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Consumerism: Berlin Department Stores (1908)

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Every big city, when all is said and done, develops more or less according to its particular character and individuality. Berlin, the youngest of the European capitals, has undergone such rapid growth that even perceptive observers have failed to take in many of the more striking symptoms and elements of the transformation. The development of the west side of Berlin is, for example, one such symptom. More than one businessman will ask, shaking his head at the Spree metropolis’ explosive expansion, how it can all be paid for. No one will deny, however, that the new center of a global metropolis is in the making. It will not be a mere extension of the old Berlin with its scurrying about and carrying on. Rather, a thoroughly independent, elegant, refined, [albeit] no less commercial Berlin is emerging with the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis Church as its focal point. And unconfined by any physical limitations, it is creating unprecedented modes of self-gratification in grand style. Those who have closely followed the development of Berlin over the last few years, who have experienced the commercial transformation of upper Leipzigerstrasse, will not doubt that Berlin life and commerce are gravitating westward. The quarter, the city blocks extending from the Romanische Ecke, were particularly destined, given their location and architectural style, to give the big city an elegant frame, to lend cachet to Berlin’s west side. Tauenzienstrasse is already a modern commercial street that will easily equal Leipzigerstrasse once all the plans made in the latter’s image have been realized. Once a fashionable residential street along which many of our financial, intellectual, and artistic elites built their Tuskula,* Tauenzienstrasse is increasingly becoming the main commercial artery of the west side. Barely finished houses fall to the pickax, so as to make room for consumer palaces. Shops are installed [in the ground floors of extant buildings], and the big firms of the old west side establish branches in shrewd recognition of the new business opportunities. The bottom floors of once tranquil apartment buildings are [similarly] becoming places of trade and commercial bazaars. The physiognomy of the entire street front is [being] transformed in one fell swoop. In no less grandiose a fashion, Kaufhaus des Westens has bestowed a new face on the entire area.

Small shopkeepers and firms that feel themselves too weak or insufficiently enterprising to keep up with the great department stores have left the area. New world class firms have taken their place, causing little harm to a local populace understandably long wont to demand the best. Here one breathes the air of a world class city. Many Americans, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Italians, yes, even Asians, have settled here and populate the elegant, in part entirely English- or American-style, inns and boarding houses. Theaters are being built. City squares are all acquiring features characteristic of the efflorescence taking place around them.

* Tuskula or Tuskulum (singular) refers to the ancient Roman town and to Cicero’s estate there. At the turn of the previous century, erudite speakers still used the term as a synonym for “landed estate.” It is rarely used today – trans.

Source: Leo Colze, Berliner Warenhäuser [Berlin Department Stores]. Leipzig and Berlin, 1908, pp. 9-13.

Original German text reprinted in Jürgen Schutte and Peter Sprengel, Die Berliner Moderne 1885-1914 [Berlin Modernity, 1885-1914]. Stuttgart, 1987, pp. 104-10.

Translation: Angela A. Kurtz

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