Friday, 30 October 2009

A Short Guide To Berlin... (Ok, Not Sooo Short.)

Today, the first month of my stay in Berlin is over, time for a little sum-up of my impressions of the city!

The first thing to learn when you move to Berlin (or plan to move there) is that looking for a well-situated appartment isn't as easy as it seems. The good old algorithm of the closer to the center, the higher the density of good nightlife, the shorter your way to university, the higher the rent and so on that works pretty well back in Switzerland doesn't really apply here. Mainly because Berlin doesn't have just one center; obviously not if you consider it's size of about 3.4 mio people. Here every quarter has it's own center, sometimes several of them (called "Kiez" here). Of course the main tourist sights like Brandenburger Tor, Fernsehturm or the Jewish Museum are centered in and around Mitte, but social life definitely doesn't only happen there, even less than in other districts. Also, the Freie Universität lies pretty far away from the town center in a rich suburb area where students can't afford living and probably wouldn't like living neither.

The most popular areas among students are Kreuzberg, Neukölln, Prenzlauerberg and Friedrichshain. If you take a look at german flat share sites, you'll get some 3000 to 3500 ads for each one of these barrios - and almost nothing for all of the other ones. So the student concentration and social dynamics are obviously pretty strong. (Dude, this is getting scientific! I should get some ECTS point for this!) And indeed I don't think I've ever seen a city where quarters develop so clearly and obviously over time as here. Every single one of the mentioned quarters has gone through a very similar transformation: First they where unpopular, poor and ghetto-like areas with lots of neglected and - especially in the case of Prenzlauerberg - uninhabited (but maybe occupied) buildings. The low (or inexistent) rents began to attract students, artists and whoever else there was without money, which began to form strong communities there and brought (alternative) culture and social life into these areas. Then pubs, clubs and döner stands began to sprout, rents began to rise, immigrants began to emigrate (at least to the cheaper areas a bit more out of town) and rastas began to grow... And so on. Prenzlberg is probably the most advanced in this development: it has already reached the stage of "Young hip parents - he graphic designer, she with her own small clothing label - begin to invade the area, drink organic cappuccinos there and push the rents" which many inhabitants of the "more real" areas like Neukölln or Kreuzberg look at with disgust. Indeed it's almost impossible to walk through a street in Prenzlberg without seeing at least 5 organic cafés or gelaterias filled with young mothers talking about what kind of vegan substitute for breast milk they feed their kids (it's really the area of Berlin with the most kids). So Prenzlberg isn't that popular anymore and has gained a slight aftertaste of snob-appeal, but without any doubt some of the most beautiful streets are to be found there... Picture perfect cobblestone alleys with magnificent buildings; parquet, huge rooms and ornamental plasterings are standard here. (And you still find an occupied house now and then from back in the early nineties. Chances are they'll sell you organic cappuccino too in the meantime though.)

Kreuzberg on the other hand is still pretty much in the hand of Turks, students and artists, and it's not (yet) as elegant as Prenzlberg. It boasts a density in Döner shops you probably won't find anywhere else in the world, has some great nightlife and is full of weird, funny, alternative, strange and whatnot shops where you can buy pretty much anything from comics from Sierra Leone to gay bondage wear. (You won't find a H&M though.) I myself was lucky enough to get a room in a flat right next to Görlitzer Bahnhof where Oranienstrasse, Skalitzerstrasse and Wienerstrasse meet, probably one of the coolest places you can get in Berlin. If you've ever read Herr Lehmann by Sven Regener: It's all happening right around this area, the bar Herr Lehmann works in is 3 minutes walking from my place. By the way: this book is a must for anyone interested in Berlin, and particularly Kreuzberg. It captures the spirit of this place perfectly, with all its great and not-so-great aspects... And is just way funny to read.
Talking about Kreuzberg spirit, let me try to explain it shortly: Kreuzberg is one of the poorer areas of Berlin, with a lot of unemployment, drug problems, alcoholism and other trouble. I wouldn't call it a ghetto or dangerous or anything, but you'll see lots of very different people from very different backgrounds (and not to forget with very different hairstyles), and not all of them look very healthy. But still there seems to be some inner cohesion and a natural tolerance that makes life very enjoyable here. Or to express it in wikipedias words (SO 36 being the part of Kreuzberg I live in):

Heute gilt SO 36 auf Grund seiner vergleichsweise hohen Arbeitslosigkeit als sozialer Brennpunkt. Zugleich zählt er dank seiner – nach wie vor vorhandenen – alternativen Szene zu den wichtigen Berliner „Ausgehbezirken“ und beheimatet viele Studenten. Zu den wichtigsten Adressen im Nachtleben von Kreuzberg 36 zählen die Oranienstraße und dieWiener Straße sowie die Gegend um das Schlesische Tor (der sogenannte „Wrangelkiez“).

So ist SO 36 in den Augen seiner Einwohner lebenswerter als sein Ruf in der Öffentlichkeit. Geprägt ist der Kiez von der Idee eines starken Zusammenhalts der Bevölkerung. Einwohner von SO 36 zu sein ist in hohem Maße „identitätsstiftend“. Eine große Faszination übt vor allem das bunte, multikulturelle und meist friedliche Zusammenleben aus.

Well said. That's why I love living here.

Another aspect that makes Berlin so interesting is that it's still a Pleitestadt. That means it's cheap, has a lot of alternative culture to offer and has this certain flair of fucked-up-ness that makes it really cool. Ironically the city owes most of these appealing characteristics to the Wall, both when it still stood and after it fell. Kreuzberg (which was mostly in Western Berlin) for instance was left by many of the old inhabitants during Cold War because they didn't want to live in the shadow of the Wall and where subsenquently replaced by artists, students and immigrants that formed the so popular Kreuzberg that still exists today. Prenzlauerberg and Friedrichshain, both mostly belonging to Eastern Berlin at the time, experienced massive emigration after the Wall fell, with many apartments left in perfect shape and still equiped with the prior inhabitants belongings. These apartments where then in the early nineties just occupied by the usual suspects, transforming the former DDR district into hubs of alternative life and culture.
Zynically enough, the city also benefitted somehow from the death strip becoming free space. Potsdamer Platz for instance, one of the city's business centres and landmark of modern architecture was built on terrain where 20 years ago barbwire and watchtowers stood. I mean: find me another city of that size where all of a sudden you just get several square kilometres of construction space right in the very center... Even today there is a lot of abandonned terrain in very central locations, often used for street art projects, as for example this.
This abundance of space has also kept rents comfortably low, at least if you compare to any Swiss city or other capital cities of this size and importance. Though prices have been rising recently, Berlin is still very affordable. You get your Döner for about 2.50 €, a 0.5 beer in a bar for around 2.50 to 3.00 €, and in case you pay to get into a club, it's normally between 5 and 10 €, for the biggest clubs (Berghain, Maria, Watergate...) you might have to pay 12€ on Saturday night. Funny detail here: don't come to Berlin with a nice chemise and shiny shoes to go out. The reason why you wouldn't get into a club here is because you're too well dressed (or, as rumour has it for certain clubs, because you're dressed at all). Now how's that for a dresscode?

OK, that's it for today, I'd have much more to tell, but I'm afraid this is anyway already too long to keep anyone till here... Finito allora!

1 comment:

  1. That was super interesting and very easy to read :) Please don't give up this worthy initiative!!