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Talking Policy: Paul Hockenos on Gentrification and Art in Berlin

The Berlin Wall's historic fall in 1989 signaled the end of the Cold War and saw the fusion and collision of the subcultural scenes of West and East Berlin. In his book, Berlin Calling, Paul Hockenos describes this era from the perspective of graffiti artists, punk rockers, and anarchists, examining how Berlin became trendy and attractive to the creative-minded. World Policy Journal speaks with Hockenos, a Berlin-based journalist and writer and a World Policy fellow, about the role of counterculture in shaping today's Berlin as well as gentrification in the German capital.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: You grew up in upstate New York, but you left for Berlin in 1985 and later made it your home. Why did you choose Berlin?

PAUL HOCKENOS: At the time, West Berlin was as far away as you could get without leaving the Western world. It was also the height of the Reagan era and I had just graduated from college, was under pressure to choose a career. I wanted to go somewhere where I didn’t know anybody at all. Of course, also, by the mid-1980s news of some of West Berlin had seeped out through the walls and borders. [David] Bowie and Iggy [Pop] had done some of their best work there. The industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten was raved about in Rolling Stone. And I intended to study at the Free University, which had a reputation for special brand of social critique steeped in the tradition of German philosophy. 

WPJ: What inspired you to write a book about Berlin from the perspective of street artists, punk rockers, and activists?

PH: There are a lot of fine books on Berlin, but I feel that none of them really explain today's Berlin—why it has this hip, counter-cultural, off-beat reputation, and why so many people like myself find it an attractive place to live. My main thesis is that the subcultures that arose in West and East Berlin, starting in the late 60s but more strongly in the 80s, and after the wall fell, decisively shaped Berlin, making it what it is today. 

WPJ: How big a role did the punks play in infusing a sense of resistance among West Berliners?

PH: Punk was vitally important not only for West Berlin, but East Berlin, too. West Berlin was very different before the punk rock revolution broke, even in 1976-78 when Bowie and Iggy lived there. It was a sleepy, isolated, dour place where you’d have to look long and hard to find, say, an art gallery or a cool movie theater. I think of it as the West Berlin of Christiane F., whose famous book about heroin and prostitution in the city led Bowie to call it the heroin capital of the world. Punk rock shook up the creative scene in West Berlin, introducing a potent anti-authoritarian, do-it-yourself ethnic, which still exists, though in other forms, today. It ushered in the whole off-scene club culture and post-punk and New Wave bars and clubs and bands, but also influenced fashion, the visual arts, and lifestyle. Punk is one of many anarchist currents responsible for the innovative, disruptive, anti-establishment streak that has surfaced again and again in Berlin over the years. 

WPJ: Artists and hipsters in West Berlin were not as excited as others when the wall came down. What were their biggest fears? And now, in hindsight, do you think their fears were justified?

PH: It was a really strange phenomenon. The music scene and others involved in counterculture in West Berlin relished the fact that they were shut off and isolated from the rest of Germany. They didn't want West Berlin opened up to East Berlin or East Germany or West Germany or anybody else as they liked their comfortable, little subcultural biotope just the way it was. When this bubble, which depended heavily on all kinds of subsidies, burst, their lives changed. They couldn’t possibly realize what they’d gain. Many artists who‘d lived from hand to mouth in West Berlin actually became famous after the wall tumbled: DJs, artists, and well-known designers, and some even world-famous in their professions.

WPJ: How did West and East Berliners interact when the wall crashed? Was there a collision of ideas?

PH: After 40 years of very different socializations a lot of problems and resentment came to a head when they began living and working together, first in the squats in East Berlin. In Berlin you saw the clash almost immediately when West Berliners and East Berliners mixed in that thrilling year between the Wall’s fall and unification in 1990. It took a while for them to get to know one another. East Berliners often saw West Berliners as arrogant know-it-alls, while West Berliners saw East Berliners and East Germans as one big, poorly dressed, uncool bunch of authoritarian-minded clones. Keep in mind that eastern Germans hadn't gone through the liberal cultural revolution set off by the student movement in the late 1960s. So, it took a while for them to get used to the liberal nature of what Western Germany had become.

The creative, underground scenes were very different in West and East Berlin. In the East, alternative culture, like punk rock, because it was so explicit and in-your-face subversive, was considered political by the authorities and was treated as such. Some punk rock artists were even jailed. When the wall fell, the scenes in West Berlin and the East came together, and attracted fresh blood from around the world, thus creating something much bigger and more spectacular. That is why the first post-wall years are referred to as the “miracle years of anarchy.” I think Berlin still very much lives from this spirit and vibe, you see it in film, clubs and cafes, new fiction and music, and even commercial branding.

WPJ: With the wall's breach, investors and planners in Berlin expected massive and rapid rejuvenation of the city. They wanted to convert Berlin into an ultra-modern urban center of global standing. But through the 90s, the city's population shrank, private sector investment was below expectations and Berlin's Olympics bid fell flat. Then, the start of the 21st century saw drastic change and rapid development. What changed?

PH: The subcultural scene in the new Berlin thrived in this vacuum, as a kind of a paradise for artists and creative people, including, for example, the impresarios behind the electronic music clubscape. Creative types and eccentric entrepreneurs used the many free spaces and niches that existed in post-industrial Berlin. There was a spirit of innovation and inventiveness that was attractive not just for artists, but also for the different kinds of startups, and the so-called creative industry, which are much bigger than just arts. Berlin became a place where publishers and the music and fashion industries wanted to be. The city planners originally actually tried to hide this bohemian, DYI underside of Berlin because they thought it would be off-putting. Only later, around 2000, did the city realize that this was Berlin’s cache. And then they started posing Berlin as a creative city, and that has worked as branding for Berlin, and made it quite successful—even if sometimes at the expense of the creatives. 

WPJ: Like many other cities, Berlin has experienced gentrification. How has this affected the city's poorest and most vulnerable populations?

PH: It is really a black irony that artists and creative types who made Berlin attractive and are responsible for its success today are being forced out by the high rents, the mass tourism, and commercialization. Berlin is changing dramatically. Rents are going up everywhere. Former districts that were known for the squats, hole-in-the-wall cafes, and punk clubs, are now full of boutiques and high-end apartment buildings. There are still some inexpensive places for not-for-profit, creative types to live and work in Berlin, but they are more on the outskirts of the city. This is a worrisome development. And if it continues this way, then Berlin will become a boring, hyper expensive, clone city like many of the other capitals and big cities in Europe. 

WPJ: You talk about the presence of the far right in new Germany in the early 90s, especially in eastern Germany. How strong is far-right sentiment now?

PH: Many people don't know that in the 70s and the 80s, both West and East Germany had a prominent far- right and neo-Nazi presence. And in my book, I talk about how violent they were in the early 1990s, when they terrorized the left-wing scenes and migrants in Berlin. Now, the far right has gone mainstream. It is no longer just neo-Nazis beating up foreigners, homosexuals, and squatters, but they are politicians in the parliament. The far right can be divided into two groups: a parliamentary party, Alternative for Germany, which polls around 10 percent nationally and as much as 25 percent in parts of eastern Germany, and the more violent subculture, real neo-Nazis, a very small section of society, who commit hate crimes against refugees and other enemies. 

WPJ: You compare Berlin and Detroit and mention Tresor techno nightclub owner Dimitri Hegemann's argument that Detroit should imitate Berlin by embracing the night and reconfiguring space. What did Hegemann mean by this? And what are some other things that cities could learn from Berlin?

PH: Berlin and Detroit have interesting parallels. They are both post-industrial cities that at a certain point were down on their luck. And there were many abandoned buildings and lots of space available in both cities. Berlin is a city that doesn't close at night, and never did. There are no closing hours for clubs and bars. So, the Berlin club and late night scene is a serious source of income for the city. And as for reconfiguring space, the free space in Detroit, such as disused factories, could be filled with businesses and projects like in Berlin. In my section of Berlin, just 100 yards from where I am right now, a turn-of-the-century brewery is now a movie theater, with clubs, a concert hall, and a small theater troupe in it.

The most important thing that other cities can learn from Berlin is that their artists, broadly defined, are an asset: They shouldn't take them for granted. There must be the conditions for this kind of urban, creative culture to exist, most importantly affordable rents and studio space, as well as health coverage for artists. In Berlin itself, we need more social housing. It is all being privatized now. We need strong tenants' rights to protect low rents for people who have been in the neighborhood for years.

*****

*****

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Interview conducted by Divya Ramesh]

[Photo courtesy of Paul Hockenos]

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