I’ve just had an amazing few weeks in the coolest city I’ve ever been in. So, to process the experience, I wrote about it. And I tagged a bunch of you fools who might be entertained by parts of it. Berlin is raw and unpretentious; it sizzles with youthful, rebellious energy. It’s that fleeting time and place that's truly cool, where the right ingredients and a touch of bohemia create electricity in the air. I imagine this is what it felt like to be in Paris in the twenties, London in the sixties or New York in the eighties.
At all hours, the streets are filled with gangs of friends. The modus operandi seems to be to find a disused building or empty lot, build a makeshift bar, haul in a soundsystem and start the music. Amazing parties go down in crumbling industrial monsters. Punk bands play in the sewers. DJs show up at flea markets and start spinning. You walk into old rail depots to the best underground hip-hop you’ve ever heard. You stumble into awesome clubs by biking down the river until you hear minimal techno. You drink champagne on top of gargantuan Soviet memorials. You meet Stanford friends at random squats. ;)
A lot (too much?) has been written about Berlin’s dance music scene. The freewheeling nightlife is legendary. Taking the subway at 6 a.m. on a Thursday, you see more people going home than going to work. Weekends are on another level entirely – dancefloors stay packed from 2 a.m. to 2 p.m. And even through their most unhinged excesses, Berliners keep a laid-back attitude and a self-aware smile.
But this is not about a paradise for culture vultures and hedonists. The experience cuts deeper. Berlin is what happens when the gears of the economy leave some room to breathe, and it’s an invigorating thing to see. It’s that rare place that’s a cultural powerhouse without being a financial one. The rise of the wall pushed corporations out of West Berlin. The fall of the wall pushed workers out of East Berlin. Prosperity drained westward, and in the ensuing vacuum something unique flourished.
Someone told me Berlin is what New York would be like if the professionals left and only the artists stayed. When you can get an apartment for $300/month and a sit-down meal for $6, you can get by working two nights a week. Lots of people are doing just that, spending the rest of their time however they want – music, art, fun. A low cost of living and a strong safety net support an unprecedented range of lifestyles. “Poor but sexy” has become the city’s quasi-official byline.
Poor, sexy and radical. I’ve never felt more out of place than when I stumbled into a squat in Kreuzberg. This was Berlin at its rawest: a bombed-out five-story building, covered in graffiti, anti-establishment banners hung from windows, teeming with crust punks and anarchists. I’ve never seen so many people trying to live in the fringes – a full-blown gutter community. They may not have The Answer, but it’s good to see people who don’t take the status quo for granted.
The dissonance was as much from wearing my club clothes as from wanting to rise to the top of a system they despised. Well, nothing to do but play it cool. Exchange ideas. One of them, an American, thought that the U.S. was the least free country in the first world. How free are you if most jobs won’t guarantee your kids a decent education? How free are you if you have to fend for your own retirement and health care? It’s no wonder so many of this country’s brightest minds are channeled into such a narrow range of professions. It’s a terribly stable system: the people most capable of enacting change have no choice but to buy into the status quo.
I may be romanticizing Berlin. If the city’s any indication, kids are more likely to become DJs and graffiti artists than activists. It’s a freak child of history; it’s a product of subsidies and of live-and-let-live laws that would never fly in the Anglo world. Berlin may sound like a city of freeloaders. But a society whose public school teachers can’t afford to send their kids to college is pretty poor at valuing contributions. A vibrant civilization needs starving artists and activists as much as it needs accountants and consultants.
Where does that leave me? I’d move there in a heartbeat, except it’s no place to build a career. I’m ambitious and I feel like I’ve been conditioned to want a certain kind of success. I’d be a very different person if I’d gone to school there instead of here. But I like to think my priorities are still flexible. Riding through the streets of Berlin, I often struggled to figure out why I live in the U.S. I'm about to take a slow drive across the country, so maybe I'll figure it out then. The best answer, at this point, is that most of my friends are here. So here’s to you guys.
Saturday, July 18, 2009
Berlin - by Robert Cezar Matei
Can't remember for how long, but Berlin has been in my hit list for a while, and in a couple of days I'll be there. Searching information about Berlin/Berghain/Panorama, I came across a review, written by Robert Cezar Matei (2007), and I think you should read it as well: