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Wowereit's retirement

Jefferson Chase, BerlinDecember 10, 2014

For more than 13 years, Mayor Klaus Wowereit has been the face of party-hearty, poor-but-sexy Berlin. For DW's Jefferson Chase, a special chapter in Berlin's history will be over when he leaves office.

Klaus Wowereit, Copyright: imago
Image: imago

There are mayors who are more than just heads of a city government. Some seem to merge with a time and a place, coming to embody a particular period in their city's history. Rudy Giuliani in New York and Ken Livingstone in London are two examples. So is Klaus Wowereit.

It's no hollow cliché to say that when Wowereit steps down on December 11 an era will come to an end. Wowi, as he's known, was the personification of 21st-century Berlin. For all I know I may have sat next to Wowereit's predecessor Eberhard Diepgen on the subway a hundred times and not noticed, and I wouldn't recognize his successor Michael Müller if he ran over me with a car.

But I and everybody else who knows Berlin know Wowi.

Scene in Berlin logo, Copyright: DW

Wowereit was both a larger-than-life personality capable of symbolizing Germany's largest city and an approachably local figure you could imagine encountering in everyday situations. In fact, I don't have to imagine it. I did indeed briefly encounter Woworeit - twice.

It was okay he's gay

This first time was in a gay bar in the Kreuzberg district shortly after he had become mayor at the age of 47 on June 16, 2001. I was sitting with a group of friends when Klaus Wowereit and his partner and what may or may not have been a bodyguard walked in, sat at the table next to ours, and ordered drinks.

What was remarkable about this scene was how unremarkable it was. In any other big city back then, the mayor being spotted with his boyfriend at a gay bar would have been fodder for the tabloids. In Berlin, it was completely normal.

Wowereit, himself a West Berlin native, embodied the relaxed attitudes of a city where it was okay to sleep until five in the afternoon, crack open a beer at 11:00 a.m. or go to a gay bar as a heterosexual, if you felt like it. After all, Wowi had shot to prominence with perhaps the most easy-going coming-out in political history - "I'm gay, and that's okay," he told a Social Democratic party conference shortly before becoming mayor.

Klaus Wowereit and Franz Müntefering in 2001, Copyright: AP Photo/Roberto Pfeil
'Wowi' was the toast of the town after becoming mayor in 2001Image: AP

That sentence was one of two memorable Wowi catch-phrases, the other being his description of Berlin as "poor, but sexy." When Wowereit took over the city in 2001, Berlin was billions of euros in the hock and jobs were scarce - two legacies of Germany's division and the Cold War. Wowereit was a living, breathing reminder that while you probably weren't going to get rich in Berlin, you didn't need to either.

New York and London were the places to be if you wanted to have a brilliant career. Berlin was where to go if you wanted to have fun.

The party mayor

Wowereit leaves behind a city that is far better off economically than when he took office. How much of Berlin's boom is down to him is debatable, but Wowereit undeniably deserves credit for promoting the German capital around the world as an affable, hip, cosmopolitan location.

Critics would say he did too much promotion, especially at parties and celebrity events, and not enough day-to-day running of the municipal government. Many of the most vivid images of Wowi are of him getting down with beautiful people - perhaps in Berlin's best interest, perhaps not. Detractors quipped that Berlin's motto should be "sexy, but poor."

Klaus Wowereit at a party, Copyright: Wolfgang Kumm/dpa
Wowereit was a frequent and enthusiastic party-goerImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Partying takes its toll of course, and when he announced that he was stepping down, Wowereit cited fatigue as his main reason. Perhaps not coincidentally, he's also retiring just as it's becoming clear that Berlin's years-behind-schedule and billions-over-budget new airport - for which Wowereit was the chairman of the supervisory board - may never open for business.

One of Wowi's short-term legacies is a highway exit sign just south of city limits with the words "Berlin Brandenburg International Airport" x-ed out.

Off to links

A few weeks ago, I drove past that sign on my way out for a round of golf in the village of Motzen. At the club, I once again encountered Klaus Wowereit, who was playing in the flight behind mine and who offered me a friendly "Hello and have fun." Watching his swing, I felt I understood a bit better why our airport will probably never get going. For a 61-year-old, he looks pretty good.

It would be easy to criticize the mayor for taking a Tuesday off for a round of golf and leisurely lunch, but I'm disinclined to do so. Better Wowi's laissez-faire than Giulani's law-and-order, if you ask me, and I'll be sad to see Klaus Wowereit go, even if I also think he's picked the right time to step down.

Klaus Wowereit, Copyright: Patrick Pleul dpa/lbn
Under Wowi's supervision, the airport just never took offImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The era of Berlin history he personified is over. Masses of tourists, economic refugees from struggling EU countries, go-getters and starter-uppers, and property investors looking to get a piece of undervalued real estate have killed off the unique slacker flair of Berlin in the initial years after the fall of the Wall. Berlin has become like other big cities. It's more commercial, more economically viable - and much less fun.

So, Klaus Wowereit, fare thee well and thanks for the memories. There'll never be another place like turn-of-the-millennium Berlin, and I for one won't mind if we don't get a huge new airport to bring even more people to the city. In my book, you did an okay job.

And hey, if you get bored and fancy a round of golf, give me a ring.