A city once divided, today’s Berlin has transformed itself into a ‘poor but cool’ haven for like-minded defectors from around the globe. By Ricky French.

Modern Berlin

Berlin’s former Tempelhof Airport is now a public park.
Berlin’s former Tempelhof Airport is now a public park.

One of the ironies resulting from the reunification of Berlin is that it’s probably harder for the average person to cross Checkpoint Charlie in 2018 than it was for East Berliners in 1988, such is the crush of bodies. You get funnelled south down Friedrichstraße, past Starbucks and the Deutsches Currywurst Museum, gathering momentum like a twig in the rapids, before you hit a bottleneck at the former Allied-controlled border crossing and stop in an unholy pile-up of arms and legs and selfie sticks. You can buy military caps, badges, DDR stickers and chiselled concrete chunks of dubious provenance but purporting to be part of the Berlin Wall, encased in Plexiglass and gleaming with technicolour graffiti; opals of the East.

Over at the cemetery-like Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe buses unload tourists to weave among the 2711 solemn stelae. All art is open to interpretation, and the purpose of this memorial is revealed en masse as a fantastic place to play hide and seek. Teenage girls stalk each other among the grey columns and shriek with delight as they bump into friends. The sad, brutalist slabs wear rounded lids of snow and look like a procession of coffins. Throughout the tourist areas the Berlin Wall has left trails of cobblestone breadcrumbs through the snow, as though it woke up one morning and just shuffled off.

But museums, memorials and mementos only get you so far – to the end of your tether in my case. To know a city you should see it through the eyes of a local, and to see Berlin through the eyes of a local is to see it through the eyes of an immigrant, such as my old friend Matt.

Six years ago, Matt was a heavy-drinking bearded, punk vegan who lived in Melbourne. He worked hard and earned good money, which kind of clashed with the ethos and work–play balance of being a heavy-drinking punk vegan. One morning he woke up in a pool of his own blood in a camping tent pitched in a warehouse in Abbotsford. The tent was part of an art installation on the ground floor of his apartment building, and he had come home late, tripped over the guy rope trying to find the stairs and cracked his head open. He must have taken the tent to be a sign, for he crawled into it gratefully and passed out. Matt was a good egg. He volunteered his time to help artists, musicians, community garden growers, anyone creating a project in the counterculture, and expected nothing in return. Berlin, with its history of suffering, economic apathy and reputation for nurturing – or at least not condemning – gutter-punks, was the obvious move for someone of his ambitions.

Matt lives in Kreuzberg, a dishevelled district to the south of the city in the former West Berlin and home to more than 150,000 people, a third of whom don’t hold German citizenship. Berlin has the largest Turkish population outside Turkey, and more than 30,000 live in Kreuzberg, with another 40,000 in neighbouring Neukölln. It’s enough to sustain a parallel economy with grocery stores, restaurants, hairdressers, retailers and travel agencies, plus the world’s most popular and demonstrably delicious kebab stand, outside the Südstern U-Bahn station. The area has also been a magnet for Aussies and Kiwis, many of whom are opening cafes and craft beer bars, colonising the former slums with roasted beans and hops, bringing a little bit of Brunswick to Berlin.

New arrivals seek solace in their own kind. I find Matt pretty much where I left him six years ago, on a dank street corner drinking from a longneck. On our walk along the snow-strewn streets to his apartment he relates his personal distillation of Berlin. The city was broke, an economic basketcase propped up by the rest of Germany. “Poor but cool” according to former mayor Klaus Wowereit, who like most mayors was steadfastly neither.

“It’s a strange mix of social liberalism and fiscal conservatism,” says Matt. “You can drink and piss wherever you want, but things are changing around here. You see that warehouse across the road? We used to run DIY punk shows there. You know who’s moving in soon? Google.”

Matt works as a chef for a troupe of touring magicians. It sounds like the perfect bohemian vocation. “They are horrible people,” he says, and leaves it at that. He only works a few days a month, though. It’s all he needs. In Berlin you earn fuck-all but that’s okay because the cost of living is similar. But landlords are now wising up to the creeping gentrification and rent is increasing. I let a group of cyclists ride past us and for consolation say, “At least the beer’s cheap.”

Matt gives a rueful chuckle and nods. “The beer’s practically free.”

It’s a city of bicycles. Cars cower and helmetless pelotons weave the streets in a form of barely contained chaos. I ride through Görlitzer Park, where families carry shopping and West Africans sell drugs in broad daylight. Matt says there was a period when the police cracked down on the drug dealing, but it actually made the park less safe. “It made it rife for mugging. Muggers do their work in the shadows, they don’t want the attention that drugs bring. When the cops moved the dealers out the park was empty and silent and suddenly more dangerous. Now the dealers are back and everyone seems happy.”

The police are less happy with hunger strikers in a nearby park. Seven cop cars and about 20 armed officers are monitoring four ragged old men holding sad-looking placards. The men are protesting against the treatment of the Kurds in Syria by the Turkish government. According to bystanders, the heavy police presence is typical of previous demonstrations, and an indication of Germany’s desire to protect its relationship with Turkey. The protesters mill in a circle and smoke fistfuls of cigarettes. The cops do the same. They could almost have merged into one big circle. It is a nice day for it. The sun gets to work on the snow and patches of grass burst out in shocking green. Eventually both groups get bored, or think they’ve made their point – or perhaps run out of smokes – and melt away like the snow.

On my last day I ride to one of the most striking public spaces in the world, the former Tempelhof Airport, now known as Tempelhofer Feld. The airport has passed through the hands of the Nazis, the Soviets and the Americans, but its most recent handover may have been the most controversial. In 2008 it was closed and reopened as a 12-square-kilometre public park, hosting concerts and sports events, even a refugee camp for displaced Syrians. But developers were always going to be circling the prized inner-city parkland. In 2014 a referendum ruled out any commercial development of the park until at least 2024, giving some breathing space, something the park certainly doesn’t want for. 

The airport layout is exactly as it was when the last flight departed. The runways are still marked and you can walk the dog on the same asphalt that C-47 Skytrains touched down on during the Berlin Airlift in 1948. It’s an agoraphobic’s nightmare; a place built for the speed and scale of aeroplanes, not people. But the tyranny of distance has been mitigated by a strip of shacks renting all manner of zany mobility devices: smart balance wheels, Segways, pedal cars, go-karts and unicycles. There’s pop-up art and ramshackle community gardens, picnics and impromptu football matches. For a place marked out with gigantic compass bearings it’s strangely directionless, unsure what to do with itself. The fact that the city has voted to keep it this way makes me smile. It also helps answer the question that has been running round in my head since I arrived: does anyone actually feel at home here?

It was less than two kilometres from this spot in 1963 that John F. Kennedy delivered his famous line: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Like the streets of Kreuzberg and Neukölln that flow into it, Tempelhof is a home for locals, wherever they came from. The park belongs to the people, and the people belong to Berlin.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 2, 2018 as "Observing Berlin".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Ricky French is a Melbourne-based freelance writer.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on July 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.