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Scene in Berlin

Music unites old and young Berliners

The gentrification wave sweeping Berlin naturally began in the city's central district, Mitte. While the debate can be fierce, a music festival seems to be easing tensions between the older and younger generations.

Gentrification. The word itself sends a shiver down my spine. It's been the city's hot topic for a number of years now and has been thoroughly discussed from all angles. I’m bored to death with it all.

While relative newcomers to Berlin like myself might write off long-term residents' concerns as nothing more than idle moaning, I am nevertheless sympathetic to their plight and can see the reasoning behind their wearisome but valid arguments.

I understand their dismay that fewer services in their neighborhood are geared towards them, catering instead to visitors who are only in the city only for a couple of days. If all the local shops in your street close down and are replaced with a strip of hotels and trendy bars, where do you buy milk or a bag of potatoes?

On the one side you have the older generation of residents who resent the character of their neighborhood being eroded, on the other an eager army of new Berliners who dislike the fact they are made to feel like intruders in their new home.

The 2 p.m. vibe

But help may be at hand and - in typical Berlin fashion - it's got something to do with music. Last year saw the first Torstrassenfestival, a neighborhood-oriented music event which took place on the street that cuts through the heart of the centrally located Mitte district, Torstrasse.

The idea behind it, as Andreas Gebhard from newthinking communications told me, was to involve nightlife venues which are generally closed to patrons during the day.

"I got the inspiration to do this from the Camden Crawl in London," he explained, "To see live music in the afternoon is something of a rarity these days, especially in Mitte. But I liked the idea of being able to give people a different view of the music. It's a different vibe to see at band at 2 p.m. and then come out into the sunshine and have a coffee."

The event, which he describes as the unofficial prelude to Berlin Music Week (September 5-9), sees some 30 bands play in locations all along the Torstrasse. Because gigs take place in existing venues, the organizers are able to charge a much lower entrance fee since they don't have to construct outdoor stages, rent expensive equipment and hire security personnel.

"It's very informal. I like to think of it as a matinee festival," he said. "You can just wander along the Torstrasse and discover the event by chance. There's also the advantage of not having to wait until 2 a.m. to see a band play. You can catch them at 2 p.m. and in the meantime meet friends, have a coffee, and wander about."

In its second year, the Torstrassenfestival presents concerts, fashion shows, DJ sets, comic exhibitions and barbecue parties. It's a far cry from the street's previous incarnation. All but destroyed at the end of World War II, it was re-built by Soviet occupying forces in the typically bland and functional architectural style of the time.

Wilhelm-Pieck-Strasse, as it was known then, named after East German leader Wilhelm Pieck, was a broad tree-lined avenue. Typical of the anti-consumerist stance of the communist East, it offered very little to the visitor or the resident.

These days, things couldn't be more different. Torstrasse, as it was renamed in 1994, is a vibrant, bustling strip brimming with coffee shops, fashion stores, tattoo artists, knickknack shops and a liberal smattering of hotels with the exclusive Soho House standing proud at the end of the street. In an ironic twist of fate, this luxury hotel is in the building where Pieck, the first and only official president of East Germany, had his office.

Torstrasse in Berlin during the 2011 Torstrassenfestival

Visitors pour out of a club and into the street at last year's festival

Talk to your neighbors

Melissa Perales, another of the Torstrassenfestival organizers, is originally from Chicago but has lived in the Mitte district for the last 16 years. She says the opinions of long-term residents to the changes in their beloved Torstrasse are mixed.

"I know many are frightened of not being able to pay their rent," she said. "Of course they have a right to be afraid to leave the place they have called home for many years and this leads to anonymity among the residents. It's hard to judge the overall situation so easily. I think more important is what kind of neighborhood dynamic happens and what kind of overall space we allow each other in order to coexist."

And this is where the Torstrassenfestival plays an important role, in offering a communal, neighborhood-based event which encourages dialogue between long-term residents and the newer generation of Berliners.

"I would like to think that we are doing something in the direction of bringing together old and new structures," said Perales. "I'm not much about complaining, I would rather do something. It's all about how you decide to make changes. We encourage diversity and try and maintain a good relationship with our neighbors, to let them know we are open to having them come on in. Maybe that is the key word here: respect."

Co-organizer and musician Norman Palm agrees. "We want people to meet, talk and exchange their thoughts: the bartender with the shop-owner, the hipster with the local pensioner, the investor with the squatter. We've seen all this happen at last year's festival. Understanding each other is the key and music feels like the right vehicle."

The musician and the little old lady

The former Wilhelm-Pieck-Strasse in Berlin, pictured here in 1982

The former Wilhelm-Pieck-Strasse, pictured here in 1982, used to be a rather barren avenue

I'm reminded of a story a friend of mine - one of those dreaded Mitte hipsters that are an immediate target of hate for people who have lived in the area for 30 years - told me about last year's event. He had passed an elderly neighbor countless times in the stairwell and they'd barely spoken a word, each automatically assuming that the other didn't like them.

"On the day of the festival I saw her walking along the street," he said, "And I thought to hell with it, I'm going to invite her to the gig I’m going to see. And she came with me! This little old lady standing in a club watching some raucous punk band. After it was over I asked her what she thought and she said 'Well, the music was awful but it was nice to be asked.' So maybe it made a difference after all."

If an event like the Torstrassenfestival is an excuse to forget prejudices and make an effort, even just once a year, then so much the better.

But of course it's easy for me to say that. After all, I couldn't give a hoot what my neighbors think of me.

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