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Opinion

Opinion: Keeping Berlin sexy

So much for Berlin's self-confidence. Rising rents, failing integration and skyrocketing crime show the German capital doesn't have a plan for the future - and it needs to get one, DW's Gero Schliess writes.

Berlin and modesty are two words seldom seen in the same sentence. The city bursts with self-confidence. At least that is Berlin's image in the minds of newcomers when they move to the city on the Spree River - including the author of this piece.

The city and its citizens quickly make it clear that self-doubt and restraint are not traits that Berliners bother with for long. They prefer to see themselves as the navel of the world and enjoy the city's appeal to artists and young professionals from all over the world.

DW's Gero Schliess

DW's Gero Schliess

But reality has caught up to this fantasy. What was once a sure thing now gives way to doubt. Berlin is now lamenting steadily increasing rents, which scare off artists and people who work in creative fields. An exodus has begun, and even art galleries are now turning their backs on the much-vaunted capital of art.

Crime and poverty

Berlin is also bemoaning its rising crime rate. One of the trouble spots is Kottbusser Tor in Kreuzberg, a hub of the Turkish community and a popular nightlife spot. The already high number of pickpocketing and purse-snatching incidents there has doubled just within the past year.

Berlin has become wealthier and poorer at the same time. The wealth can be attributed to successful startups such as Soundcloud and the game company Wooga, whose businesses in Berlin have also attracted financially potent investors. Britain's "Guardian" rightly speaks of Europe's Silicon Valley. The new enterprises have also boosted the local government's chronically depleted coffers.

In the meantime, poverty in Berlin can no longer be overlooked. More and more street beggars and displaced people inhabit the area around the city's central railway station. This development should serve as a warning signal for the growing number of socially troubled areas in the city.

Airport disaster

Deep in the side of Berlin's confidence is wedged the thorn of the never-ending airport scandal. With no finishing date in sight, the huge construction site is slowly becoming a multi-million-euro graveyard. The floundering project has become a symbol of the legendary incompetence of Berlin's government.

Another example is Berlin's education policy: From the planning phase to the actual opening, it can take more than ten years to build a school. So now, children of the migrants who arrived since last year will have to resort to sharpening their elbows in overfilled classrooms. That doesn't sound like planning for the future.

It is not surprising that Berliners greedily soak up all the praise and recognition from outside the city, like the "New York Times"' hymn to the heavenly playgrounds for children or the enthusiasm for what former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani described as "clean and attractive" at his recent Berlin visit. But Giuliani cannot do the actual work for Berlin's politicians.

'Poor but sexy' doesn't fly anymore

Former Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit made a splash when he called Berlin "poor but sexy," spawning an unexpected international marketing slogan for the city. Now it has become trite and has exhausted its function as a means of exalting botched policies. Skyrocketing rents and real-estate prices show that Berlin has long become a victim of its own success: Speculators quickly followed the artists.

How will Berlin manage to maintain its appeal under these circumstances? And how should the world view the city in the future? Should it be a Mecca of startups, a colorful and vibrant cultural metropolis or a place of intellectual and philosophical debates on the future? Should it become an epicenter of European power? Or a bit of everything?

Get a plan

Wowereit's successor, Michael Müller, and Berlin's coalition government made up of Social Democrats (SPD) and Christian Democrats (CDU) have been governing in a rather weary and unremarkable manner. Their actions have not yet indicated whether they have been able to rise to the new challenges. If they have any doubts, they should just do what Giuliuni told them to do. "You have to make a plan" is the message he repeatedly tried to hammer into the Berliners.

The city needs a plan that displays leadership within the government and clearly drives a message home to the public. That kind of plan is urgently needed to keep Berlin sexy in the future.

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