Michael Schindhelm | BERLIN. ECCENTRIC CITY

Berlin. Eccentric City

Periphery as Success (Factor)

Berlin is no megacity like Moscow. Berlin is also no pulsing global metropolis like New York or London. Neither does it have the architectural charms that Rome or Paris has to offer. The city doesn’t profit from primacy of geography or climate like Barcelona. Even within Germany, Berlin’s quality of life can’t be compared to that of Frankfurt or Munich, according to studies on the subject like the Mercer Report.

Nonetheless, the city has experienced an astounding ascent over the past ten years. Today, it numbers among the most popular tourist destinations in Europe, and thereby the world. Among its residents—who are notorious for their peevishness—it enjoys a comparatively high regard. It is considered a global mecca for creatives and artists, despite the fact that it doesn’t even have a proper international airport. Night after night, it deluges visitors and residents alike in a flood of cultural events, even though it’s practically the poorest major city in Germany. It is the capital of the most powerful national economy in Europe, and yet has been more or less written off as an economic locale for decades. Some ten years ago, when the upward trend was just underway, Berlin’s long-time mayor summed it up thus:

Berlin is poor, but sexy.

What then accounts for Berlin’s success, its erotic appeal? The answer is made up of many parts. For one, the city is cheaper than most major cities on the continent. It also receives massive federal subsidies, which enable it to afford its expensive (cultural) way of life. And it is still enveloped by the notorious aura of being Adolf Hitler’s imperial capital and the city at the front of the Cold War.

But such arguments would have been all the more valid, or equally so, twenty years ago. Life in Bratislava, for instance, is even cheaper. Rome is probably even more heavily subsidized, and Petersburg is also a historical legend. Berlin apparently has qualities that are especially popular today, and that are not embodied by many traditional centers. In particular, four of its qualities are valued highly in the age of climate change, Occupy, Facebook, and the Euro Crisis: the city is egalitarian, communicative, critical of consumption, and eccentric.

What does this mean, more specifically?

1. The egalitarianism of Berlin society is based on the fact that it isn’t ruled by isolated or established elites like other urban societies within and outside of Germany, but that, instead, it has developed a comparatively autonomous and self-aware local culture. The only recognizable status symbol in egalitarian Berlin is coolness. At present, however, only those who live and think in an environmentally friendly, communal, and inclusive manner count as cool.

2. Berlin is communicative. It talks, argues, and flirts with itself, and with its visitors. It has developed networks and methods of relaying information that enable everyone—German-speaking or not—to come into their own in a reasonable amount of time. This culture of communication is an example of how Berlin’s urban self-perception has changed over the past two decades. The majority of this communication today is informal and temporary, and is no longer organized, or even only regulated, by the state. In addition to the culture of iPhones and flyers, graffiti plays a significant role here. In Berlin—like Moscow—graffiti art began as an art of protest (apart from mere vandalism). Experts who study graffiti proceed from the notion that graffiti serves a “writing on the wall” function, and can be seen as a political thermometer. This is of particular significance in politically uncertain times. Here, graffiti can serve as an indicator of societal developments, measured by the degree to which it is either tolerated or persecuted because of its content. Such developments can be plausibly reconstructed on the basis of the vitality of Moscow’s sprayer scene. Today, however, in Berlin, unlike in Moscow, graffiti is less the language of protest, but rather more an autonomous and alternative form of communication, by which members or representatives of certain communities communicate with each other or announce their orientation within the public sphere. For Berlin authorities and their counterpart, the hip-hop scene, the path to a largely peaceful coexistence has been a long one. Indeed, graffiti art will continue to be understood in Berlin as a counterculture—however, it can leave its traces behind in a large zone of tolerance with relatively little hindrance.

3. Berlin is—most particularly where it seeks to appear glamorous—the ironic alternative to bourgeois hedonism. The eco-shop is preferred to the delicatessen, the avant-garde boutique to the Prada store, the bicycle to the Mini Cooper. On the red carpet (at the Berlinale, for example), Berliners camouflage themselves in provincial airs to avoid any suspicion of being conceited. Luxury is not in high demand. The only things actually consumed here in mass quantities are exhibitions, theater shows, and parties.

4. Above all, Berlin is eccentric. People don’t adopt trends from elsewhere with any enthusiasm, and are more content to go their own way. It’s an assuredly thankless task to try to find a Berliner who is proud that his city is the capital. The born-and-bred Berliner is not a Berliner, but a citizen of his individual borough—a Charlottenburger, a Koepenicker, or a Schoeneberger. Even a good twenty years after its reunification, the city has not overcome its division. The reason for this, more than anything, is Berlin’s eccentricity. If a visitor approaches the city from the South on the Autobahn, signs will indicate that he must choose whether to drive in the direction “Center West” or “Center East.” The center of Berlin is therefore in the West or the East, not somewhere in the middle, as in other cities.

Once the visitor has arrived, he will realize that neither on the Kurfuerstendamm (West) nor on Friedrichstrasse (East) is he in “the center.” He is at a lively part of the city to be sure, but there are more of these, and none of them enjoys supremacy.

Berlin’s “Stadtmitte” district—the “city center” district—only suggests the semblance of a “downtown.” In reality, this topography, a composite of the Wilhelmine era, National Socialism, Stalinist and GDR modernism, and neo-German contemporary architecture complete with the government district, only confirms that Berlin’s cityscape at no point conforms to some kind of symbolism by which one could even approximately try to comprehend its history. Berlin’s history deprives itself of a central perspective.

What, then, accounts for Berlin’s international and national success? This success is founded in the congruity between the city’s most conspicuous features and those of the public space most commonly employed today around the globe. Berlin’s urban space resembles the structure of the internet. The internet too is egalitarian, communicative, critical of consumption, and eccentric—at least as it’s been imagined by its founders and primary user base, the global society of the e-generation. The political and cultural scale of values for this generation is defined by global issues, and how one negotiates them. Berlin is sexy above all to those between the ages of twenty and forty because the city embodies their way of life. Rejection of consumption, skepticism toward traditional authorities, solidarity and tolerance—these are the keynotes of an urban style about which today’s internet residents are largely in agreement across the globe. Berlin represents a kind of physical topography of this virtual style.

In addition to this, the internet teaches that all of its actors (or residents) exist in a general state of being networked. It teaches how to deal with new threats of anonymous surveillance, and the potential of communicative autonomy. It is not surprising that a city that has undergone various systems of state oppression is oriented today toward general principles of political transparency and social equality. Transparency and equality, however, are universal, and not values specific to Berlin. The more Berlin adopts these values, the further the city distances itself from its historical qualities. The more strongly it practices qualities that are global and contemporary, the less it resembles the city it once was.

For the regard in which Berlin is held today, therefore, the city should primarily thank its ability to become another city. It is less Prussian, less “West German,” less “Socialist,” yes, even less German, than ever before. The moment of surprise triggered when one experiences a metropolis that has apparently cast aside its (typically negative) stereotypes has brought Berlin a considerable international community of fans. Insofar as Berlin has become egalitarian, communicative, and eccentric, it has departed from its clichés: of being grey, harsh, authoritarian, forbidding. Visitors and residents surf through their city as if on a comfortable global platform.

The internet makes no distinction between center and periphery. This too is more and more true of Berlin. In the same way nowhere in Berlin is the middle, nowhere is truly peripheral. The periphery—in both the East and West—has generated its own independent urban life. Berlin has become a network, with visitors and residents, the past and the present, all actors on equal footing. By renouncing historical self-dramatization and cosmopolitan glamour on the one hand, and on the other incubating an egalitarian zeitgeist critical of consumption, Berlin has successfully challenged the traditional image of the European city, and changed it.

Translated by Rob Madole.

Published in “The City and the Periphery”, Moscow Urban Forum 2013.

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