While I was sitting at a cafe waiting for the researcher that I had a meeting with to show up an odd thought occurred to me: is he going to know who I am?
I usually don’t worry about this. I stand out a little in most crowds I’m in, and it’s obvious that I am me. Sometimes when someone I’m set to meet asks what I look like I say something to the effect of ‘I look like the most unlikely person in the room to be a financial journalist.’ It works.
But in Berlin I blend in. Here, bodies are covered in tattooing, chins are draped with beards, feet are clad in boots, and heads are topped with ridiculous hats. This is a place where pink mohawks come standard issue, and are looked at with as much interest as a brush cut anywhere else in the world.
“I’ve always wondered if extreme styles of dress was just a matter of rebellion, and if its reactionary value was removed would there still be a purpose for it,” I said to the researcher once he showed up.
“Yes, in Berlin it’s actually the other way around,” he replied.
I watched a young guy walk by with nicely parted short hair, wearing a business suit with freshly shined shoes, and carrying a briefcase. He looked ridiculously misplaced — something that probably couldn’t be said for any other city center.
The cultural landscape of Berlin is different than anywhere else — I’ll put it like that. It’s a city of graffitied squat houses next to expensive Italian bistros. Everybody ultimately want the same thing: a cool place to live, and this is precisely what has been engineered here.
Berlin, or at least the eastern portion of it, is a city of punks and anarchist who beget punks and anarchist who beget punks and anarchists. A migration of people from across Europe who “want to be free” have been coming here for multiple generations. “It’s really free here,” people told me over and over. Even the Italian guy who runs a deli and made me a sandwich said that he came to Berlin “to be free.”
This sentiment was difficult to argue against. A bottle of beer in your hand seems to be a mandatory ticket to walk through the streets here. You come to a crosswalk and idly take a slug while waiting, like everybody else. People gather in big crowds in front of fashionable venues or supermarkets and in parks. Skateboarders are everywhere. Cafes, bars, and restaurants flood out into the streets and are packed with people. People…people are everywhere.
This last point is what really makes Berlin special. The streets are just so densely packed with people that it’s difficult to not feel some kind of connection to the place. This is a city for “people,” not cars or businesses or factories.
This sheer amount of human to human connectivity may seem odd in a section of a city that was very much rebuilt along a Soviet style urban design, often with superblocks, huge setbacks between the streets and buildings, and massive, 5,000 person+ housing blocks. As far as urban design goes, parts of Berlin are about as un-trendy as it now gets — the city’s style being the current antithesis of how to build a city with character and tightly knit communities. The irony is that Berlin has all the software of what’s currently in vogue in urban planning without the “right” kind of hardware. It is a remarkably social place within what’s supposed to be anti-social architecture.
It’s not the architecture or design that makes a city, but the people living there. If people don’t want to talk to their neighbors or have nothing in common with them, then the tightest scale street grid with the most street-facing shops in the world isn’t going to get them to interact.
That’s perhaps the fundamental failing of urban design: the attempt to engineer societies with buildings, streets, and physical space while societies can only be engineered by people — by people who are going to live in the way they want regardless of what their cities look like. Put ten thousand Berliners in a socially sterile Chinese housing complex and the place will become the next cultural epicenter of the world.
I only spent a weekend in Berlin, but I saw enough to make me want to go back. Along with work — doing interviews, finishing an article, etc — I spent my days there walking through the streets with a bottle of beer loosely slung in one hand, enjoying the place like everyone else.