“Wer will dass die welt so bleibt, der will nicht das sie bleibt”. Those were the words of the German poet Erich Fried which can be roughly translated as: he who wants the world to remain as it is doesn’t want it to remain at all.
For me, this quote, today painted over a section of the East Side Gallery represents the soul of a city that is at the political centre of Europe and which has arguably experienced more change over the past hundred years than any other in Europe.
There are any number of directions that I could take this piece: I could talk about the history of a city which has experienced war, fascism, communism and division. I could discuss Berlin’s outstanding nightlife, I could even ramble about Berlin’s struggle to reconcile the East and the West. In many ways I will do a little bit of all of those things, because it is clear that out of division this is now a city which embraces its diversity; culturally, architecturally, ethnically and socially.
But what I really want to focus on is the new and truly exciting way in which Berlin and Berliners, now some of the most outward-thinking people in the world are and have been embracing their diversity so much that they are opening up spaces and redeveloping old areas in ways that are at worst hipster and at best ingenious.
This urban revival can be found predominantly in the east of the city, where Soviet style tower blocks have been transformed into gigantic canvasses: murals spill out over balconies and walls express contemporary beliefs and values. Indeed, a huge medium by which the anti-gentrification protests were expressed in Berlin was through graffiti and wall art on the very building people were fighting for. It worked; the laws came into force last year.
Perhaps nowhere is a better example of this ultra-hip urban renewal than the district of Neukolln, close to Kreuzberg, in the South East of the city. Once an area of poverty and socio-economic strife, if not least as a result of its close proximity to the old airport of Tempelhof the suburb is now at the heart of Berlin’s artistic movement.
What’s more, it’s happening fast. On a weekly basis, new cafes are serving locals, bars and restaurants are transforming the social scene, and areas of open recreation are appearing out of nowhere.
It’s happening so fast that it has even been noted that Google Maps are of no use to you here: you’d be directed to a cafe only to find an indie bookstore in its place. Put simply, local communities are at the heart of their areas’ renewal, and if you want to get in on it, you’re going to have to explore for yourself. Truly, it’s an opportunity to live out you inner wanderlust and fulfill the millenial dream of experiencing the area like a local.
In 500 or so words I can only ramble so much about this brilliant area, and with only one photo you can only see a glimpse of what I’m rambling about. But please, take it from me, if you’re to Berlin anytime soon – which for the record, you can do fairly cheaply – venture out past the Bundestag building and Alexanderplatz (as wonderful as they are) and throw yourself into an area of Berlin that is re-defining itself day by day.
Berlin is a city that has shown the world that you can bounce back from anything. It’s a city which has re-invented and rebuilt itself; Berliners have, in spectacular fashion, managed to retain that spirit of ’89 and have shown the world that beauty can emerge from despair.
Oh, and remember that airport I mentioned? It’s a park now.