In Berlin, Encounters with Hipsters Beyond the Wall

Friday, February 27, 2015 | Kreuzberg, Berlin, Germany (map)

Berlin blur: exploring Kreuzberg last weekend.
Germany was never high on my list of potential destinations, but something about dating a German girl managed to change my perspective. Nina and I are now back in Algiers after a long weekend in Berlin that was admittedly far more fascinating than I had expected.

We stayed in hipster central: the neighborhood of Kreuzberg (in an Airbnb apartment of course—wait, do people still stay in hotels?) Outside of Brooklyn, you would be hard pressed to find a higher concentration of organic brunch spots, screen printing workshops, vintage shops, graffiti posing as "street art", plus flannel, beards, tattoos, piercings, and all the rest. Once an undesirable quarter abandoned to Berlin's Turkish immigrant community, Kreuzberg has been reborn as an edgy arts district (read: overtaken by hipsters). Strolling through the neighborhood gave me an instant taste of just how alternative a city Berlin is—not
something I had expected to find in the capital of stereotypically buttoned-up Germany.

Besides having an alternative bent to them, the locals in Kreuzberg were a noticeably young bunch, too. Nina and her friends assured me that the rest of Germany skews far older—a result of so many of the country's young and hip making for big cities like Berlin, and a further reason for them to do so. Also against the prevailing national trend, young Berliners seem to be reproducing too; there was a kindergarten on every corner, and baby strollers galore on the sidewalks. (Though to be fair, not all the strollers were pushed by fellow twenty- and thirty-somethings. I saw at least one with a dreadlocked grandma behind the wheel!)

Berlin doesn't just attract young people from the German countryside though; others come from much farther. One of the highlights of my trip was getting to catch up, if only briefly, with my high school buddy Henry, who moved to Berlin two years ago, drawn by the surprisingly cheap cost of living, lively cultural scene, and job opportunities. (He has since landed a job at a local tech startup, and is making good use of his high school German.) Henry's not alone; in just a few days in Berlin we ran across numerous young people from around Europe and beyond.

Berlin's appeal is unmistakable. Even in chilly February, walk around town on a given day and you'll see plenty to like: quirky shops peddling "Ostalgie" wares (celebrating the good old days of socialist East Germany), delicious dining options from around the globe, locals walking their dogs along the banks of the canal or the Spree river. There's the U-Bahn, Berlin's metro, with its cheerful yellow cars. And of course there's The Wall; memorials and graffiti-ed fragments of the famous barrier still crisscross the city, but are surprisingly unobtrusive. Nonetheless, once a local points them out to you, signs of Berlin's history as a divided city are all around, as subtle as the "walk" and "don't walk" signs that still distinguish East and West Berlin, 25 years after the Wall fell.

Mauerpark: The East Side Gallery still features upright sections of the wall, now used as a canvas by local street artists.
* * *

It didn't take long for Berlin to convince me; in just a few short days, I found myself wondering "Why didn't I ever want to visit this place before?" But in truth, before I came there was already one aspect of Berlin that I knew beyond any doubt I wanted to see: the nightlife.

A New Yorker article from last year had seriously piqued my interest in the city's dance clubs, which, despite having attained worldwide renown, somehow manage to maintain their edgy, underground aura. Perhaps that is because in Berlin, unlike anywhere else, the nightlife molds itself to the city, bleeding into the empty spaces that daytime dwellers leave momentarily unguarded. Berlin is the city that made techno famous, and it did so after Germany's reunification when party-goers overtook abandoned warehouses and other structures in the unused neutral zone surrounding the Wall's path.

Two decades later, the geography of Berlin's nightlife has changed, but the spirit seems to have not. Pushed from the city center by urban development and gentrification, the party has simply moved elsewhere. On our one big night out, Nina and I arrived soon after midnight—unfashionably early, by Berlin standards—at the Stattbad, a nightclub that was once a public indoor swimming pool, located in a northern suburb of the city. Her friends led us downstairs into the party, which echoed amid the pipes and valves and pumps of the former pool's darkened engine rooms and showers. Under low brickwork ceilings, we walked from room to room, passing glowing bars and a series of DJs who filled the space with pulsing industrial beats.

The place soon filled with everything from euro-trash clubbers to punks to hipsters. As best I can recall, we drank and danced, then drank and danced some more, before returning very late to Kreuzberg. I have no pictures to jog my memory; as in all Berlin clubs, to protect clients' privacy and encourage everyone to enjoy the moment, photography is strictly forbidden.

In a city that looks backward as fondly—but unsparingly—as it looks forward, the only memories you have are the ones you make yourself.

1 comment:

Maggie Farrand said...

I remember reading that New Yorker article last year and thinking Berlin is CRAZY! Glad you had fun :)

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