'Zeitgeist': in spite of gentrification, the spirit of 90s Berlin still lives on
Despite rising rents, diminishing public spaces and a wave of newcomers, Berlin still holds on the spirit it had following the fall of the wall.
The 2011 film “Midnight in Paris” tells the story of a sentimental writer - Gil Pender - who indulges in the kind of nostalgia we’ve all been guilty of before.
Gifted with the opportunity to roam the streets of 1920s Paris after dark, he develops a distaste for the modern age he belongs to, believing it pales in comparison to the glamorous “Golden Age” of poets and painters he encounters in the past.
I couldn’t help but recall the film on a recent visit to the Alte Münze, where an exhibition on Berlin in the 90s is currently taking place. The setup seems designed to mimic that electric feeling of freedom that permeated the city in the years after the wall fell, surrounding gallery-goers with round-the-wall screens playing frenetic videos, images and headlines from the era while filling their ears with pounding techno music.
Visitors at the "Ninetees Berlin" exhibition. Photo: DPA
In the following section, recent interviews from artists, club owners, squatters and DJs play on a loop. “Berlin is over”, claims one interviewee. Another tells the story of a group of artists forced out of their studio by rising rent in recent years.
Believing, rather fairly, that the bohemian reputation Berlin gained in the 90s was thanks to artists like themselves, the group went to the council to ask for a rent-free space to continue their work. They were rejected outright on the grounds that they were no longer necessary: the city could live off the reputation they built for at least another few decades. Most of these interviewees were fairly unanimous in the verdict that the anarchic, free-spirited Berlin of the 90s has all but disappeared, victim to the forces of gentrification.
The experience is skillful in inducing a Midnight-in-Paris-style yearning for a bye gone “Golden Age” of Berlin, but I couldn’t help wondering whether we’ve become nostalgic too soon.
“Zeitgeist” is a word that always comes to mind when I think about the 90s in Berlin. It’s a term so useful that English just borrowed it rather than translating it, defining it in the Oxford English Dictionary as “The defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time”.
It comes to mind perhaps because the zeitgeist of the 90s is so instantly recognizable, so easy to conjure up with just a few sounds, images and ideas: techno, squats, the euphoria of the love parade. The fall of the wall in 1989 ushered in an entirely new era, birthing a magical set of circumstances whereby large swathes of Eastern buildings (some have placed the figure at around 30-40% of all properties) were left abandoned by the dissolved GDR, allowing Berlin’s young inhabitants to do with them as they wished.
Squatters took advantage of living rent-free, land - including today’s Mauerpark - was reclaimed by the public, and techno music thrived as large empty spaces became clubs, hosting wild unregulated parties that sometimes ran on for days. Seizing the opportunity to work in spaces costing almost - sometimes literally - nothing, artists poured into Berlin, free to create without the pressure of earning money In 2003, mayor Klaus Wowereit famously declared the city “arm, aber sexy”, (poor, but sexy) and Berlin’s image as a dirt-cheap cultural utopia was forever set in stone.
Soon enough, of course, the rest of the world began catching on. Young people from cities plagued by high rents and noise restrictions started flocking to Berlin, all seeking a piece of its creative spirit.
The number of Brits alone has risen in Berlin by 83% since 2000, and the population has been climbing at the rate of around 50,000 for the last 5 years. By 2035, it’s expected to reach 4 million. Renting is the norm in Germany, and though some long-term residents still cling onto old, cheap contracts, excessive demand for housing has made living costs skyrocket, with one 2017 report going as far to claim that Berlin property prices increased more than any other major city throughout that year.
As the city has gentrified, the availability of cheap or free space for creatives, squatters and illegal party-goers has slowly vanished. Berghain, Tresor and Griesmuehle are clubs that still hang on today, but many similar venues have been shut down over the last couple of decades. Kunsthaus Tacheles, a creative commune once boasting “theatre, a bar, an event space, studios and nearly 100 creators from over 30 different countries all under one roof”, was cleared out by city officials in 2012, the artists having squatted there after their lease ended in 2008. As I write today, a battle is being waged to preserve the Sunday festivities in Mauerpark, with musicians routinely being fined for making too much noise.
Kunsthaus Tacheles shortly before its closure in August 2012. Photo: DPA
It’s easy to see why many have accused Berlin of losing its edge, or in one writer’s strong words, of becoming a “generic hipsterville”. But while many of the material conditions that shaped Berlin’s identity have now disappeared, the zeitgeist of the 90s is still very much alive. I’ve seen it myself at the weekend-long parties, the ever-changing street art and the Chrisopher Street Day when someone brought decks to Tiergarten after the police had shut the parade down, playing music until they, too, got told to clear off.
But it’s not just personal experience either: conscious politicians like Florian Schmidt are striving to incorporate Berlin’s philosophy of collectivism with urban planning. Utilizing the ability in German law to buy up residential property about to be sold in order to preserve the social mix of a protected neighborhood, he and other socially-conscious leaders are fighting against the forces that have turned cities like London into preserves for the super-rich.
Currently, there are plans to convert an old building in Alexanderplatz into studios, public housing and a shelter for refugees. The wall, after all, didn’t fall all that long ago. Many remember how revolutionary the 90s were, and they’re not letting the city go without a fight.
Berlin’s reputation for openness, creativity and freedom is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Old locals might moan about the hordes of foreigners seeking a home here, but with them they bring the promise of the city’s philosophy, and in doing so, preserve it. Gentrification is certainly a real threat to Berlin, but 28 years on from the fall of the wall, the city’s free spirit can still be found permeating all areas of life. “Berlin is defiance”, said Danielle de Picciotto. And that’s something that can’t be demolished.