Look What They've Done with East Berlin

Now it's vibrant, young, crammed with edgy art and culture.

By Steve Burgess 11 Jun 2010 |

Steve Burgess is taking a break from his arduous schedule of movie reviewing to travel in Europe and file the odd dispatch. Sometimes, (bet on it) very odd.

Romantic comedy fans know the formula. The lovers-to-be must hate each other at first. He spills a magnum of wine on her white dress and throws up on her shoes; she accidentally breaks his jaw with a metal bat. But eventually true love triumphs. Sometimes travel can play out the same way.

It's about 11 p.m. when I arrive at my little Berlin hotel. Two people are waiting in the lobby. I nod; they nod. The desk clerk seems to be speaking Russian. She is telling me my credit card doesn't work. Then I see my room, with the bathroom conveniently situated at the far end of the hall. I tell the clerk, now joined by an English-speaking husband, that I specifically requested a bathroom. You lie, they parry, and besides, your card is no good. So your reservation is cancelled.

It turns out the two people in the lobby were waiting to scoop my room in case I failed to show, and they are willing to pay extra. The situation calls for a strategic shit fit. Luckily I don't need to fake it -- I pop off like an Icelandic mountaintop. The two would-be pirates scurry out the door, terrified. Now lacking options, the innkeeper is forced to make peace. I am promised a private bathroom, eventually. Next day the card problems would get worse before they got better, but I'll spare you. Besides, you know how the movie ends. I love this place.

Not the hotel -- it still sucks. Just Berlin. The creative energy here is almost palpable. It's a situation summed up by Vancouver clothier Campbell McDougall (Bruce, Komakino) now living in Berlin with a store called Darklands. As he did in Vancouver, McDougall likes to switch up locations frequently. But there's a difference here. "When I would look for a new spot in Vancouver the competition for the space would always be coming from coffee shops," he says. "Here, it's always art galleries."

Historic yet vibrant

You don't even have to be hanging around galleries or fashion shows to feel it. Sometimes Berlin seems like a huge open-air gallery, or a big art school project by precociously talented students. Street art is everywhere and a lot of it is very good. There's stuff hidden away in dank alleys that would probably be featured on gallery tours back home. Clothing stores and odd shops are almost always worth exploring. There are more cool t-shirts for sale here than anywhere in Europe. And decent restaurants with prices Paris probably hasn't seen since Napoleon.

Berlin has many sites for traditional tourism, too. I've seen the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag dome, Checkpoint Charlie (best viewpoint: the patio of the nearby McDonald's), and even KaDeWe, the famous mega-department store that was the first stop for many East Berliners as soon as the Wall came down. The Museum Insel district features the fantastic Pergamon and other major museums, plus the restored Berliner Dom cathedral. Berlin also holds a special place as a testament to Nazi terror, a role the city has embraced with the Holocaust Memorial, the Jewish Museum, and the haunting little brass sidewalk plaques in front of homes where Jewish victims once lived.

But for all its history, Berlin feels like a city busily reinventing itself every month, every week. Walking from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, you get the sense of a place that's so young and vibrant, you find yourself wondering why some stuffy mayor and council didn't put a stop to it all.

One day after walking along the East Gallery -- a section of the Wall left up and turned into an uneven but entertaining gallery -- I walked past an unmarked gap in a fence and went in. Inside was a little boardwalk world beside the river, with little restaurants, cafes, an open-air bar of some sort, a sauna, and even a circus (closed, alas). What struck me most was that I wasn't even surprised anymore. This city is full of stuff like that.

The new East Berlins?

I arrived here painfully uninformed. I figured I would see the sights and then, bravely, venture into old East Berlin. About two days into my visit, Campbell had to explain to me that so far I had barely set foot in the former West Berlin at all. Virtually everything you want to see and experience is in the former Communist sector (although my hotel, tellingly, is in West Berlin, set in the most depressing neighbourhood I've seen here). It was the low rents of the old Eastern neighbourhoods that drew hordes of creatives. Now they grumble about gentrification and rising rents. It's worth wondering whether the creative rejuvenation process will now spread to the rest of former East Germany, with cities like Leipzig or Dresden becoming new East Berlins.

Not all of the youthful high spirits in Berlin are of the creative variety. Last Friday on the S-train platform, I stood out as an obvious tourist. It wasn't shorts and a backpack, or a Lonely Planet book. It was my lack of vodka. Big bottles of it -- or gin, or some sort of green liquor evidently popular with the kinder -- make every U-bahn and S-bahn a booze train on weekends. Cops couldn't care less, unless of course you're a bonafide bum.

One afternoon I watched a security guard toss a sodden street person off an S-bahn train. The rider sitting beside me snickered and made some remark in German. I just nodded and smiled. Had I been linguistically equipped to answer, I might have pointed out that the large beer he was swigging from made his snotty attitude rather untenable.

I got off the train at my destination, Hauptbahnhof station. The neighbourhood features a wide-open park with a canal, close to the remarkable, refurbished Reichstag. But I wasn't here to see the neighbourhood -- I just wanted to walk around Hauptbahnhof station itself. Opened four years ago, it's a thing of wonder, a massive latticework of glass and steel that manages to look retro and futuristic at once. It seems everything is interesting in this town -- the sole exception being my hotel. Not such a bad thing, really. Keeps you moving, like the city.  [Tyee]

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