Berlin: poor, sexy, conflicted

To the outsider coming in, rough-edged, smart-mouthed Berlin with its signature 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”—words spoken a decade ago by 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?

Real poverty set that stage. Recall 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 rest of Germany was forever eyeing Berlin, the eternal problem child, and wishing it would finally get its shit together.

Sands are shifting more recently. Today Berlin finds itself home to 2500+ tech startups, including incubators and accelerators, some backed by some very high-profile names like Google and Microsoft. The city wants to reposition itself as one of Europe’s fastest growing startup hubs, popularity bolstered by an attractive potential for “extracurricular” activities—tourism is Berlin’s 2nd largest source of income, and its hardcore party reputation is world renowned. Companies are relying on this inherent sexiness to recruit talent—“We can’t pay you Silicon Valley rates, but you get to live in Berlin!”

The sales pitch seems to be working. 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?

But what is sexy anyway, especially when the word is leaping from the mouths of recruitment teams?

I’ll confess, my interpretation of the word tends toward the more cynical rather than literal. In American marketing/advertising speak, sexy is basically an empty “cool/good-sentiment” buzz word that gets thrown around in order to get people to buy into a product or idea without having to invest in the deeper arguments of the thing:

– “Our product interface is solid, practical, user-friendly–”

– “Yes, but is it sexy?”

In this sense I see “Berlin is poor, but sexy” as ultimately a bid to “sell” Berlin to western audiences (ie. tourists, tech talent, and venture capitalists) on their own familiar vocabulary terrain. Even if that wasn’t the original context of Wowereit’s soundbite, that’s what it has essentially become now, sexy as a broad term encompassing all the vague-but-positive rah-rah-rah selling points for Berlin, not just literal sex-appeal.

Really, anyone who’s worked for, I mean, really worked for a startup, finds that thing called work-life-balance a real challenge, one that requires contractual definition and enforcement, and even then startup life is an inevitably all-consuming fire that eventually burns you out. Therefore all the accessibility and affordability of Berlin’s sexy environs goes largely unappreciated in favor of local English-speaking establishments within a certain convenient Büro proximity. Ah, the startup scene, that self-important, often insular bubble comprised of startup folks going to meetups and activities with other startup folks where they’ll talk enthusiastically about how much they love Berlin. But are they really in love with Berlin? Or are they in love with the bubble? It’s hard to tell. How can you begin to know, especially if you don’t know you’re in a bubble?

And meanwhile, the ugly side of all that job creation is the rampant impermanence and immaturity of the scene, the constant flux of the newer, the faster, the better, effervescent copycat business schemes that fizzle off into nothing. Berlin is a good place to start a business, but it’s a difficult place to grow that business, lacking in funding and infrastructure necessary to longterm support—it’s a money game, and, alas, Berlin has always been flaky when it comes to its finances.

Further unsexy consequence of all this influx, you’re looking at rising rent costs and increased income disparity, not to mention the growing of a “temporary” population with no longterm investment in Berlin as a city, as a community. It’s the dreaded gentrification that follows in the wake of popular hipster tourism and aggressive international startup recruiting. While certain sectors boom away in seeming exponential growth, the poverty rate for Berlin is still 21.5% (compare with 15.5% nationwide), according to February 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 there 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 a thing that needs to be held in check, kept in perspective, 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 the sexy place that it is.

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 to yourself, Berlin. I still think you’re sexy. For now.

Article submitted to and published via Berlin Logs.

Update: my article is featured in the September 2015 printed edition.

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