Kreuzberg, Berlin

Some weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting a friend in Berlin and on a Sunday afternoon found myself in Prenzlauer Berg, sitting at a lovely place with a somewhat ironic name, given how left-wing the city is, the Kapitalist Café. I was sitting there with a glass of wine, an oldskul notebook and a head full of thoughts and observations, which I proceeded to jot down and have recently returned to.

I don’t aim to say anything revelatory or particularly clever about Berlin, for a lot has been said and written about the city by people a lot more knowledgeable than me. The picture, haphazardly painted upon and after my visit, is naturally going to be subjective, filtered through my eyes which were dazzled with beautiful typography and architecture, and my soul cherishing a momentary escape from the everyday patterns and uniformed shapes of lifestyles and thoughts surrounding me.

Berlin is a city of expression – true, free, unrestrained self-expression. Anything goes. It’s like London’s once-upon-a-time subversive Camden blown-up, multiplied several times, and scattered around town. The abundance of artists, art, galleries, arty things, arty places, arty people, arty objects; graffiti’s and markings, both on the architecture and human bodies, is overwhelming, even for someone who spent almost a decade in the Big Smoke. “Coolness” is inescapable, it penetrates all street corners and nooks, is breathable like the smell of weed, sold here right outside of tube stations. “No one cares” was a sentence that friend of mine who I was visiting kept repeating whenever he saw me rising my brows in curiosity. No one cares that the entire Görlitzer Park is surrounded by drug dealers, that people are shooting up right in the middle of a street in Kottbusser Tor, referred to as “Kotti”. No, that doesn’t shock anyone. Neither did we, drinking beer at any point of the day inside S- and U-bahn carriages. Anything goes.

Görlitzer Park, Berlin / photo by Oliver Groß

But listening to a lot of conversations and reading about the city, I realise there is a very strong wave of criticism directed at the German capital. Apparently, I am in a small minority of few people who don’t crucify today’s Berlin and long for its old identity. The question whether Berlin is still cool or not, seems to be a major concern, both for born-and-bred Berliners, as well as recent migrants. Drew Schwartz starts her dramatically titled piece Is Berlin Still Cool? with an even more dramatic statement: Bad news: Berlin is dead. In her grim stance regarding the city’s status, she is supported by other pessimistic critics, such as Thomas Rogers from New Republic, and Max Read from Gawker, both of whom believe that Berlin, as the capital of livability, anti-authoritarianism, and sophistication is over, and it is Leizpzig that is quickly becoming the new “coolness” destination. Though, as many point out, it is likely to suffer from the increasing “hypezig” just as much as the German capital.

For a lot of people, this hipsterdom expansion is so intrusive that according to Schwartz, locals have started a whole anti-hipster movement. This includes “No fucking hipsters” signs outside selected cafes and “Kill the hipsters” graffiti tags. In her article Berlin Shoos its Hipsters Out, Clara Mazuir writes that “Some cafes have blocked their front entrance with a barrier so that bobo mothers can’t wheel in a stroller of baby hipsters. All this hate and refusal because hipsters brought to Berlin certain overly-priced organic stores and hip coffee shops…”. Obviously, as a tourist, I have no right to comment on that, but not only did I not notice any signs of that sort, I saw neither a flock of foreign hipsters, gawking at its gems like vultures, nor any kind of resentment towards young lads in skinny jeans. And that’s despite the fact that for the second time in a row I was staying in Neukölln, a popular district of South-East Berlin, which, as Mazuir puts it, “has become host to the hipster virus.” Maybe this is because while in Warsaw hipsters are still very much a “movement”, with a fairly identifiable dress code, hipsterdom in Berlin, because of the variety of (life)styles it covers, is almost the default human landscape one no longer questions or gets annoyed with. The “coolness” is not ostentatious, it is part of the landscape, like the modernist buildings along Klopstockstraße, gently merged with the area, to be admired by perceptive eyes of architecture fans.

Neukölln, Berlin
Klopstockstraße, Berlin / photo by Oliver Groß

With terms like “hipster” and “cool”, I am purposefully using scare quotes, because to me, the question whether Berlin is “still” cool or not, is completely redundant, for coolness as a concept is entirely abstract and subjective. Saying that 20 years ago Berlin used to be cool because there were no hipsters around is a romantic fantasy. There’s always “a” movement, subculture of people who feel safer expressing their style within a group, and the fact that flannel shirts got replaced with skinny jeans should not make the slightest bit of difference. If there’s any substance to these anti-hipster claims Mazuir talks about, it is the fact that any trendy area that experiences an influx of people, gains value in the economic sense which inevitably drives up the property prices. The liberalisation of purchasing laws means that “(…)  much of formerly affordable, trendy neighborhoods like Neukölln has been snapped up by faraway buyers in Ireland, Norway, or the United States. And this process only gained steam after the 2008 beginning of the euro crisis, as real estate became one of the safest forms of investment in Europe”, as Thomas Rogers writes for New Republic. However, in comparison to cities like London, where one is lucky to afford a room the size of a shoebox, Berlin housing is still dead cheap.

One would wonder that with so much “coolness” and “hipsterdom” around, it is impossible not to start feeling somewhat plain at the very least, or completely uncool and embarrassingly unfashionable at most. Constantly passing people wearing garments from Bikini Berlin (which, incidentally, is the first shopping mall I genuinely enjoyed walking around), tattooed necks, chins and foreheads, beautiful retro bikes, and general air of “coolness” about them, I felt uncool. Deeply, deeply uncool. And yet, I felt extremely comfortable, relaxed and happy.

Bikini Berlin shopping mall

To be fair, I’ve never felt, nor tried to become cool, at any point in my life. It was quite early on when I realised that a lot of things I am interested in or attracted to, can’t be combined to form a coherent style of any sort. And that I’m unwilling to narrow them down just to gain a consistent identity. Which isn’t bad at all. In his article, Don’t Be Afraid to Be Uncool. In defence of escaping the herd, David Greenwald says that “Cool is a sword to live and die by, a binary system that pits you against others. It requires not only love, but hate: a rejection of the mainstream. Or the alternative. Whatever.” Instead, Greenwald advocates “embracing the sincerest distillation of yourself and your taste.” Which doesn’t mean becoming an omnivore and liking everything but it means not limiting oneself to liking pre-approved things. I like black metal and Moomins, leather corsets and 40s dresses, dingy bars with half-naked transvestites, and elegant afternoon teas. There’s no “movement” I could sign up to with that.

Michael Conniff from the Huffington Post adds another vital thought: “The acknowledgement of your own uncoolness is the only thing cool about it. If you can look at yourself and say “uncool” then you have learned something very important about the human condition, about the haves and have-nots — and especially the unfairness of life.”

Currywurst in Berlin / photo by Oliver Groß

I will argue that Berlin is a good place to acknowledge one’s uncoolness. There’s no sense of obligation to fit in, one can happily stick the middle finger at the world and do own one’s thing. In every sense of the word, not just in terms of one’s appearance. Just like a friend of mine, Andreas Schmidt, who opened his own gallery four months ago in Pankow, a space which is not meant to be a gallery in a traditional sense, for his aim is to show only the art he himself believes in and likes. There’s no pumping euros into a heavy PR campaign, sucking up to Important People, making calculations, going on compromises. Andreas’s independence and uncompromising attitude make his space a real gem on the art map, because a vast majority of galleries don’t operate that way – instead of risking showing an “unbranded” artist, they will choose someone fashionable to secure sales. Benjamin Genocchio writes about this in his article for Artnet, In Praise of Unfashionable Art, Or Let the Artwork Convince You Not the Artist’s Brand:

“Being a brand, a package, aids consumption, and the more easily and widely consumed we all are the better—or so the conventional wisdom goes. No wonder so many artists conceive or engineer their artworks to cater to a quick, disposable visual experience. The social media explosion, especially on Instagram, only seems to feed this trend. (…) As we know, the upshot is a new sort of art world in which the bland uniformity of a Big Mac with fries rules. (…) We critics are implicated in this, gravitating toward stories we know editors and publishers want to pay for and, in theory, people want to read. We end up writing the same stories about the same people over and over. It is the same in museums. Right now two Ai Weiwei retrospectives are touring, one in Europe and one here in the United States. Why? You all know the answer. Then there are the galleries, where dealers often have no choice but to chase fashionable, branded artists to secure sales. It just makes everything easier: If art dealers don’t play the game they slowly go out of business. And so it goes, one set of imperatives leading to another, and on and on.”

The complete lack of pressure, be it internal or external, to prove anything to anyone, is in my opinion the base for a real artistic success. But this freedom is not something one can easily get in a competitive market of a large city. And while I’d be cautious to comment on Berlin art market, because I don’t know much about it, I believe that running a venue in the way Andreas does would be impossible in London, for economic reasons alone. In a world where everything becomes a product and the fear of being unable to sell it stops people from taking artistic risks and experimenting, Berlin somehow seems to allow artists to ignore the world to a certain extent, to borrow Hugh MacLeod’s book title, in a way many places wouldn’t.

There’s another aspect of Berlin I feel very much attracted to. One of the things I seek in a place to live in is an atmosphere of tolerance and space for one’s individual choices and values. I like places which celebrate oddities and make weirdness the norm. Places where you don’t feel people’s eyes resting on you on a public transport. Places where you can be comfortable with your sexual orientation and beliefs. Places where you can be comfortably alone. In Berlin, which is one of the most LGBT-friendly cities in all of Europe (its openly gay mayor Klaus Wowereit famously said, when coming out, ‘I’m gay, and that’s a good thing’), there is space for an infinite number of alternative lifestyles, though if it’s a big family you’re genuinely after, the government will provide support with that and the city will give you an infinite number of child-friendly places and kids clubs. (Poland does neither. It disciminates the LGBT community and cares about unborn foetuses instead of their mothers.)

Akademie Der Künste, Berlin / photo by Oliver Groß

Unable to answer her own questions, whether Berlin is still cool or not, Drew Schwartz decided to ask several people about where they think the city is headed in the next few years. Richard, owner of Spike Coffee, says that “I think what makes it cool goes beyond bars and restaurants. It’s more about an attitude, and the people who move there and create the scene. That will only get bigger as more people find it appealing, until it gets saturated. I think what makes those places amazing is that people like to feel that they’ve got something that no one else has got. As a place gets saturated, that feeling goes away. So naturally, those people move somewhere else.”

I like you, Berlin. And I can only hope you won’t get saturated too quickly, that you will survive the inevitable gentrification process without losing your edge, and that you won’t fall a victim of nationalism and terrorism, two forces that sweep European cities and plant seeds of fear, mistrust and hatred. So that I can feel comfortable knowing there is a place I can escape to, when I am no longer allowed to safely express myself in my own country.