Unified yet still unique
Text Ilona Marx Photos Andy Rumball Illustration Roman Klonek
Global construction companies are building luxury apartments on the banks of the Spree and international chains are forcing out local businesses. At the same time, investors from Denmark, the USA and Ireland are buying up rental flats street by street. In Berlin the scene is again one of flux. Two decades after re-unification of the eastern and western sectors, the city appears to be undergoing yet another radical change. Districts like Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, once shining examples of a progressive Berlin, are now firmly in the hands of an established and wealthy clientele.
“Poor, but sexy,” is how Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit, once described Berlin. But what if the trend continues and in eight or ten years the old and new German capital is transformed into an ordinary, largely gentrified metropolis - will it still be sexy then? Will Berlin still be able to remain the home of creative experimentation?
The chances aren’t bad. With their humour, a certain doggedness and their infamous lippiness, Berliners have, after all, had greater upheavals to deal with in the past. Hitler’s crazy plan to rename Berlin ‘Germania’ and turn it into the capital of the Reich ended in catastrophe - everything from Kurfürstendamm to Potsdamer Platz lay in ruins and ashes. Its inhabitants had scarcely removed the rubble before the city slid into its next calamity: in 1961 the leaders of the SED built a wall that divided the city for 28 long years. The eastern sector of Berlin became a kind of GDR flagship, and West-Berlin a political curiosity.
Twenty years after the fall of The Wall, the metropolis with a population of three and a half million is no longer under a state of siege, but there is still, thank goodness, enough space for the literally unexpected – because the city’s size is simply too large to be completely built up within two decades. Lots of freedom, lots of opportunities, plenty of inner-city sky: in Berlin one can enjoy a somewhat more relaxed lifestyle than in most other mega-cities. No traffic chaos, no high criminality, very little VIP airs and graces and, despite the capital city hype, all-in-all, even the striving for material wealth seems to take secondary place. Moreover, status symbols that are taken for granted in other big German towns are, in Berlin, somehow frowned upon. Which is why the capital’s hipsters dress in a more laid-back style: understatement rather than ostentation.
Visitors to the city, or people who have moved here and want to blend in, should definitely avoid wearing their smartest clothes. Personality, on the other hand, is obligatory. Alongside the fact that life outside the ‘in-quarters’ is still affordable, it is primarily this factor that feeds the creative side of the city. Whether it’s fashion, art, design or music, Berlin still exerts a real magnetic pull even now. A global influx of creative individuals is nourishing a cultural life that is reminiscent of New York during the eighties. This is particularly apparent in the fashion scene: nowhere and at no other time were more internationally renowned labels created than in Berlin during the last two decades.
The glittering capital city scene is and remains in a state of transition. This is even the case in the depth of Berlin’s dreaded winters, as demonstrated by J’N’C’s editor, Ilona Marx, and British photographer and honorary Berliner, Andy Rumball.