After 1989: Blooming boho Berlin

9 November 2009
Les Inrockuptibles Paris

An art gallery in Markgrafenstrasse, Berlin. Photo : Aguno/Flickr
An art gallery in Markgrafenstrasse, Berlin. Photo : Aguno/Flickr

Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Berlin has been blasting borders right, left and centre. Art, music and the “new tribes” are flourishing on the rubble of the past. A tour of the freest city in Europe.

Saturday, 10.30pm: our night on the town kicks off. The taxi stops, the front door on the right-hand side swings open: in Berlin you ride up front, in the passenger seat. The driver’s name is Anthony Appiah: 47, born and bred in Ghana, living in Berlin since he was 20. “I came to West Berlin to study economics. I had a hard time finding a job afterwards, so I switched to driving a cab. Now this is home: I’m a Berliner,” he declares as we zoom across Torstrasse, an old East Berlin street now lined with art galleries of all sorts.

Schönhauser Allee in front of White Trash, one of the wildest spots in the city. Several layers of history are superimposed here: in Paris or London, they would have gutted the place and started again from scratch. We are hailed by Walter “Wally” Potts, the master of the premises. “Welcome to Berlin,” he greets us jovially. “This city is the last place to party in Europe. Every Saturday I see people turning up from all over; some don’t even bother to take a hotel, they spend all night in the city’s bars or clubs and then head home without having slept a wink,” Wally relates mirthfully. Berlin has a name for these night-trippers: “easyjetters”, after the airline that flies them into Europe’s new dream destination for nighthawks.

Scraping by on a shoestring

Sunday, noon. The city’s in slow motion. In the verdurous neighbourhood of Treptow, around the Arena, a colossal concert hall, there is a permanent flea market. You can find anything here: menu signs from fast-food restaurants, remote controls from every era, leather jackets, household appliances, rubber boots, even a 1992 back number of Max magazine with a slightly risqué Nena, singer of the hit song 99 Lüftballons, gracing the cover.

The prices are piddling, but you haggle nonetheless. And yet the ambiance is anything but bobo: many a Berlin denizen scrapes by on a shoestring budget. As a matter of fact, it is one of the poorest cities in Germany: the unemployment rate is 17% and is said to have come within a hair’s breadth of 20% at the peak of the crisis. Berlin has no financial district or multinational corporate headquarters. Only the government moved here from Bonn after reunification.

Berlin is a dangerous city

“None of the big German companies is headquartered in Berlin, which is not an industrial city. But Berliners have inherited from East Germany a make-do mindset that helps them keep on keeping on. The spirit of solidarity that once imbued East Berlin still pervades the present-day mentality,” explains Yannick Pasquet, a journalist at Agence France Presse, who has spent ten years in Berlin and recently released a book about post-reunification Germany entitled Le Mur dans les têtes (The Wall in Their Heads). Over the past 20 years, after having weathered the ravages of the previous century, Berlin has morphed into a reasonable 21st-century capital. Far from the glitz and glamour of London, New York or Paris, the German capital has made a concerted effort since the 1980s to remain a city of human proportions. Berlin is about pastimes and pursuits that don’t cost a thing – and don’t yield any returns either, save the pleasure of gathering together. It is also about the exchange of good offices, the bartering of friendly services.

The DJs who play certain bars, or the artists who embellish them, often provide their services free of charge – in return for free drinks in the bars they grace with their music or decoration. Florian Püehs (23), the singer in a band called Herpes, is beginning to make a little breakthrough in Berlin. He comes to the same conclusion: “Berlin is the only city in Germany where I can lead a decent life while working on my music. Nowadays, young musicians don’t come to Berlin just because David Bowie or Lou Reed hung out here. They come because the rents are low, because you find places to rehearse that don’t cost an arm and a leg. That goes for the painters, too, and the writers: it’s an arts-friendly city. I lived in Paris for a couple months: no way I could stay, life was too expensive there. But Berlin is also a dangerous city. I know plenty of people who’ve settled down here to create and who got nowhere in the end. Berlin is a city you can live in without any aim, which is a two-edged situation. It’s a city you also have to be able to leave.”

Kibbutz version 3.0

In the industrial district of Tempelhof, project Palomar 5 have set up shop in an erstwhile brewery. Palomar 5 are 30 young minds from all over the world recruited via Twitter, Facebook and Skype who come together in Berlin to reinvent the way we work in the 21st century. Several nationalities are involved in the project (French, Indian, British, American, Russian etc.), as well as several different professional profiles: writers, journalists, hackers, academics, filmmakers, ad people and so on and so forth. Matthias Holzmann (23) is one of the initiators of the project. Together with five partners, all coevals, Holzmann convinced Deutsche Telekom to fund this madcap scheme for six weeks. The object is to come up with “new working environments fit for the skills and needs of a digital generation”.

The young masterminds cohabit these vast premises in a veritable, albeit short-term, commune, sleeping in individual cubicles by night and brainstorming the livelong day in this vast 600-sq-m “incubation space”, as they call it, straight out of a Stanley Kubrick movie. Palomar 5 is a Berlin-style kibbutz 3.0: unsung geniuses from all over the world working away on the working world of the future – in a space only the German capital could offer. “We still don’t know what the results will be or how they will be used. Berlin is one of the few cities in the world where an experiment like this is possible,” says Matthias. “It has space to offer, it accepts diverse states of mind, nurtures encounters – and accommodates the multitude.”

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