The legendary image of Berlin as a free-spirited domain where underground culture thrives has attracted a great number of expats. But some New Yorkers are coming to the city to find another type of freedom.
"We've been here in Berlin for about two and half, three days, and I never want to go back… I can say with straight authority, coming from New York City — the number one, greatest, classiest, world-class city in the world: Berlin is now number one," said one of the hosts of the popular political and humor podcast Chapo Trap House, as they kicked off their European tour with a live performance in Berlin at the beginning of June.
They were perhaps trying to charm their audience; but the claim reflects the initial reaction of many Americans who discover the city. Many of them eventually turn that first 72-hour visit into a long-term stay: There are around 20,000 US expats currently living in Berlin.
With the Deutschlandjahr USA being held throughout 2019, Germany is spending a year promoting its cultural ties with the North American country. By revealing their positive impressions of their time spent in Berlin in their live podcast, the Chapo Trap House crew unknowingly contributed to these efforts. However, they weren't quite on spot when they continuously referred to "the Germans" in their praise.
They should well know that, just like New York City has a unique cultural status within the US, Berlin is not like the rest of Germany.
German orderliness? Punctuality? You can forget the stereotypes: Berlin, a champion of random schedules, celebrates its "neglected" style as part of its trademark. Oktoberfest? Carnival? You'd be challenged to find locals celebrating those traditional German fests here.
Berlin's mythical image
The fact that Berlin was the epicenter of the 20th century's turbulent history has long intrigued and inspired foreigners — and not only Americans — to come check out the city. "Destroyed, divided and held captive during a century of chaos and upheaval, borderless Berlin has yet remained a city where drifters, dreamers and outsiders can find a place — and finally run free," writes Stuart Braun (who also works for DW) in his book City of Exiles.
International cultural icons who have spent prolonged periods in Berlin, from Iggy Pop and David Bowie to Susan Sontag and Nan Goldin, have helped fuel the romantic image of the free-spirited city that many artists and intellectuals dream of also calling their own. These same revered artists, musicians and writers also once embraced New York as a home, helping to create a strong connection between the cities.
In the 1990s, the newly reunified city famously attracted squatters, artists and DJs who knew how to turn post-Wall Berlin's vacant spaces into anarchic cultural venues. Among them were New York natives who noticed similarities between the two metropolises.
"I was here after the Wall came down to visit, and Berlin had that raw energy that New York had in the 70s-80s," says Howard Katz, a choreographer, performer, musician and healer who was born in New York and who chose to live in Berlin in the 90s. "There was a lot of space. Things were open and crazy. I could get involved with all those crazy things and people."
Refuge from US politics
Today, even if Berlin's alternative scene is not what it once was, the city is still seen as a haven where one can escape the current political context of the US.
"We officially left our apartment on the day Trump was inaugurated," says Alana Range, who with her partner decided to move and set up a second office for their Brooklyn-based agency in Berlin after an initial three-month fellowship in 2016. "It was a funny timing, but slightly purposeful, because it's super frustrating to live in a place where it feels so divisive — even though New York is a bubble where you're safe from all that."
Even 15 years before Trump's election, the 2001 terrorist attacks roused New Yorkers to leave for Berlin as well: "I tried to go back to New York. That was a few weeks before September 11 — and that didn't work for me. The city shut down after that," says Katz, who later returned permanently to the German capital.
A 'very soft pillow'
If some expats are attracted to what's left of the gritty Berlin experience, and see it as another city that never sleeps, others are attracted by its relaxed pace.
For Range, Berlin felt "in a way like the opposite of New York, where if you're not hustling 24 hours a day and if you're not responding to an email with 45 minutes of getting it, people think you're dead."
Berlin's real draw for New Yorkers is not Berghain and other temples of techno, but rather its chilled lifestyle
"I liken my experience of coming to Berlin to hitting an air bag — in a good way — that is a very soft pillow, and all of a sudden it's quiet," Range continues. "The perspective people have on work here is that it's just that, work. That is a very healthy thing that I think in general Americans don't have" — though she still has to get used to the "imposed rest" that comes with shops being closed on Sundays.
Range also acknowledges that Americans are being lured to Berlin for the English speaking jobs in the hyped start-up scene.
"It's definitely happening," Range says. "But it's a different version than what's happening in San Francisco or New York," she adds. "It's again with this filter of a slower pace."
Most of the Americans she knows who are moving to Berlin to pursue jobs in tech or design also want to simply escape the stress of living in cities like LA or New York where one must work constantly to pay exorbitant rents.
Part of Berlin's appeal is how easily you can get around by bike or with the public transportation system
Will Berlin stay attractive?
But again, Berlin's attraction is not only that it's comparatively affordable but the ability to achieve a better work-life balance, Range says. Ironically, however, expats who are also willing to pay more for apartments in Berlin are also driving up the rents. "It's an interesting dynamic," Range admits.
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The gentrification of the city is widespread. Some foreigners who have been in Berlin longer than other newcomers are known to complain how "everything has changed," and that the version of Berlin they "discovered" no longer exists.
That might be true, but longtime Berliner Katz, who's directly witnessed the transformation of the alternative arts scene since the 90s, believes it's too easy to complain. He rather encourages people to commit to shaping the city that they want. To this end, he's creating his own new "playgrounds" in Berlin.
In 2017, Katz and his partner opened Q Space, a rehearsal and performance venue in the former East Berlin district of Pankow; he also finds a stimulating buzz in the multicultural area of Wedding, where he lives.
"I love Berlin and I love the changes," says the former New Yorker. "I refuse to be part of that voice that's complaining that everything is going the wrong way. It's not."