Living in Berlin

The Sixth Borough: Berlin as New York

New York in the seventies without the crime? New York with a type-B personality? The way ‘the East Village used to be’?

How many times have I used New York comparisons to orient my visitors around Berlin. More than I can count. It’s short-hand, expedient, it does neither city justice, but it’s kind of fun.

click on the image above to see the neighbourhood parallels in detail!

New Yorkers have moved in droves to the ‘Sixth Borough’ of Berlin, and these days the hipsters in parts of the city, like Kreuzkölln, seem predominantly English-speaking. As I mentioned in another post, a friend who has taught visual art in New York for three decades watched the geography of the art scene move through her graduating seniors. In the eighties they moved to SoHo, in 1990 they were in the East Village, later they were living in Brooklyn. In the last years, every single student dedicated to pursuing a career in visual art moved to Berlin. Agents and scouts for galleries have followed, as have plenty of art students who don’t want to wait until they graduate. New York University has even opened a campus in the Kulturbrauerei specialising in studio art.

Yes, I know there are plenty of differences between the two cities… Chinatown is denser and more chaotic than Hermannplatz. Kottbusser Tor’s immigrants have less upward mobility than the Lower East Side’s, and Kreuzkölln is affordable and truly funky, while the East Village is no longer. Tribeca’s got more theatres and bistros than Rosa Luxemburg Platz and its Volksbühne.  Zoo and Potsdamer Platz aren’t nearly as vertical and awe-inspiring as Midtown. Dahlem’s village atmosphere isn’t like Morningside Heights, even if it’s got the university and some of the weirdness. And just because Nollendorf Platz is full of gay guys doesn’t mean it’s just like Chelsea. Sure, the asshole quotient is higher on Wall Street than in Frankfurt.  And on the whole Berlin is less cosmopolitan and diverse than New York City. Only in New York can you arrive and the next day call yourself a ‘New Yorker’. The definition of a Berliner is narrower, and born-Berliners are increasingly worried that their city is changing too quickly due to visitors, tourists, immigrants, expats. I find grumbling against tourists and the English-language here to be xenophobia disguised as activism.

But bear with me! There is plenty in common between the two cities. Rosenthaler Platz is starting to market Berlin’s stereotype of itself to visitors, just like the West Village. Hackescher Markt is definitely starting to look like SoHo, with all that chain commerce. Neukölln is gentrifying just like Harlem. And I do think Prenzlauer Berg looks increasingly like the Upper West Side with its upper-middle class somnambulism. You could also go by borough when providing rough and loose comparisons: Kreuzberg is a little like Brooklyn with its low-rise eccentric vibe, Neukölln like Queens (maybe Astoria) with its immigrant communities, Jersey like Brandenburg suffering ‘beyond the walls’ condescension from the capital. How many times have I heard people say about New York: ‘It’s not really the United States’, just the way Berliners say they live in Berlin, and not in Germany.
I lived in New York a long time before I moved to Berlin, and sometimes I find myself, when stepping off a plane here, calling up my partner on my mobile, saying: ‘Yep, just arrived back in New York’, and don’t even notice the stupidity I’ve said. I suppose it’s because my life in Berlin has carried on in such a similar way: I travel by subway everywhere, Berliner Schnauze isn’t as vocal as New York sass but it’s sass nonetheless, I eat out a lot and often only have a carton of milk in the fridge, when I do shop they stay open late (-ish…) on Kottbusser Damm, my friends come from everywhere, I go running in a beautiful central park, there’s more clubbing, concerts and art than one can possibly ever absorb, and you can travel on public transport in just your underwear and no one will stoop to show they notice. All this and, unlike in New York, you’re not overwhelmed by advertising, aggression, stress, a focus on work over leisure, and you’re not living an hour from the places you like to go out because that’s all you can afford. If Berlin is the Sixth Borough (and it’s not), then New York is my favourite city in the world…

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

4 thoughts on “The Sixth Borough: Berlin as New York

  • Occasionally I get pangs of missing New York. But in Berlin it’s really rare.

    I was sitting recently in a café and two women from New York were ostentatiously performing for the benefit of everyone else in the room. It was funny to see how people moved away, slowly, to the empty tables further back.

  • Thank you very much, the way you mapped Berlin unto New York really made my day, and as much as I know about the differences between both the cities, this map of yours made me acutely aware about the common thread between some of the places I cherish most on both sides of the Atlantic. As much as I love living in Berlin, though, I tend to miss New York a lot recently.

  • I agree with your comment that Berliners tend to grumble when they see the numbers of visitors, foreigners, etc. increase in Berlin…I would think they would be proud that their city is becoming so cosmopolitan and being compared to the likes of New York.

  • This just reminded of Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest novel (where a sixth borough suddenly parted from NYC and slided away (apparently towards Europe)) and also of that T-Shirt saying “New York is King, but Berlin is King Kong”. Oh, but I found it interesting too ^^

Comments are closed.