Arts, Culture & Media

Expat Hipsters Not Winning Friends in Berlin

hipsteralarme.jpg

Credit:

Gerry Hadden

Germans gather for a HipsterAlarm meeting.

In today's Geoquiz, we're looking for a trendy German neighborhood.

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It used to be a poor working class spot in West Berlin along the River Spree.

Berlin's gritty punk bands used to rock out in the local bars and nightclubs. Nowadays you're more apt to hear hip hop and rap.

It attracts lots of immigrants and expats especially painters, musicians and designers.

Whatever the beat, this neighborhood is cool.

Young people are flocking here from other countries and the rents are rising.

Can you name this trendy Berlin neighborhood, nicknamed X-Berg?

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Berlin has become something of a magnet for artists since the fall of The Wall...especially the neighborhood of Kreuzberg.

But the arrival of outsiders has also created tension. Locals bemoan what they call the "hipster attitude" and most of all the rising rents.

Now as Gerry Hadden reports, a group of expats is trying to prove that not all outsiders are slackers.

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After work recently more than a hundred Berliners cram into a dark bar, order some beers and complain some more. One after the other, residents gripe about the plague of outsiders who they say are wrecking the city. Posers, they say, who come here, don’t really work, and cause rents to rise. Forcing them out. 

One young man, dressed in a tell-tale working-class blue jumpsuit, said, “We need to attack the buildings where these rich tenants live, the building we can’t afford.”

If these properties are destroyed again and again or damaged, he argued, eventually the outsiders will have had enough. And they’ll move out.

And, he said, rents would come back down.  This guy is on extreme end of the debate.  But the few like him can be highly visible.  They poster parts of town with flyers reading, Foreigners Out.  Some tag popular expat bars with spray paint.

After the meeting - dubbed HipsterAlarm - another attendee, Susana Gruenewald, grabs her bike to peddle home. I asked her the question nagging me.

“What is a hipster exactly?”

“It’s a difficult question to answer,” she said.  “But I think there is a picture of a hipster, which is more or less common.  Of very young people, who come to Berlin from other countries and cities. They come from middle class, mostly students and creative types, with money.” 

To them, she said, Berlin looks like paradise.

“And (they) say, ‘Oh, it’s cheap for me’,” she said.  “’I don’t care about the families and poor people in the area, they are not so seen on the street.  They are not designers and don’t sit with their Apple in the café drinking all day long lemonade and switching to beer after 4 oclock.’”

Armed with this sketch, I set out to try to spot some hipsters myself.  It didn’t take long.

Mats and Natalie, 20-somethings, are brother and sister.  They’re half Swedish, half Chilean, and were raised in Vancouver, Canada.  They were playing guitar and singing together on a Berlin street.  Mats has been here a year.  Natalie’s just settling in. 

“I’ve heard a lot about Berlin being a musical and artistic hub,” Natalie said.  I like to play music and sing, but I wouldn’t call myself a musician in that I’m doing much with it. Right now I’m just seeing what kind of a life I could start here.”

“ Yeah,” said Mats. “There’s a lot of bands and artists here.  It’s kinda why brought myself here. I play music.  Drumming for this band, Mincer Ray*.”

The two were sitting with other expat pals at a sidewalk table outside a decidedly un-German joint called Hamburger Heaven.  As for their playing guitar and singing - at night - on a street filled with residential buildings?

This?” Mats laughed,  “Oh, this is normal!”

For them. But native Berliners might not agree. These guys get that, said another expat, George, a young Australian who also dabbles in music.  He said young globe trotters know they’re changing Berlin…making it more expensive for everyone. 

“It’s sad in a way but there’s also some great benefits,” he said.   “I talk to local Berliners and they say when they were in high school they would go out at night and it was so boring. And now I go out and meet hot girls from all over the world and interesting people and they’re like, great!”

There’s a word for what’s going on here, of course: "gentrification." It happens to big cities everywhere. In Berlin it started after the fall of The Wall.  But in more than 20 years, no one has come even close to bridging the divide between locals and newcomers.

But now a group of expats is giving it a shot. They’ve dubbed themselves Give Something Back to Berlin. Basically they try to get expats involved in community projects, like gardening at an old folks home.  On a recent day Hanna Cleaver, from the UK, helped plant flowers.  She saw Give Something Back’s call for volunteers online.

“You see, there are an awful lot of hipster types floating around berlin,” she said.  “And the idea that some might be awake enough to realize that it might be a good idea to give something back to the city was really attractive to me.”

And to the retirement home’s events planner, Martin.

“It’s very good,” he said,  “I’m happy about it.  Because we need more and more hands for our work here. “

The founder of Give Something Back to Berlin is Anna Maria Olsson.  She’s originally from Sweden.  She said in three months they’d signed up 80 volunteers, doing things from mentoring to offering cooking classes to helping refugees form a music group.

“It was very important for us that we’re not just going to sit in groups,” she said, “saying Oh, let’s talk about the problem, and social injustice, and this and that, but really let’s creating opportunities for people from different backgrounds to really meet and interact .”

It’s the best you can do, Olsson said. Because gentrification isn’t going to stop. 

Most Berliners do understand that.  And they dislike the anti-foreigner stance some neighbors take.  They you can’t really blame expats for the transformation of their city.  Susana Gruenewald who attended the HipsterAlarm meeting, said foreigners love Berlin just like locals do.

“They don’t want it to change,” she said. “That’s why they’re here.  It seems to be the enemy, but it is not the enemy.”

Local groups have been petitioning the government to introduce rent controls.  But so far at least, the city seems uninterested.  Berlin has huge debts, and higher rents mean more taxes.

 

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*UPDATE: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the band name Mincer Ray. We regret the error.

  • HipsteralarmPoster.jpg

    Credit:

    Gerry Hadden

    A sign outside a bar in the Kreuzberg neighborhood. Many in Berlin are alarmed by what they see as an invasion of really cool, foreign "creative types" who don't work but drive up housing prices.

  • graffitie.jpg

    Credit:

    Gerry Hadden

    Graffiti outside a Kreuzberg cafe bemoaning the influence of foreign "hipsters."

  • storee.jpg

    Credit:

    Gerry Hadden

    A Berlin bar plastered with anti-hipster graffiti.

  • Cleavere.jpg

    Credit:

    Gerry Hadden

    Volunteer Hanna Cleaver helps garden at at an old folks home in Berlin, after learning about Give Something Back to Berlin. The group now has about 80 volunteers.

  • store2e.jpg

    Credit:

    Gerry Hadden

    Kreuzberg storefront with an unbearably hip facade.

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