In the eyes of the world, Berlin is a city of maverick bohemians. Those who make their way to Berlin want to grow and evolve, do their thing and try their hand at something new. I, too, ended up staying here for this reason. Berlin is the European capital of creatives and – despite accelerating gentrification – still has a relatively low cost of living. You can scrape by on little, yet still enjoy life. Drawn by this spirit, people from more than 190 countries have made this city their new home – and possibly contributed to Berlin’s above-average Urban Joy Index of 75.
Yet that’s only one side of Berlin. With its rich and eclectic spectrum of residents, from the fur-loving grand dame shopping on Ku’damm to the homeless weed dealer at Görlitzer Park, the city has plenty of space and scope for film stars, property moguls, start-up entrepreneurs, politicians, and regular folk. At the same time, these are not clearly and cleanly separated by districts or East and West Berlin, but often share the same front door. In my own house and home, a starchitect has taken up residence above me, while the person below me is on benefits. Where else in Germany would you find this mix? Berlin has no strict separations. At least, not yet. Or take Berghain. Often portrayed as a degenerate techno temple and den of vice, this former distant heating HQ has become a continually evolving cultural cluster, surprising the city with an organic blend and steady stream of opera, fashion, new music, ballet, theater, and club culture for the past decade – and still going strong. This seemingly discordant, yet natural mix is Berlin’s trademark style: Berliners are naturals when it comes to juxtaposition and reinvention, thus shaping and defining the city’s inherent spirit.
A spirit many wish to soak up, turning Berlin into one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations. Few other European metropolises have seen such a swift expansion of tourism. Sure, the city also offers plenty of historical highlights thanks to its complicated and convoluted history. A history that only really starts in the early 18th century: Before Frederick I turned it into the capital of Prussia, Berlin was no more than a marginal small town. Later on, the city underwent its most trying and formative times during the 20th century, including the erection and fall of the Berlin Wall. The resulting vacuum since 1989 continues to nurture the myth of Berlin as a place where anything goes in art, culture, and beyond – something that still seems to apply.
Attentive visitors – or those who find themselves lost in Berlin – can determine their approximate location by looking for architectural clues. While the city’s iconic TV tower, Karl-Marx-Allee, WBS70 and turn-of-the-century residential structures (replete with gaps between buildings) point towards East Berlin, the western part of the city has its own radio tower, expansive Tiergarten park, urban freeways, the Tempelhof airfield, understated villas, and 1970s residential blocks. And if you happen to take a tram, you are definitely in the east as this particular form of locomotion was abolished in the west after the city’s separation. And while we are on the subject of public transport: No other German city enjoys such a comprehensive network. Even at 3am on a Wednesday morning you can rely on getting home across town.
At the same time, Berlin suffers from incessant construction. Wherever you look, streets are ripped open, surrounded by thickets of hoarding, excavations, and cranes. The new airport has become the entire country’s laughing stock – yet Berliners don’t really care as they prefer the old Tegel airport, anyway. Or, like me, they flock to the site of the former Tempelhof airfield, which has been turned into a gigantic park and playground. Who needs a showy new international airport, anyway? Tourists have always found a way to get here. Just like the politicians who populate the central government district. Yet politics, somehow, remains a parallel universe. Just like everyone else, Berliners need to consult the media to find out what is going on. Unless a diplomatic convoy happens to block their street.
So, how do Berlin’s jacks of all trades manage and get by? There is no simple answer to this question. It’s far more important that they just get on with things and do it. And what about those looking for an actual career? They simply move to another city.
Text: Jan Rödger
Header image: DocStein/ photocase.com