The first time I visited Berlin, I was not impressed. Then again, I was a teenager and these were the 90’s, i.e. mere years after Germany’s reunification process had started, with every street corner bearing the marks of that transformation. I remember peaking at what was to become Potsdamer Platz, now one of the city’s most vibrant areas, then a giant pile of construction material surrounded by posters with 3D models of the buildings to come. Those buildings are now towering above the Sony center forum.
I only truly came to know Berlin over a decade later, when a musician friend of my brother’s settled there, got my brother to visit, my brother convincing me to follow suit shortly thereafter. That trip was a shock: I didn’t have the privilege of witnessing 80’s New York (I was not even a teenager then), but, from what I can gather, the atmosphere in 00’s Berlin felt very much the same: one of great freedom, incredible creativity – and space for it to roam.
Ever since that revelatory 2008 visit, I must have come back to Berlin at least 15 times. And every time brings more discoveries with it: new places – great bars and cafés opening up at every street corner, new buildings – or newly renovated buildings, new people – coming from all corners of the world, new ideas… And, every time, I feel more and more drawn towards this bubbling hub of seemingly endless possibilities.
I came back from yet another one of those trips last weekend, with an ever greater feeling of love for the place and what it represents: a home for young, energetic and entrepreneurial people of all creeds and skills, eager to try their hand at whatever they believe their calling to be.
However, talking to friends who have been living there for a while, I noticed a new, somewhat contrasting phenomenon: it appeared that the once ever-hopeful Berlin ethos was slowly morphing into a more conflicted worldview.
The evolution dilemma
My friends, many of whom are very much involved in the Berlin art scene and share a common creative-driven mindset, tended to comment on the more negative aspects of the city’s current evolution.
Because Berlin has attracted so many people for so many years for its you-can-do-anything culture, it now faces the drawback of such an attraction. Growing interest in the place meant growing prices, therefore growing inequalities. Between those who have a job and those who are merely scraping by; between those who were here before all of this started – civil servants, utility workers, shopkeepers… – and the new faces – artists, designers, writers…; between said new faces and even newer ones – startuppers, financiers, consultants…
It is the plight of any great hub, city or community: the reasons it attracted people in the first place tend to somewhat fade as more and more people join in. As was the case with New York, where even the most remote parts of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg are now getting readily gentrified, Berlin is quickly becoming a wealthier, denser and more business oriented city, to the detriment of it’s core alternative roots.
A new direction
The question now is – what to do with this situation? Should we fight it? Probably not: such trends don’t tend to bend easily, you would merely be going against the flow, fighting a battle that is already lost. 90’s alternative Berlin, with its squats and punk rock outfits, is already long gone. No point in even trying to get back to that era: that would in essence be reactionary.
Also, the trend, in itself, is incredibly virtuous: with more people and means come ever more possibilities. Granted, they are not the same: these days, it would make more sense to settle down in Berlin and start a company rather than a band. Then again, who said startuppers are not creators?
Ultimately, what is currently happening to the city, although it inevitably reshapes its ethos, is a good thing. Creativity doesn’t simply disappear: rather, it infuses new initiatives, businesses and ideas to grow a more diverse economy and society.
Let us not forget that the Silicon Valley was not only born from chip manufacturers, but also from hippies and the creative thinkers of the day. It is that combination that lead to the incredible innovation streak we have been witnessing there since the 70’s.
Let us wish Berlin that same luck.