk the U-Bahn and march through Alexanderplatz in daylight, raising their right arms, protected by the police.
In the park that I walk through with my morning coffee, imported to the third-wave roastery from Ethiopia or El Salvador, the African men that hang out there, for work or for socializing, get hassled by the police. These are the checks in place on just who the paternal state supports; to whom it offers refuge; for whom the city can still feel free.
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Even with the inequality of its freedoms, Berlin represents for many not another end, but a new beginning. The city has come to seem like a still harbour away from conflict or chaos. It frequently serves as a holding space for the times when the fragments of life have to be gathered back together. The narratives I witness or experience of the city are those of getting, leaning, hiding out.
Moving to a place without idealizing expectations has the benefit of allowing its appeal to grow rather than deflate. If I still have faith in this city, then, in spite or because of it being “over,” it is because a significant part of its character rests on the idea that people can want otherwise. Other than all-hours work, other than straight living, other than hyper-capitalism. Less than “newness” or “edginess,” what I experience is a feeling of spaciousness. For me, in this strange moment, it still provides.
Attlee, Edwina, “Click, Click, Click, Cliché in the Poetry of Emily Berry, Heather Phillipson and Sam Riviere,” Dandelion, Vol. 5, 2, 2015
Black, Hannah, review of the 9th Berlin Biennale, Artforum, September 2016, https://www.artforum.com/print/reviews/201607/the-9th-berlin-biennale-63010
“Bundestagwahl 2017 in Berlin,” Berliner Morgenpost, https://interaktiv.morgenpost.de/berlinwahlkarte2017/
Edmonson, Tess, “Berlin Stories,” Flash Art, November – December 2017, https://www.flashartonline.com/article/berlin-stories/
Ekardt, Philipp, “The New Pragmatists, On Times and New Theater,” Texte Zur Kunst, Berlin Update issue, June 2014
Loos, Ted, “In Berlin, Artists Find a Home,” New York Times, April 24, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/24/arts/berlin-living-artists.html
Shelley quote via Nuar Alsadir in Fourth Person Singular