Thursday, October 11, 2007


"Oy! Fuck off, you lot! This is my Deutscheland!"

And just when I was finally starting to feel settled in, along parades the peanut gallery. Bloody hell.

I've never been much for mass movements (except perhaps for Bill Hicks' proposed People Who Hate People Party, which I'm sorry never got off the ground). There's something that constricts my throat when I see how many of my friends & former classmates migrated to the same section of Brooklyn; similarly, I feel relieved at having left Baltimore before the city became pop-culturaly name-drop-able - and not just 'cuz the the music sucks.

So to know that I've landed in the buzz-king burg for the Western culutral elite (or at least the luxury classes) awakens my inner isolationist. It gives me no thrill to know that Willem Dafoe kicks back at the cafe next to my local grocer. Rather, I feel cramped by carpetbaggers. (Can't say "squatters" 'cuz Berlin's already rife with the real deal.)

This is not to hate on the city - far from it. It's a fascinating place of many faces. But it rings false to hear the New York Times rhapsodise about Berlin's similarity to "New York City in the 1980s... Rents are cheap, graffiti is everywhere and the air crackles with a creativity that comes only from a city in transition." If memory serves, tags were treated as a plague in pre-Giuliani New York. The great innovators of that era (which is now being historicized and fetishized) were largely ignored and derided at the time. And "cheap" rent is relative: artists from the Big Apple may be swarming to the German capital, but if you're an "artist" who could actually afford to live in contemporary NYC, then of course your coffers are full enough to make rent in Berlin - or Baltimore, Prague, Turin, even Toronto.

The simile also ignores that Berlin is subject to the same modern rubbish as any other "world-class city." Subway fare is triple the minimum fare in Tokyo. Starbucks, H&M, McDonald's, and BMW dealers pepper the polis like overpriced confetti. The commercial hubs arouse little beyond concrete & plastic big-box deja-vu. "Old World" it ain't.

Again, I'm not trying to diminish the exquisite experiences Berlin does offer. But in trying to capture whatever uncanny élan entranced the great resident artists of bygone times, all I find are whiffs of history, yellowed snapshots of a city that no longer exists. The melodrama & nightclub decadence of the Brecht's 1930s Berlin; the drug-addled alienation of an "inland island" on which Bowie & Pop exiled themselves; the post-industrial, politically-charged slow-motion riot of the '80s as distilled in song by Nick Cave & Blixa Bargeld - none of this is present. In the right light, at the right time, my mind adrift just enough, I can feel the breath of of this past on my neck. But I can't hold onto it.

So let Brangelina buy that epicurean condo in Mitte, and Jude Law can hit all the cafés he wants. The hype about Berlin becoming "nothing less than the 'new Paris'" is still bullshit, because it hardly bodes well for a city when its ghosts make more compelling company than its occupants.

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