Lately, as you’ve surely noticed, many newspapers around the world have been making Berlins current state of popularity a topic. I was torn apart between saying something and saying nothing. After all, this website has been part of the “hype”; there’s nothing we could say that’s at least remotely unbiased. But when I read Joseph Pearson’s article on The Needle Berlin (a very special and dedicated blog about Berlin, by the way), I felt like I needed to his words out. It’s a very well written summary of the current discourse and I took the liberty to quote a few passages that will put things into a rather sobering context.
But before I go over the interesting passages of the “Is Berlin Over? Yawn.“, here are the newspaper articles that have made their points regarding Berlin. While the New York Times portrayed New Yorkers who have established their art and culture in Berlin, the Rolling Stone article about the Berghain was the one that really spawned major attention. Not the content of the article, but the very fact that a magazine like the Rolling Stone would write about the Berghain raised the question whether this mythical club was becoming more mainstream, making it a less attractive nightlife choice for those who like to stick to the underground. Gawker continued by asking what happens after Berlin. Since the city attracts more and more tourist, expats, and people yearning for that special something something that Berlin used to offer, the offer itself gets diluted with commercial intentions, resulting in less free space and a lack of authenticity. My favorite and mostly sarcastic article was the one that was published in the Berliner Zeitung about how the whole discussion – and especially the one regarding the Berghain as representative of Berlin – is absolutely redundant, followed by the Atlantic Cities’ article about how Berliners really couldn’t care less about the hype anyway and are mostly happy if it ends. Blogs, news platforms, people – everybody wants to add something to the discussion. Some articles are more analytical or specialized than others. Most seem to agree: Berlin is over, and it might even have been for a couple of years now.
But what exactly does “over” mean, and for whom is “over” important?
Joseph Pearson said something that nobody else seemed to include in their analysis of Berlins current state: Berlin is not just about culture, laissez-faire and the magical urban life that young people in the post-industrial era dream of. While Berlin symbolizes certain things and has been very well marketed to those who appreciate nightlife and diversity in subcultures, there’s more to the status of the German capital. The losers of the rapid changing scenery in the city are those who have been leeching on it anyway.
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.
While I do think that the aforementioned values are important enough to attract people in the first place, they are indeed not what keeps the city running the way it is right now. While many young people who were escaping the structures of the world now find themselves in a similar hustle to other cities (i.e. no more super low rents, fewer space, more people who can get in your way), Berlin as a city and place to live is becoming more attractive with every day.
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.
Again, in my opinion, what indeed started the hype were places like the Berghain (or the Bar25, or the off-art scene, or the punk scene, or the multicultural scene… you get it) and the freedom of expression. There’s really nothing attractive to political power if that’s the only thing a place has to offer. But the city has been capitalizing on it ever since it started it’s “poor but sexy” marketing strategy. How long can you live on authenticity before the whole concept starts cannibalizing itself? While the slogan simply stated what was known already, it did transport the message in a costly and well-designed way to the last person who hadn’t known by then (around 2009). Some were disappointed because when they finally packed up their things and came, the rents were already too high to be considered cheap, and people were aggravated by the density of the population. Xenophobia and gentrification are issues that came hand in hand with the mainstream success of Berlin, but this is a city. Not a rockstar that you can easily hate now that everybody goes to the sold out shows at O2 World. There are more things, more important things, that make Berlin a place worth living in. And they have nothing to do with partying anymore.
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.
Berliners might get defensive because everybody thinks they contributed to the making of this special city. Well, all of us have also contributed to the negative things that come with fame and expectations. There will be ways to change it back to the better and there will be more disappointments down the line, but it’s a slow process. Do read the whole article of The Needle, as it’s probably more educated than most articles that have been released so far.
The question at hand now seems to be what sort of relevance “hype” has. What is hype, anyway? Is it the frequency in which the subject is covered, and if yes, does it matter by whom? Is media now responsible for the quality of life, or is it the happiness of the residents? I think those are two very different aspects.
There are different ways to measure hype. Media coverage, sudden migration or rapidly changing social contexts. I am sure there are many empirical ways in which hype can be defined. I can’t say for sure, but from my personal perspective, I think these classifying elements differ from the experience of life quality for the residents of the city. I am not sighing in relief because the hype is over. In fact, it’s been a long time since I cared about the hype at all. What does that mean? Is hype only a concept for those who are on the outside? I will try to explain my point by describing my own biography in regards to Berlin.
When I started FindingBerlin, I was in love with the package of experiences Berlin had to offer. Culture, nightlife, art scene, popularity, vintage flea markets, restaurants, street food, eccentric people, graffitis, no curfew, good infrastructure, architecture, public life, fashion weeks, concerts, coffee, abandoned places, urban lifestyles, diversity. While rent was never cheap for me, I appreciated the fact that I didn’t have to pay as much as in other German cities. I remember looking for an apartment in Frankfurt and I kept asking myself how I could ever afford it with a student salary on the side.
All in all, I was happy to be here (although it took a while to get used to Berlin). I wanted to document every last bit of the city to share my appreciation. I wanted to tell everyone in the world to come here and see what it’s like; it was a playground for me and my friends, and we made it our mission to photograph everything that we liked about it.
Fast forward and I haven’t left my Kiez in what feels like three years. I have that one certain coffee place where I go and if I want to do some excessive partying, I’ll go wherever my friends are. My work is here, my University is here. When I escape, I escape to foreign places that are much bigger and nowadays more exiting than Berlin. The initial fascination has been substituted by something that probably everyone outside of Berlin can comprehend: Berlin has become my home.
It doesn’t matter why I came here, it doesn’t matter why I was drawn to Berlin. I made it my home and my life revolves around here. Maybe that’s not for good, but I will hopefully draw it out as long as I can. I can appreciate Berlin for the few blocks I frequent every day. Whenever I come back from a trip abroad I am happy to be here, and the last thing I think about while diving into this positive feeling is how cheap rent or how cool the Berghain is.
My photography became stale over time because I kept taking pictures of the same places, documenting their change more than their actual appeal. When I think about what to write for this website that could be of interest for other people, my mind turns blank. Everything has been said, every last recommendation has been published in the gazillion of tourist guides. I don’t care if more tourists come or what kind of tourist they are, because I will hardly notice them anyway.
What I will hopefully notice: fewer people asking me to justify my decision to live here. Many, many people who are now chanting condescending songs about Berlins quick downfall in popularity (and are probably already in Krakow or Istanbul by now) forget that most people living here are still German, they do have work or are somehow bound to the city, and they really like that Berlin is a lot different than, say, Frankfurt, Munich or Cologne. I like the majority of our political infrastructure. I like our biking paths, I like our welfare state, I like our language and sometimes I even like German humor. If you’ve ever lived somewhere else in Germany you know that Berlin is one of the better options in terms of city life. I don’t need to compare Berlin to New York because it’s not my vacation destination full of surprises, short lived experiences or last resort. It’s my home; and like with most homes, sometimes it’s just boring routine.
Constructing the “cool” label around living in Berlin has a bitter taste to me now because the functionality of the city, the individually established social networks and my own affiliation are consequently ignored. Analytically, it might be true that Berlin is nowadays less attractive to outsiders. Possibly some of the insiders are leaving, too, because they can’t keep up with the pace of progress . Maybe they are leaving because they miss the unfinished and raw touches of urban life. Maybe they want to be included in that progress and somehow can’t make the cut. All of these are valid reasons to go away. Yet individually, it’s an entirely different story. All issues aside, I am still more happy here than anywhere else.
The “Berlin is Over” discourse proves to me that there’s a) a parallel media world that desperately wants to talk about whatever it is that Berlin can or cannot do and b) quality of life is rarely touched by hype or the lack thereof. Albeit missing an empirical study that could support my theory, I will rest my case at this point. The subject is multi-layered and certainly not easy to grasp. That said, I am super interested in what our readers have experienced personally and how it coincides with the reflections of the media. Do share your thoughts in the comments.
By the way: here’s what the Berghain had to rhyme about the media coverage in their
last 2010 flyer.