The pier on the river Spree shakes dangerously. I climb over a fence, navigate my way across bushes and over hanging branches, precariously balancing three bottles of Berliner Pilsner, side step bodies lying in various stages of chilling and somehow miraculously manage not to fall head-first into the canal.
Club der Visionäre wants you to appreciate that hard-won beer.
Finally, my pint firmly in hand, I tune back into the conversation. It’s a typical slightly nippy Berlin early summer night, where the sun still hasn’t quite gone down at 11 pm. In what was formerly West Berlin, Kreuzber’s Café der Visionare’s regulars are basking, as techno beats pulsate in the background on sketchy planks of wood that sway this way and that with the current of the Spree.
Under hazy gold-licked skies, my body readjusts from Indian sun schedules to Europe’s summer solstice. The conversation has just gone from our evening’s 30-something local host’s work, to the café itself. Her nose puckers in disdain, in the direction of the lounging bodies in the milieu, “I used to love this place. And now it’s become too cool.”
BREAKING NEW GROUND
Daniela works for one of Berlin’s more liberal newspapers. And like most other liberal, young, artsy, and probably angsty Berliners, is constantly looking for something new and unspoiled by the commercial and the “cool”. Yet, to my Delhi benumbed brain, this beautiful jungle-like café, lit by lanterns and candles seemed to have Edenic properties. Around us are Berlin’s young and restless. Colourful, alive, edgy, vibrant and chugging voluminous amounts of beer.
Bohemian boroughs like Kreuzberg, where we are and the adjoining Neukölln, are where Daniela lives and parties. Prenzlauer Berg in the former GDR has older, monied liberal from the 1990s and Friedrichshain, also a former Eastern territory hosts hordes of drunk students. Prenzlauer Berg with its newer, more upmarket image has recently been at the centre of protests from locals resisting its gentrification.
Creativity crackles in the air here. Squatter’s buildings still survive blemished with graffiti, and gaping holes for windows. These have been bustling centres for artist communes. Unlikely corner house stores with hidden treasures — fantasy toys, old records, vintage and eccentric street clothes (from tutus and bustiers, to bizarrely graffitied sneakers) and comic books. Art flourishes with vehemence, where, besides public libraries, 300 odd private exhibition halls dot the cityscape.
Berlin has always been a magnet for artists and liberals. Attracted to cheap rents, exiled musicians, aspiring authors, low budget filmmakers, and broke but idealistic artists have flocked here for decades. As with dynamic urbanscapes, Berlin is also constantly changing its artistic hubs. Today, Kreuzberg and Neukölln, are as locals says, where the “artists and liberals move.”
Earlier in the evening, as Daniela had picked us up from Ku’damm, she declared her vehement dislike for its old-fashioned, conservative, posh avenues and hurriedly wheeled her cycle towards the U-bahn station, to catch the next train to Kreuzber. In Ku’damm, amongst the beautiful façades of high-class tenement buildings, was an air of practiced cold hostility, no different from the other big metropolises Berlin aspires to be like.
20 years after the wall
In November 2009, Berlin will celebrate 20 years since the fall of The Wall — that concrete bulwark that defined Berlin’s history in the late 21st century, as much as Hitler’s horrific attempts at a Third Reich. Now a scar running across the city, at your feet, the Wall, is a shadow: two lines of red bricks, in the middle of grey cobblestone streets. But with the passing of two whole decades there is a new post-wall social order. Look a little carefully, and even you, the outsider, can see it. Because Berlin is gritty, chaotic, unpredictable, filled with historical loose ends and remnants of past eras.
We’d spent a greater part of that day exploring the streets we hurried out of later at night. Ku’damm used to be the centre of art, leisure and nightlife in the “roaring twenties, but took a beating during the Great Depression and the Nazi Machtergreifung (seizure of power). Jewish artists, liberals and intellectuals, who lived here, fell victim to Jewish pogroms, while buildings were heavily destroyed in the World War II.
The government has grand plans for November’s anniversary celebrations. What recession? What debt? Along with plans to send a domino style reconstruction of the wall toppling, the upcoming MTV Europe Music Awards will be held at Brandenburg Gate, and 100 brightly coloured murals unveiled on a 1.3km-long concrete artwork, called the East Side Gallery.
THE OTHER SIDE
Yet, the air of anniversary celebrations is chilly, I realised, as I flipped through Berlin’s few English newspapers. Adding to economic woes, westerners continue to resent the huge taxes they pay to subsidise the poorer East siders. While, on the other side, in view of rising property values, cultural landmarks like old artist complexes are facing demolition to make way for the more commercially viable malls and buildings. The funds are coming, but at a price.
In a bid to save this gritty, grungy identity of Berlin from creeping gentrification, English magazines like the ExBerliner are running ‘Save Berlin’ campaigns, young artists have started ‘Fuck Yuppies’ campaigns and underground artist movements are encouraging artwork for a sort of irreverent campaign to the official one.
Stumbling home on the very last U-bhan I realise that as one side of Berlin tries to smoothen out its bumps, the other keeps generating more rough edges.
Sawhney is a Delhi-based travel and feature writer.