Lifestyle & Belief

Berlin: Multi-culti capital matures


Old and new: A bicycle passes a Smartcar and an East German Trabant next to a section of the Berlin Wall.


Sean Gallup

BERLIN, Germany — Jianhua Wu believes there’s nothing like a fine German Riesling wine to go with a tangy Chinese plum sauce, roasted duck or fermented black bean dish.

The former engineering student isn’t alone: His restaurant Hot Spot, which serves the Schezuan and Shanghai cuisine of his childhood in the swank Charlottenburg neighborhood of former West Berlin, has gained a large and loyal customer base and considerable respect in the wine world.

Nevertheless, when the decidedly un-chic establishment won a prestigious prize for best wine list in Germany from the French restaurant guide Gault et Millau last year, it caused quite a splash.

Chancellor Angela Merkel may have famously declared “multi-culti” — short for multiculturalism — dead recently, but her country’s capital appears to show otherwise: Wu’s story reflects the changing face of a city that’s developing a reputation as a center for innovative, multi-cultured ventures on many fronts, from artistic to gastronomic.

As it continues to forge its post-Cold War identity, Germany’s largest city of more than 4 million residents is also attracting a variety of businesses, including IT and media, which are taking advantage of its central location and bargain real estate.

Not that Berlin isn’t still steeped in history, much of it brutal and very recent. A photography exhibit about communist East Germany at a modern art museum called the Berlinische Galerie depicts the old regime through glimpses of everyday lives — children playing, families eating — that are very much still present in the city’s collective memory.

Other signs of the past are inescapable. There are segments of the Berlin Wall and crosses along the River Spree — which once helped divide East from West — in memory of some of those who died fleeing the old German Democratic Republic. With vacant lots still sprawling in its center, Berlin continues to grapple with its dual identities.

After the Wall came down in 1989, much from the East — from car factories to the social welfare system — was abandoned. Not everything, however, thanks to Ostalgie, or nostalgia for the East. Certain quotidian products — wine, coffee, even detergent brands — have gained new value.

Isabell Hoffman, a former East Berliner, covets Bambina chocolate, a calcium-fortified holdover from the old GDR. “It’s not good chocolate,” she admits, “but it tastes like home.”

Evaluating positive and negative attributes of the city’s transformation can be a touchy subject, not unlike gentrification in other places. Some long-time residents worry Berlin has attracted too much international attention too fast.

But not Sascha Rimkus, co-owner of Goldhahn & Sampson, a gourmet shop and bookstore in Prenzlauerberg, a leafy district in former East Berlin. “In the last few years, so many people are moving to Berlin — it makes it very international, there are so many ideas.”

The city is organized geographically and emotionally by kiez, or neighborhood. Once a working-class district, Prenzlauerberg became one of the hippest new destinations for artists and bohemian types in the 1990s.

That’s now changing. “It got a reputation as a really big playground — there were a lot of clubs around here, most of which are now closed,” Rimkus says. “Now it’s a place for families with higher incomes.”

He lives in nearby Mitte, the once-dour central district of former East Berlin now home to the most expensive shops and hotels as well as government offices.

As for Prenzlauerberg, “it’s become a bit sleepy here now,” says Rimkus’s business partner Andreas Klockner, who prefers the traditionally Turkish neighborhood of Kreuzberg, across the Spree and the current place to be if you’re young, artistic, or vaguely bohemian. “You have a real ethnographic mix there.”

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At Cafe Kotti, a bar on one of Kreuzberg’s main drags, a mix of ethnicities and ages mingles on couches and mismatched furniture, drinking ginger tea and cheap beer.

A couple of French musicians lives across the street in an attic apartment. Although rents are rising here, they still manage to live simply — no phone, no internet — and cheaply.

But it’s not all smooth going: An American journalist who also lives nearby describes resentment from locals as “expat flak.” Like tourism, gentrification is both desired and detested. Most agree only on its inevitably.

The ongoing change is less controversial among business owners, however. “It’s becoming a tourist town, but it’s not a bad thing,” Klockner says. “If they pay your rent, it’s okay.”