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  • The New Berlin:Offbeat, disruptive, and imperiled
  • Paul Hockenos (bio)

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Developers and city planners, investors and politicos were bitterly disappointed with Berlin's economic washout in the 1990s and much of the aughts. In the aftermath of the Berlin Wall's breach in November 1989, development professionals envisioned a sweeping transformation of Germany's new capital. Without consulting the 3.43 million freshly unified residents, the city set in motion plans to make Berlin a global center of finance and commerce. Berlin would have skyscrapers in a rebuilt urban core. Big blocks of office buildings, congress halls, and high-end apartments would stand where the Wall had been. The modernist eyesore of Alexanderplatz in former East Berlin would become "Berlin's Manhattan." There'd be a new mega-size airport like Frankfurt's, and all of it would be ready by 2000 when Berlin could, if chosen, host the summer Olympics. [End Page 99]

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As it happened, very few of these high-flying plans ever materialized. Certainly, there was frenzied construction: The malls, cinemas, and high-rises of Potsdamer Platz, for example, rose from the 150-acre no-man's land that the Wall had bisected. Berlin erected Europe's largest train station as well as ultra-modern buildings to house the federal government and the MPs of the Bundestag, which itself was retrofitted and adorned with a striking glass cupola. Yet the leagues of anticipated investors with deep pockets stayed away. And with the exception of winning recognition as the world's biggest and noisiest construction site, the city couldn't settle on an image or development strategy.

After a decade of designing and then ditching one plan after another, the city finally awoke to the nature of its unique cachet, something missing from Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Munich: a gritty, inventive, do-it-yourself underside. Around the year 2000, planners realized that Berlin was attracting droves of young, innovative, educated people who sought out the city explicitly because of its rough edges, low rents, and unconventional flair. Tourists came in ever greater numbers for the clubs and nightlife. Commercial interests followed: Some bolstered the creative sector, such as record labels and publishing houses, but other companies just wanted a corner of this hip new Berlin.

The city leapt onto the wagon with the zeal of the converted, boasting about Berlin's untended crannies, which could be used for all manner of self-styled projects and small businesses. "The [End Page 100] 'creative city' mantra was integrated into Berlin city marketing," writes sociologist Claire Colomb, "with various campaigns selling the constant change, experimentation, and trend-setting taking place in the city as significant attractiveness factors. Some of the 'off-beat,' alternative, or underground cultural and artistic scenes were integrated into official place marketing strategies, for example the techno and clubbing scene."

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The planners couldn't have guessed that the torrent of cultural enterprises and visitors streaming into Berlin had only just begun. By 2002, the creative industries had breathed life into 18,000 businesses that supported 90,000 jobs, or 8 percent of the city's workforce. By 2012, those numbers had nearly doubled, grossing an astounding $21.5 billion, or 10 percent of Berlin's economy. Two years later, the sector had added 20,000 more jobs. Something about Berlin was inviting diverse startups—which, by the 2010s, had vaulted Berlin to startup champion of Europe. Meanwhile, Berlin had overtaken Rome as tourists' third-most-desired destination in Europe, behind only Paris and London. These visitors weren't coming for the hoch cuisine (indeed, there is none in Berlin) but to browse through the sprawling flea market on a Sunday morning in Mauerpark, explore the art galleries on Brunnenstrasse, or just wander the streets of Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg. Gay tourism in Berlin constituted a world and industry unto itself, as it long has.

The explanations for Berlin's inspired upsurge and magnetic draw reach back into its distinct past. The city during its division and then in the decade...


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pp. 99-108
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