During the 20th century, Berlin has had many faces: an imperial hub and thriving business center in the early 1900s, a chaotic yet culturally dominant mega-city during the inter-war years of the 1920s; the stage for the grisliest drama of the 20th century during the 1930s and 40s; a shattered, divided city during the Cold War; and finally the "poor but sexy" capital of a reunited and resurgent Germany.
I'll try to go into depth about each of these aspects in other posts, but for now I wanted to write a brief description of the city as I've found it.
Berlin's population is currently about 3.5 million. That's nearly 1 million fewer people than lived here at the end of the 1930s, just prior to WWII. What that means is that Berlin has a lot of extra space. There are more vacant lots, abandoned buildings, and unused public land than in any other large city I've seen. The unused land and warehouse space has often become home to vagrants, drug dealers, and nightclubs.
Even with all the extra space, there's something of a real estate boom happening in certain neighborhoods. In my neighborhood, apartment rents have increased 20% in the last 2-3 years. What's behind the boom? Well, people like me. Foreigners and non-Berlin Germans have been drawn to the city in increasing numbers since reunification in the early 1990s. This has pushed homegrown Berliners into outer regions and has led to increasing tension between the "newbies" and the "originals."
The price of Berlin real estate is still much lower than other major cities. This has attracted artists, musicians, students, and entrepreneurs. There are hundreds of startups, galleries, and funky stores that couldn't survive New York rents, but do just fine in Berlin.
On the other side of the spectrum, Berlin is the capital of the most prosperous country in Europe. So while poor artists do well here, there's also been a huge emphasis on building up Berlin as a world class political, cultural, and tourist center. The federal government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on massive construction projects intended to project an image of Berlin as a "world city."
These construction projects are meant to erase the legacy of Berlin as a city that was destroyed by bombs during the 1940s and then divided by ideology for the duration of the Cold War. In a sense, they are attempts to return Berlin to the "glory days" of the 1900s, when it was the leading cultural center in Europe.
But Berlin can't escape it's past. The magnitude of physical destruction in the 1940s and the division of the late 20th century have left their marks. Some of these scars are temporary, while others will last forever. I hope to use this blog to talk about these 20th century scars, and how the 21st century city obscures, preserves, and heals them.