On my fourth trip to London, I finally made it past Hackney and visited some of the landmarks of the city – namely the Tate Modern and Piccadilly Circus. But, as always, my being in London has more to do with visiting friends than going on an exciting holiday. And as always, we are happy to stay at home, talk about what’s been going on in our lives across the continents, and sharing ideas and visions about life in different cities. And thus, the city-center is quickly forgotten again, and we move past the landmarks, right into the periphery.
Aside from my friends, London is dear to me from a visitors perspective just as well. In many ways, visiting this vibrant metropole and arguably one of the economically, culturally and politically most important cities of the world, is like traveling in time and stealing a glance of what Berlins future could look like.
Since Berlin is a late bloomer of the postmodern world due to its history, many people believe the course has not been set yet; many annoyances as well as difficulties of living in a so densely populated area could potentially be erased before they even arise. Or thus is / was the vision. Building a city from the ground up: this time, we do it differently! I think there’s this collective spirit to build urban life based on more than just economic success, even today, many years after the big cultural revolutions have already rolled over the Western world and its metropoles.
Alas, Berlin is facing the same problems of other big cities today, too. Rising rents, prices, coupled with bureaucracy, social segregation and somehow a total lack of efficient political regulation (or so it seems). The complaints are various, but people hope and work for a better future here, whether on a local scale or with mighty efforts. And – although this might be disappointing to some, but definitely not surprising – again, the marginalized are being pushed into the periphery.
Metropoles like London or New York are always used as bad examples in these kind of discourses, but I have to say – while both cities are not exactly regarded as socially avantgarde, not like Berlin with its left-wing agenda and now a left-wing coalition to complement – people are very witty when it comes to creating space worth living in.
The institutionalized battles, such as Fabric and other cultural hubs closing, were duly noted. But being in London, seeing the people managing and getting by, had me struck by a romantic urban notion: it’s not easy, but it’s doable. It’s challenging, and it’s almost therefore more interesting than that life we got used to living in Berlin – plenty of space, plenty of freedom. People say creativity needs space to blossom, and I say creativity is needed to solve the difficulties of living in a city like London.
We ended up in Hackney Wick, an industrial area of the popular district Hackney further down the canal. Pubs and restaurants opening in former warehouses and providing makeshift dancefloors. There’s a lot of space here – and many, many people who flock down on Saturday nights to see what’s going on. It’s like going further down Neukölln, beyond the Ringbahn, and seeing the warehouse complexes at the Canal. Could that be the future? Why not?
But that’s just sidebar. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the Notting Hill Carnival, with the signature London sound and multi-cultural dance-offs. And, of course, everybody’s inhaling those helium poppers. I mean people say Berlin is druggy, but the level of being a total car crash in London is just amazing.
Of course, this wasn’t our first time of Notting Hill Carnival, so we ended up simply strolling the margins of the festival, trying not to get buttered in color and alcohol.
There’s space in London. It’s tiny space, and it’s always on the verge of being sold to someone. But social structures keep re-creating themselves. The city is shaped in its margins now, not in the center.
London – but most importantly, my dear London friends – showed me that culture and social interaction find their ways past the skyscrapers and the financial burden of a life in the city.
The urban dream re-creates itself out of a social necessity, even if the obstacles are higher in a densely populated and heavily embattled metropole.
It gives me hope, you know. We’ll have less and less space here too, but the myth of a social, free and affordable city won’t fade as long as there are still little notes, people and ideas in the margins and corners of Berlin.