Tuesday, July 16, 2013

BERLIN - Rebel Metropolis in Transition

A Chinese national magazine has asked me to write a short piece on Berlin: 

On the occasional sunny days of this unusually cold summer, Berliners spend as much time outside as possible.  The heavily graffiti covered streets, numerous parks, and all kinds of public spaces including in front of government buildings, are littered with groups of friends having picnics, grilling, drinking beer, from noon deep into the night, and the sweet smell of marijuana is nearly everywhere.  It is the kind of city where, after the sun sets you look around, where ever you are, and can likely count the number of people over 30 on 1 hand.  The Mayor is openly gay and can be seen at dance clubs with his boyfriend, club parties go from midnight to noon the next day, taking (not selling) most popular drugs is legal, police are rarely seen, and compared to almost anywhere else in the world, in Berlin there is an incredible feeling of freedom.

During the post WW2 development years major industry moved, and many big corporations settled in the Southern and other parts of Germany due to a variety of reasons including lower tax rates, and cities like Munich and Frankfurt have become rich (and with that, as is almost always the case, politically conservative).  With the absence of big money, and left over socialist health, welfare, and other social programs, Berlin has become a society of relative equality, with relatively even income/wealth distribution.  The gap between rich and poor is for sure growing, and with increasing rapidity during recent years, but as of 2013, still only a fraction of that of London or New York.  The unemployment rate fluctuates between 25 and 30% - astronomical for a major city - and if this was Los Angeles there would be daily guns and bombs, open warfare in the streets (shit, even with the 9% or whatever it is they have in LA, it already is!).  However, in Berlin people are not suffering anywhere near that level: homeless people (if you don't count the crusty punks) are seldom seen, and there is no such thing as a real "ghetto" (again, compared to other major Western, especially American, cities).  With the absence of drastic inequity also comes the absence of obsession with wealth, class, status, and its symbols, the kind of obsession normalized in the United States.  In Berlin no one gives a shit OR a fuck how much money or how many "important friends" you have, or what social circles you run in - maybe that's why some Hollywood celebrities like to hang out here and spend some comparatively relaxed and normal days.  

Berlin has been, for at least a century, famous for its art, music, and nightlife, even more so in the post-war decades.  After the fall of the Berlin Wall, and becoming the capital of not only East Germany but of the entire nation, the city has evolved a culture drastically different from other parts of Germany, with its ultra progressive, tolerant, and promiscuous attitudes.  The cultural center of Berlin keeps moving and shifting: during the 1990s it was Prenzlauer Berg, part of the former East, where all the crazy artists and drug users lived in illegal squats, and made art galleries and night clubs out of abandoned basements.  It was in these underground and unofficial spaces where what we know as "Berlin culture", of which the legacy of electronic and experimental music is an important part, evolved; Chicago House, Detroit Techno and other Afro-American dance and pop music, Italo-Disco, German electronic music stemming from the Kraut-Rock tradition, and later Jamaican Reggae and Dub, were the potent ingredients which gave rise to the now world famous Berlin Techno sound.  It is a rigidly mechanical, repetitively introverted and horizontally hypnotic music of deep patience and incremental changes within sameness, matching the city of few buildings taller than 6 or 7 stories, which for more than half the year is mired in frigidly cold weather, perfectly.   The former East side of town was also home to legendary industrial and experimental noise/electronic/rock group Einstürzende Neubauten (name translates to "Collapsing New Buildings"), where one of their 90s concerts on the 1st of May in Helmholzplatz turned into a historical confrontation with police.  1st of May, the traditional worker's day has now become a day of official protest in the city, where anti-authoritarian Leftist youths show their feelings toward capitalism and the powers that be.   Helmholzplatz used to be called L.S.D. park, where anarchistic hedonism and lawless creativity ruled, but is now surrounded by a suburbanized neighborhood of baby-strollers, chic apartments, and stylish cafes.  The hip part of the city since the early 2000s has moved geographically South to the former West, first to Kreuzberg and then now even further to Neukölln.  These neighborhoods are today a lot more colorful and diverse than the North side, filled with Turkish naturalized citizens and immigrants, as well as the ubiquitous international hipsters, and is often compared to the Brooklyn of a decade or 2 past.  Most of the big cultural events such as Karneval der Kulturen, many major dance clubs such as Tresor and Berghain, as well as countless underground art and music spaces are located in or around these areas (even the Day of Protest has moved to Oberbaumbrücke in Kreuzberg).  However, the latest rumor is that areas like Wedding and Charlottenburg, largely unexplored and long neglected areas, may become the next hot spots.  

Berlin is still known for its liberating and creative energy, its wild and hedonistic character, having been rated as the hippest city in Europe by major publications as recent as 2012.  But the forces of gentrification has been closing in, turning many independent art and music spaces into shopping malls and luxury lofts for the rich.  And while the influx of an international "creative class" has added to the city's character, ubiquitous hipsters and yuppies has at the same time surely diluted the city's uncompromising and stubbornly rebellious spirit. 

Dj Zhao is a Chinese/American journalist, Dj, and visual designer living in Berlin, and can be found at www.ngomasound.com

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