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Why Berlin needs David Bowie and not a polar bear

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Why Berlin needs David Bowie and not a polar bear
The Thin White Duke does his thing. Photo: DPA
14:11 CET+01:00
As the departure of Berlin's world famous polar bear Knut appears imminent, Roger Boyes, correspondent for British daily The Times, muses why the German capital needs more Bowie and less bear.

It's easy to see why Berlin zoo bosses are so ready to send their furry star Knut into exile to another animal jail somewhere in Germany or abroad. He is, after all, just a single bear and the point of a zoo is to represent the multiplicity of species. But naturally I support those who want to keep him in town.

The reason is simple. The universality of Knut's story – rejected by mother, saved by the love of humans – has helped re-brand Berlin. The city has always been irrationally proud of its so-called Schnauze – or gruff and mouthy façade. The urban myth is that underneath this unfriendly exterior every Berliner has a heart of gold.

The problem, of course, is that most foreigners do not stay long enough in the capital – ten or twenty years, say – to discover the buried emotional treasure of the Berliners. So Knut provides a useful narrative short-cut to Schnauze-town, demonstrating Berlin's capacity if not for love, then at least for collective sentimentality.

In the long, clumsy attempt to find a defining motto for Berlin, the city government – with its underwhelming “Be Berlin” slogan – missed the point entirely. All cities, but Berlin in particular, have to be intelligently branded so that they stick in the global consciousness. That means not rustling up an advertising jingle, but establishing the very essence of a city and communicating it to the outside world.

Knut does this in a way. Overfed, under-stimulated, stubborn and emotionally damaged, the bear can fairly said to be representative of the average Berliner. But is that the whole Berlin story? Of course not. Berlin is also clever, or more precisely full of clever and creatively inspired people. So the task of Klaus Wowereit – who after all, took over the job of cultural commissar – is to find a way of telling the world that Berlin is the brain of Germany, and its creative hub.

It seems to me he has failed to do this and is trying instead to peddle Berlin's image as a “cool” metropolis at a time when most people – a few clubbers aside – have long since abandoned this interpretation of the city. It is no longer a cutting-edge place. What the city does have is a great attraction for the international cultural elite. Daniel Barenboim and Simon Rattle are classical music titans. The American Academy gives workspace for some of the best US thinkers and writers, novelists of the calibre of Jeffrey Eugenides. And even pop culture icons like the Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino spend months at a time here.

Missing though is a sense of all these stars inter-acting with the city. We know that Brad Pitt talks with architects here; that the novelists sometimes give readings; and if we want to see Rattle we can buy a ticket to the Berlin Philharmonic. There is, however, no rootedness.

If they bring their children, these cultural elites send them to international schools, ready for the next pit-stop in New York or Milan. These people are in Berlin but not of it. They do their job here, are photographed and applauded, and then leave. The task of a culture supremo – the job that Wowereit has so neglected – is to fuse these people with Berlin, just as he is now trying to fuse Knut with the city.

It is not easy, of course. Cultural talent is nomadic, constantly on the move. But West Berlin of the 1970s succeeded well enough.

I have just read an elegant, short book about David Bowie's years in Schöneberg from 1976 to 1977. “Heroes” by Tobias Rüther is full of anecdotes – for example, how Iggy Pop, Bowie's flatmate in their Hauptstrasse apartment, stole his fellow rock star's fancy food purchases from the city's ritzy KaDeWe department store out of the unguarded fridge. The book manages to capture some of the charm of the times.

It describes Bowie's breakfasts in the local gay pub Anderes Ufer (coffee and Gitanes, naturally), as well as his daily ride on a Raleigh bike to the Hansa recording studios near the Berlin Wall.

The rock stars who lived here during those years, more or less anonymously, produced Berlin albums, Berlin songs – a Berlin sound – because they became part of the city. It was not just a convenient or cheap place to produce a record (or a film, book or painting) and then move on. Bowie spent days at Die Brücke expressionist museum, thought about politics and built his ideas into his work.

Isn't that what we should be aiming at? Making Berlin a global talking point?

This cannot be simply ordered from above, I am aware of that. But if Berlin is to be sold to the world, as a kind of European New York, then it has to keep generating new ideas. What about a Language Academy where authors and their translators could discuss the latest developments? Why not start up comprehensive creative writing programmes at the FU and the Humboldt? Why not give subsidised studio space to painters in return for posters or street art to brighten the city?

None of this need be a threat or a burden to Berliners. The public involvement in the future of the Stadtpalast shows that Berliners really care about the look of their city. And it need not cost a great deal of money, as rebuilding the old Prussian palace will.

But it does need leadership, a capacity to be open to new ideas, and a certain energy. Sadly these are the qualities that appear to be currently missing from the Berlin political class.

For more Roger Boyes, check out his website here.

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