During our week seminar, the scholarship recipients all went on a boat tour down the Spree river. It was a beautiful day, and down the river I saw parts of Berlin that I have never seen before. Starting west, we cruised by the cathedral and museum Island and saw a very historical Berlin, where religion, the sciences and arts, as well as power [ remnants of Prussia ] all stood side by side in scenic classical architecture; a fragmented view of Berlin past.
Further down the river we crossed by the Reichstag and its many office buildings that I weaved through as a Praktikant there just a few months ago. It seems that anytime I am around the buildings and hear some of its history, the Germans are extremely proud to admit that its abundance of glass is to promote an openness with the community and to omit a closed-government-“we are watching you”-persona from the capital of the country. We even crossed under the iconic bridge that – remember – was exclusive since only workers of the Bundestag had access to it.
Along the river, many people were enjoying the sun and lying along the banks in parks that have evolved along with Berlin and have become luxurious places to relax. However, being Berlin, it isn’t odd for everything around you to radically change in appearance in a mere few minutes of traveling along the river. Moving further into the former East Berlin, there is still a very prominent notion that great changes are taking place. Many old communist industrial plants now remain abandoned and empty. Some stand as graffiti covered memorials of the rapid facelift the city has encountered, while others have been transformed into sites for young artists and student populations. Some old factories along the bank are now popular clubs [ and after venturing out to visit them one night, for lack of a better explanation, they literally are skeleton buildings and train freights lined with stereos and strobe lights, no strings attached ]. One old freight ship was somehow cut in half by a student group, and now it floats as a huge swimming pool in the middle of the river – definitely a sight to see.
Even more interesting to discover beyond how this side of town is shaping up is the struggles and progress the city has made [ after all, it is not deserted, the east side gallery and the huge O2 arena are also there along with headquarters for MTV Germany and other companies ]. One more very relevant phrase or quote of the many that defines Berlin is “Arm aber Sexy” – Poor but sexy, and this is still very true. Berlin is still in the former East Germany, and in many areas this shows. As mentioned, it is the cheapest capital city in the Euro Zone, and definitely cheaper than other cities in the country.
Berlin faced a declining population after the wall fell down, and whereas the city is somewhat growing today [Germans as well as international students of my generation, that were children or born after the wall fell down and thus unaffected by its cultural impact, are now flooding the city to reap its benefits]. Even so, Berlin faces an issue of over 20% of its housing potential still left empty. It is incredible to realize how people live in Berlin as well, since over 80% of the citizens live in “vermietet”, rented places [ and most often in apartment style buildings in close quarters]. This only adds to the unique communities one can find in Berlin [ “one city, one thousand villages”] as well as the overwhelming amount of young people that settle there. Berlin was mentioned to be a new “New York” since it is inviting to the artistic, creative young crowd, and can still promise a lively and inexpensive lifestyle. This relates directly to the extremely diverse environment of Berlin – German only seems to be one of the many languages intermixed around with English, Turkish and many other languages seeming to be equally prevalent.
Seeing all this around me during my visit was what made this Berlin experience so eye opening. Much of what I just shared can be equally attributed to the potentials of Detroit and the struggles it faces as well. This relates to my post about what has been inspiring me over the last few months, and I am excited to share that the evolution that Berlin is experiencing right now is something that is worth observing, experiencing and sharing. Like I have critiqued Berlin before, overwhelming and complicated on the first impression or not, the city is fascinating and offers many opportunities to debate and contemplate the potential of urban development and restoration.