The untrue story of Berlin

Photo: Church in Südstern.

This evening I went for a walk. Normally I walk north from my flat by the Admiralstraße bridge towards the chaos of Kottbusser Tor and central Kreuzberg, but today I went south toward Neukölln. I followed a long park between two busy streets. The park featured playground equipment that would be considered dangerously unsafe in North America.

South of the park was a street with tiny restaurants and basement bars, Berliners sipping wine and beer at little tables on the uneven cobblestone sidewalk.

Further south, a thoroughfare to cross. The road looped around a gothic church to the west. Across the road, Hassenheide park. A chaotic mess of paths through a forest punctuated by sudden open fields and playgrounds. In the middle of the park I stumbled upon an open-air movie theatre. (The movie was in German, unfortunately.)

I was thinking as I was walking home about the story of Berlin. As a non-Berliner and non-German I am still often mystified by the way things happen here. What counts for normal and what counts as rude. Why the buildings look like they do, and why the fashion is as it is.

I develop a narrative that explains it. This narrative is based on things people have told me here and there, but it isn’t exactly true. It’s a story I change as I learn more about this place. It’s the model I use to explain everything that I see. Here it is:

After the second world war Berlin was partitioned into two halves owned by East and West Germany. Both sides rebuilt Berlin as they saw fit, and population boomed on both sides of the wall. The wall created two distinct cultures.

When the wall fell and the city was reunified, things got weirder. There was an economic boom that led to a lot of new buildings, but in fact the city centre emptied as many baby-boomers ran for the suburbs and to more economically prosperous West German cities.

The sudden glut of real estate led to an influx of immigrants, from France, Britain, Turkey, and from other parts of Germany. A lot of artists showed up because Berlin was relatively affordable, and radicals and activists because it was relatively liberal. Heck, accommodation was free if you found an empty building to squat– and there were a lot of empty buildings.

The East German culture mixed with the West German culture and the immigrant culture and the whole thing swirled together into a unique culture in itself. It’s not so much a melting pot as it is a goulash.

The resulting asthetic is young and artistic. It eschews money and status and values discourse, creativity, and intense experiences. It’s a culture equally defined by big parties, warm welcomes even to strangers, and intense heartfelt debate.

The thing that really strikes me, though, is that these people are living in a city built for someone else. It’s a feeling I get wherever I go. Most of the bars have a manicured run-down look: they are stocked with third-hand furniture from old aunties’ living rooms; they are found in illegal cellars and the ruins of industrial buildings.

Most bar owners don’t have the money to renovate, and even if they do they usually don’t bother. (The bar across from work, a biergarten in a decrepit ruin, was renovated and turned into a beautiful-looking Spanish restaurant. Now, nobody goes there except tourists. My coworkers disdain the place.)

The result of this is it feels like we’re living amidst the bones of a dinosaur. Some huge Tyrannosaurus of political and economic ideology that lumbered across the cultural landscape until environmental factors led it to sudden starvation. And we’re the mice scurrying through the desiccated ribcage, burrowing little holes and waiting out the eons in relative comfort.

(It was the rodents, of course, that outlived the dinosaurs).

Berlin is a post-urban city. Conspicuous consumption is dead, and globalization means nothing more than restaurants that serve pizza and döner. It’s about small forces: friends, and personal freedom.

This is probably not accurate for everyone, but it seems to characterize a lot of the people I know. And maybe it reflects more about the life I choose to live here than the city as a whole… but I choose to believe it like this, at least for the moment, because it’s a heck of a story.