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The Appeal of the Berlin Metropolis (July 6, 2006)

A cultural commentator evokes the many voices of the new Berlin and describes the appeal of the new/old German capital, whose strength seems to lay in its very deficiencies, and which has a sort of edginess that is particularly attractive to daring, young creative types.

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City of Gamblers

Berlin has lost everything: its industry, its subsidies, and the illusions of the nineties. And now? How are 3.4 million Berliners supposed to make a living? “Berlin must become Las Vegas,” says the architect Hans Kollhoff. Encounters and observations in a sobered city.

“We’re going to Berlin!” – the battle cry of soccer fans throughout the land provides an answer to a practical question: where do you go when something as big as the World Cup final is coming up? Every great joy wants its place. Every yearning. “To Berlin,” that’s the myth, the hype, the pull of every metropolis worthy of the name: Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden! Everything here is bigger, prettier, taller.

To be sure, in the case of Berlin this pull is paradoxical. After all, the city itself is exhausted and heavy laden. Hopelessly indebted. And nothing on the horizon that could provide a livelihood for 3.4 million Berliners. No big daddy will come and, let’s say, fund 20,000 new jobs. When Berlin lost the Wall over night and then lost its subsidies immediately thereafter, there was a rude awakening. Here, the postwar era only ended in 1989. Only then did Berlin understand, in a painful series of realizations, that Berlin no longer existed – the dramatic, fantastic Berlin that the peoples of the world had once gazed upon.

In those first, wild years after 1989 it was talked up as New Berlin. People moved there. Took jobs. Conceived of projects. Built. Until they noticed that it wasn’t enough. The sandy soil of the March [of Brandenburg] was irrigated with millions, and it simply sucked them up. You can barely turn around before the sand is dry again. So parched is this city, so thirsty for meaning and money; it swallows and swallows, but the great Berlin-thing is not taking off.

The mood took a turn for the worse. From that point on Berlin was talked down. Its cab drivers. Its loafing youth with their latte macchiatos. Its partying mayor with the tired-looking eyes. It was the season of the tractates of hatred against Berlin. Only one question remains: why are we (nearly all of us) still here anyway?

Because the pull remains. In fact, it’s even increasing. One million, six-hundred thousand Berliners have left the city since 1991; 1.66 million people have moved to Berlin – a veritable population exchange! It seems that with every billion Berlin adds to its debt more people around the world embrace it. Is it delight in the dilapidated chic of a former world city? A sixth sense for cheap rents? Or just the sense of being in the right place? Were the Berlin-adventurers of the nineties too impatient – is Berlin’s hour still yet to come?

There are those who believe as much. They even move here, a checkered caravan of painters, pensioners, investors. Artists from London, New York, and Paris, who are tired of working there only to pay for the exorbitant rents. West German pensioners, who are exchanging row houses far removed from any sort of culture for city apartments in Berlin, so that, at the very least, they can be where the operas, theaters, and great museums are. Old enemies, too, are buying in. More than a few Bonn residents who supported the initiative against the government move now own apartments in the once hotly contested Berlin. American actors who’ve shot films here stay because they like the city – the gentle roughness of its old houses and young faces, the cracked charm of Berlin.

Of course, the prices. Nowhere in the Western world can you live in a large city in such a hip and opulent fashion, and at the same time so cheaply. Nowhere else is space so affordable. If there’s anything that Berlin has too much of, it’s time and space.

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