Every year or so, without fail, the press pull at that dependable news hook: Is Berlin ‘over’? Is Berlin ‘no longer the coolest city in the world’? Everyone jumps all over this old trusty, and you wonder simultaneously: what do they mean, is it true, and what’s wrong with the question?
If you’ve been following the news, you can skip the background in the next paragraph and go straight to my rant which comes next.
This time around, the tweeting started in that overhyped (and much more overpriced and cosmopolitan) metropolis over the Atlantic. It was a positive article in the New York Times Styles section about Brooklynites moving to Berlin for the club culture. Gawker then called the Times’ report an ‘obituary’ for Berlin, and asked its followers ‘where’s next?’ Gawker’s post coincided roughly with Rolling Stone‘s steamy article about how the over-touristed mega-club Berghain is in trouble, and how Berlin risks becoming a “more boring, and expensive, version of itself”. The German newspapers then jumped all over the mood in America, eager to take a dig at the city everyone elsewhere in Germany, and especially in Munich, loves to hate. Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung unsurprisingly waxed most eagerly about the suggested downfall. The Berlin newspapers followed up deliberating over both the consequences and advantages of no longer being the “coolest city in the world”. Atlantic Cities caught the Berlin mood more concisely, writing, “No one is happier about Berlin being ‘over’ than Berlin”.
The biggest problem with all the recent press coverage is its focus on a certain demographic when discussing how “Berlin’s over”––the fate of the style-conscious hipster, who has moved to a place based on reputation. Who the hell moves some place simply because it’s “cool”? Are we so traumatised by high-school labels that we need to globalise this puerile anxiety. Not only do we need to be “cool”, but the place––on an international scale!––does too! I remember kids in junior high school who had the “cool lockers”, located in a corner of the hallway slightly removed from the rest. Oh, shit, what happens if someone comes along and says they aren’t cool anymore? What happens to cool me? I guess you better go find a locker in Krakow or Leipzig or Montevideo or Istanbul, just so you don’t have to tell people you live in the place that has been. God help you if your extended adolescence is at all disturbed.
The hipster’s plight in Berlin, and the fate of the night-club scene, is unfortunately conflated with the real risks in a city that is rapidly gentrifying. I obviously don’t have a lot of compassion for those who, having proudly ‘discovered’ the underground scene, now find their haunts flooded with mainstream tourists with guidebooks in their back pockets. I’m not too concerned with the status of Berlin as “party capital” or even what happens to Berghain. The value of the German capital is not in its edginess as an entertainment playground. Nor do I have much time, on the other hand, for provincial Berliners and their grumbling about how their city is internationalising and filled with those same expat hipsters who only speak English.
Sorry, guys, I’ve got other things on my mind.
Quite honestly, I can do without cool, or the reactive xenophobia, provided my Turkish baker can still live on the same block as where he bakes his bread. What people loosely call ‘cool’ is only useful if it points to a whole nexus of what everyone has liked so much about Berlin up to now: low cost, low stress, something of a loophole in the capitalist system, what we really should try to protect much more than the atmosphere inside the world’s ‘best mega-club’. (Although I’m open to complicated, and possibly Sophistic arguments, about how the same threat is affecting both the underclass and the nightclubs… but I suspect the causality is a little more complicated).
Here are the losers:
If you are a Berliner on a modest income you are seeing the boom in real-estate speculation and investment, tourism (in 2013, a record of 27 million overnights, almost as many as Paris) and holiday apartments, affecting your standard of living. Rents are rising massively in neighbourhoods that used to be peripheral in West Berlin, hugging the wall, like Kreuzberg. Now that the wall has come down, and these neighbourhoods have become desirable, rents have exploded: for example, along the canal in Neukölln, rents have risen more than 80% since 2008. These neighbourhoods happen to be places high in vulnerable immigrant or blue-collar populations. The Berlin boom hasn’t been good for them––and half of all Berliners make under 1500 EUR a month, and a third less than 1000 EUR.
And if you are a (say, visual) artist for example coming here to do your work, it means that rents are going up and you can’t live as cheaply as in those fabled years, at least not in a neighbourhood you might actually want to live. Studio space is hard to come by, and more expensive, and there isn’t the atmosphere of improvisation there once was, and even young curators find it extremely difficult even to get unpaid internships. On top of that, Berliners aren’t big spenders and so you will need to tap into the art market abroad in any case. You too are losing under the present circumstances.
One of the biggest reasons that these groups are losing is not that Berlin is ‘over’ but rather that it is on the up and up, with accompanying inequalities.
Have those club kids read a newspaper lately? Hello? There’s more economic and political power here than there’s been for almost a century. Among European partners, it’s Angela Merkel that Obama calls first when there’s a crisis in the Ukraine, not Britain or France. Unavoidably, the city has become the important mover and shaker of the continent. For political and economic commentators, Berlin is not ‘over’ but rather the place to be. Politicians, the diplomatic corps, lobbyists, think tank pundits, and the whole circus around them are making sure Berlin is far from ‘over’. No matter what happens to Berghain.
There’s also a great deal of new economic initiative in the city. The bloggers poo poo the rise of start-ups here, but there’s no doubt the Berlin economy is diversifying. There’s a massive new young and educated workforce, an influx from the Mediterranean world. Most of the young people moving to Berlin are from Italy and Spain where there are extremely high levels of unemployment (Berlin might have a high rate for Germany, but it’s nothing compared to places with over 50% youth unemployment like Spain). They are learning the language and hell-bent on finding work in the most interesting city of Europe’s biggest economy. Their aspirations are rather different from many American artists and clubbers often come here to live cheap but––because of language and problems with their papers––think of their stay as temporary or occasional/non-working. No kidding that Berlin’s over if you can’t live here comfortably when you’re drawing from savings and don’t actually have a job. (I’m not saying North Americans don’t work, I just say that they are not driven by the same economic need and determination one sees in the recent Mediterranean influx). Meanwhile, there’s a lot of new money here, just look around, and––sorry––only 20% of it comes from tourism.
The influx of money, political capital, and a more internationalised and determined workforce, along with property speculation, brings with it ills of gentrification. But it also brings with it a capital that has never been more international, where there’s an explosion of good restaurants, and where the arts scene (esp. in Classical music) continues to be among the world’s best. All these great developments are accompanied by real discontents for the city’s vulnerable.
I doubt any of these dynamics are on the press spin-doctor’s mind, at the fashion desk of a North American newspaper outlet, when he or she types the glib words: “Berlin is over”.
For those losing out on the changes, Berlin being ‘over’ is hardly the problem. Quite the opposite in fact.