Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
North American media have proclaimed the city is no longer the apogee of cool, and that's just fine.
The Berlin backlash had to happen sooner or later. No city could be so consistently lauded to the skies for its creative edge, elegant shabbiness, and 24-hour nightlife without eventually coming down with a hard bump. And the bump does seem to have arrived. Last month, a Rolling Stone piece charted Berlin nightclub Berghain’s fall from grace, taking it as a lodestone reflecting its host city’s wider trajectory. Then a New York Times article about Berlin’s putative role as a proxy Brooklyn led Gawker to run a piece headlined, "Berlin is Over: What’s Next?"
A European city's fortunes are not made and broken on the trend pages of the North American media, of course. What is interesting is that these U.S. pieces have been seized upon enthusiastically by the German press. Süddeutsche Zeitung, located in Berlin's rival city of Munich, almost cheerily noted the international hype bubble being burst in this piece, while Berliner Zeitung archly intensified Gawker's headline to "Berlin is over: finally and irrevocably." Berlin daily Tagesspiegel has also chimed in, wisely wondering whether "a city that wants to grow economically can permanently preserve the charm of the unfinished and anarchic." Across the board, claims that Berlin is waning as the apogee of cool have been greeted not with dismay, but with glee.
In doing so, the German media is reflecting the general mood in the city pretty accurately. Many Berliners have taken their city's popularity badly, responding to the rush of visitors and residents with confusion, frustration, even anger. In some neighborhoods this sentiment has led to a wave of touristenhass - "tourist hate" – while the popularity of vacation apartments has forced through legislation halting their spread. This wave of angst is not just about foreigners. As Germans from wealthier parts of the country move in and supposedly push prices up, Berlin has also experienced Schwabenhass, resentment of people from the prosperous, doughy Swabia region centered around Stuttgart. Reading the Berlin press, you get the impression that locals do rather a lot of hating.
For outsiders, this can seem a little weird. If New York or London grabbed the international spotlight of hipness in the way Berlin has, locals would probably revel in it. Sure, there might be the odd humblebrag about the hassle of being too popular, but the overall mood would probably be a smug sense of pride.
Not in Berlin. The city just isn't quite large enough, rich enough or well-established enough to easily absorb the consequences that come with being named capital of cool.
Much of this stems from Berlin's recent history. While it was one of Europe's most vital cities in the 1920s, years of war and division saw it become a unique but shrunken shadow of its past self. Both sectors of the city remained great cultural centers, despite the misery and dysfunction caused by being split in two. But whether east or west, both were provincial. West Berlin's isolation may have gained a name as a great petri dish for alternative lifestyles, but that didn't stop it becoming a relatively quiet backwater kept healthy by state support, not economic vitality.
Thrusting these two estranged twins together in 1989 was inevitably traumatic. Germany's East has been bleeding inhabitants ever since, and long-term East Berlin residents entered a black hole for jobs that no number of upbeat articles about Berlin’s new breed of tech start-ups can ever camouflage. Further up the social hierarchy, the city's former elite also saw their ascendancy threatened when newcomers from Bonn arrived as the German capital relocated. The two cities gradually reintegrated, but very slowly. Even in the mid-1990s it was very common to find people from either side of the East/West divide who almost never crossed the line of the Wall. Berlin has thus spent the past few decades being laboriously glued back in shape.
This reintegration has been largely successful and interesting, of course – hence all the hype – but it's no wonder locals don't feel they stand on especially firm ground. Western Germans are often richer than native Berliners and thus have the privilege that helps them bag the best jobs there. Even people who moved long ago to Berlin from other regions feel this way, as they often made that choice at the expense of better wages.
On the international front, the city's social scene is also getting increasingly Anglophone. The numerous American and (fewer) British transplants here are notorious for not picking up the language, while newcomers from non-English speaking countries still opt for English rather than German as their daily lingua franca for anything but basic transactions.
This riles people. They see their city being branded as an opportunity for everyone but themselves, a city where you can either lose yourself – or make it big – against a backdrop where locals' real lives and language remain forever in soft focus. Partly suffering from a collective chip on the shoulder, they perceive casual visitors treating them as a tray of canapés to be endlessly half-nibbled, then discarded (gay friends of mine in Berlin especially complain of this, though the mayor's now notorious description of the place as "poor but sexy" was practically begging for such treatment). Meanwhile, locals witness beery tourists immediately falling to Hitler comparisons the moment they get turned away from a club.
Behind all this daily annoyance, rent fears are rumbling, fueled by a new wave of international investment. Berlin just isn't used to the sort of rapid rent rises that are standard in London or Paris, and the unwelcome novelty is shaking the place up and spooking pretty much everybody.
Some local resentment is admittedly a little skewed. Rather than being trust fund kids, many new Berliners are southern Europeans trying to have fun and get by while escaping unemployment. A better-established city than Berlin might take all this upheaval with a shrug, sure of its place in the world. But Berlin hasn't yet crystallized in the way London or Paris did years ago, and it all feels newer and more uncomfortable than it might in those cities. Right now, many Berliners will be half-hoping that journalists sounding the death knell of the city's hipness are actually right.
Top image: People mingle in the Yaam beach club at the Spree river embankment between the East and the West of Berlin. (Thomas Peter / Reuters)