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The city is an arts hub. Can a new airport bring it into the upper tier of European cities?

Although plans were first mooted back in 1990, it seems Berlin will have to wait one year more to get an up-to-date air terminal.  Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport, a large facility designed to replace the three smaller sites that served divided Berlin, was supposed to have started commercial flights yesterday.

A view of the new airport. Photo credit: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

After a safety inspection three weeks ago, however, flaws were discovered in its fire procedures, and its opening has been postponed until March next year. Given Berlin’s aspirations to world city status, the airport’s continuing labor pains are a major embarrassment for the city authorities. The 1.3 million flights to the new terminal already sold must now be redirected to the city’s existing airports, which may struggle to cope.

Granted, these airports have been rattling along okay for some years, but they are looking increasingly small, careworn and rickety. West Berlin’s Tegel Airport, currently the city’s largest, is a charming but obsolescent 1970s museum piece, with no proper departure lounges or direct rail connection. Scheduled to shut as Brandenburg opened, it must now do until next year. Across the city, East Berlin’s smaller Schoenefeld is a shabby, provincial looking place favored by budget carriers but largely shunned by major airlines. Meanwhile, the former runway of Nazi-built Tempelhof Airport proved too short and hemmed in with residential neighborhoods to suit modern aviation, and was closed to form a vast, prairie-like park four years ago. 

The failure to replace these airports with any speed could be seen as symptomatic of Berlin’s struggles to stake a place in Europe’s big league. The city might be climbing slowly out of its lively but impoverished post-reunification trough to become a major technology hub and tourist honey pot, but as Berlin Brandenburg’s travails show, this process is still unsteady and uneven.

In many ways, Berlin has been doing great. It’s a city millions of Europeans dream about moving to, hankering after its rough, accidental charm. Its low rents make London prices seem fantastical, its nightlife and arts scene make Paris look stuffy, and its spacious streets and apartments make Madrid’s inhabitants come across like a three million strong version of The Human Centipede.

But despite being the capital of Europe’s most populous nation, Berlin’s high unemployment mean that it’s still struggling to move beyond the now cliché "poor but sexy" moniker its Mayor Klaus Wowereit coined for it in 2004. Half of Europe may want to move here, but urban grunge and a lavish cultural scene aren’t that sexy after all when you’re scraping by on welfare. With Hamburg richer, Munich more liveable and Frankfurt easier to get to, Berlin often doesn’t even manage first place in its own country, let alone Europe.

A decent airport should improve matters, when it finally arrives. But as Berlin’s international flight connections improve, many are already starting to mourn the slow demise of the city they loved. Berlin’s long since tidied-up ex squats are now being sold off to absentee investors, and the attendant rent hikes are pushing poorer residents farther from the city’s core. As Berlin’s cheap property and cultural goodies lure in wealth, once rundown but lively streets are increasingly looking as prim as Geneva, and gentrification is being fought with a ferocity that makes the usual NIMBY battles look tame indeed. The city authorities may be frantic to get Berlin Brandenburg Airport functioning as soon as possible, but many Berliners are hoping the changes it represents hold off for a little while longer.

Photo credit: mkrberlin/Shutterstock

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