Our Berlin: Still Poor, But is it Still Sexy?

To the outsider coming in, rough-edged, smart-mouthed Berlin with its grime and its graffiti, its punks and its parties, not to mention its “work to live, not live to work” attitude, it’s easy to feel like you’ve discovered that pulsing, untapped vein of youthful vitality, a true coalition of creativity and chaos.

“Berlin is poor, but sexy”—those decade-ago words of former mayor Klaus Wowereit helped usher in a new era of creative influx for the struggling local economy, welcoming artists, writers, musicians, and more recently, tech and web entrepreneurs. They’re drawn by the siren call of cheap housing and office space amidst this effortlessly hip, rough-and-tumble wonderland—high living at low cost. Need I say more?

The thing is, it’s real poverty that set the stage. Post-Wall Berlin was a hot mess of unconsolidated East/West businesses in need of rehabilitation, and the city, lacking in an industrial / manufacturing base, faced depressingly high unemployment. The city was relying on financial support from wealthier southern states like Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg. The eternal problem child: the rest of Germany was forever eyeing Berlin and wishing it would finally get its shit together.

Poverty has been a part of the Berliner way of life for so long that it’s been absorbed into the culture and the aesthetic of the people. And naturally, it’s this poverty element that informs the “cool”, the “sexy”, and that ultimately attracts the likes of us to this place.

However, the sands are shifting. Today, Berlin finds itself home to more than 2,500 tech start-ups, including incubators and accelerators, some backed by very big names like Google and Microsoft. The city is repositioning itself as one of Europe’s fastest growing start-up hubs, its popularity bolstered by the attractive potential for “extracurricular” activities—tourism is Berlin’s 2nd largest source of income, and its hardcore party reputation is world renowned.

Money is beginning to flow into Berlin, and not from handouts. Economic performance is up 17% since 2005. Job creation is at an all-time high. It’s estimated that the city is growing by 30,000 residents every year.

Berlin has never been sexier, right?

Alas, the unsexy consequence—you’re looking at rising rent costs and increased income disparity—the dreaded gentrification that follows in the wake of popular hipster tourism and international start-up recruiting. While certain sectors are booming, the poverty rate for Berlin is still 21.5% (compared with 15.5% nationwide), according to 2015 reports. An undeniable social divide is widening between the affluent living in the city center and the low-income and unemployed being pushed to poorer neighborhoods on the outskirts. Resentment, and sometimes outright hostility, brews amongst the population of “those who were here before”, the Old Guard, echt-Berliner or otherwise.

Berlin, as a city redefining itself, seems to have begun to forget its poorer roots. Now as it finds itself becoming more popular, it’s starting to discard its old friends for newer, more attractive ones. You could say Berlin has ambition now. Ambition is sexy, right? Ambition is what focuses us, what gives our efforts direction. Ambition is what saves us from apathy. However ambition is also something that needs to be held in check, lest the city become so dazzled by the pursuit of euro signs that they end up compromising that rare, intangible, delightful thing that made Berlin sexy in the first place.

See, imitation and trying to be something you’re not is the opposite of sexy, and it’s difficult to retain a sense of identity when you’re courting the wallets of venture capitalists. That’s certainly one path Berlin can take. But is it the right one?

Berlin is, in some ways, the last affordable metropolis in the world, home to a dynamic nightlife. Time flows differently from Friday night to Monday morning, during which you’re expected to party like it’s the end of the world, yet still handle your shit. It’s a place where 20-30 euros will buy you a night of complete excess—club entry, drinks and dancing, with a delicious Döner or Currywurst afterwards.

The Berlin that I love is a place where money doesn’t determine good service or a good time. Even if you have money, it’s tacky to flaunt it, whether in your possessions, your activities or your clothing. Fashion here is practical first, stylish second, and the successful marrying of the two wins you points from your peers.

And finally, Berlin itself is community, separate from the sometimes-insular expat and start-up bubbles. I love the “Hallos” and curt Deutsch niceties exchanged in my tiny corner of Friedrichshain, Spätis and Kindergartens, hippies and punks. Everyone always says, “But everyone speaks English in Berlin”, yet I keep discovering pockets of people speaking almost exclusively German, and I simply have to up my language game if I want to join in—a daunting prospect, but I’m determined to try and make this place my home.

Stay true, Berlin. I still think you’re sexy. For now at least.

By Eileen Carelock 
Eileen is a Berlin-based freelancer and tentative explorer of a tiny segment of the human experience. She ends up hanging out with her dog a lot; she also writes things.

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