January 29, 2007

'Wowi' Leads a New Berlin

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Every year, hundreds of students burst the bubble better known as Ithaca to try themselves against this wide world. The Daily Sun presents the first in a series of dispatches from undergraduates abroad.

BERLIN — He dates a neurosurgeon named Jörn, once bought his whole neighborhood drinks for New Years after an apartment building caught on fire and despite being a law nerd all through college, still garners a party boy reputation for antics like drinking champagne out of the red stiletto heels of a friend’s wife — the photos made the papers. Klaus Wowereit is the mayor of Berlin. Re-elected September 2006, in these parts he goes by “Wowi” (but think German: “Vo-vee”). Some think he is hardly in the position to roll his eyes and giggle at problems like poverty, but when his gaffe during an originally off-the-cuff interview in Focus magazine — where he described Berlin as “poor, but sexy” — turned into a citywide buzz-word, the Berliners made t-shirts.

The Berliners seem to appreciate the provocative nature of this half-truth. After all, the city has been home to the likes of everything sexy — from Marlene Dietrich to the cutting-edge of green architecture — yet sits in the middle of formerly communist East Germany. Berlin is a little island of riddles with more than one problem in its financial ledgers. But Berlin is neither destitute nor, for that matter, free of the specter of neo-Nazi un-sexiness.

The ironies and surprises of Berlin make it one of the most intriguing, dense, urban stories on the planet. The one-word question we look at today is one I have asked myself since flying over the funny city into Tegel Airport in late August, with the funny-looking, bright row-housing down below: Huh?

It starts normally enough. At roughly 3.4 million urban residents, Berlin is Germany’s capital and only true multimillion-strong metropolis. Germany in 2006 ranked the fifth strongest economy on earth, and trailed only the U.S. and Japan in pure gross domestic product. Host to last summer’s soccer World Cup and the accompanying tourist pandemonium, the city still oozes bilingual ease. In fact, try ordering beer here in German with a hint of an accent; the chances are you’ll get your answer in English that is embarrassingly crisp. Next month, the Berlin international film festival Berlinale — one of the true giants on both mainstream and indie movie circuits — will take over party and cinema venues like the Sony Center all over town, bringing the glamour and creativity of the movie industry along with it. Berlin is almost too cosmopolitan for Germany. When American tourists arrive here, they get angry. Where are the biergartens, the snowy peaks, the funny hats and the lederhosen? You must go south, my friends, you must go south. And go during Oktoberfest, if you’re really set on seeing men in funny pants.

Berlin nurtures not only one of the most avant-garde arts scenes on the continent, it is also the dream of modern architecture junkies everywhere, perhaps as much for its controversy as for its masterpieces. Since German Reunification in 1989, Berlin has been the playground for a whole slew of superstar architects, eager to play a part in the dramatic remaking of a decades-long divided city. Hurricane Kyrill just took an embarrassing bite out of our gargantuan brand-new Hauptbahnhof, “Central Station,” the largest, newest train depot in Europe.

Though city officials and residents alike shake their heads at the unending complications, the rejuvenation of Berlin’s cityscape has prevented things from getting dull and depressing around here. With Radio Berlin-Brandenburg (RBB) reporting the city’s unemployment rate last month at around 16 percent, and seemingly eternal winter rain, it does not hurt to talk up the good stuff.

In 1999, English architect Sir Norman Foster completed stunning renovations to the German federal government building, the Reichstagsgebäude, crowned by its enormous, energy-saving, glass dome. Renowned Cornell architects’ works are scattered throughout the center of town as well; it is a menagerie from such folks as Peter Eisenman ’54 — his hotly debated, undulating Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe opened in 2005 — and Rem Koolhaas, whose Dutch Embassy opened in 2004.

Yet behind the sheen and whirr of fashionably controversial urban debates, the question of “poor, but sexy” remains unanswered. “Poor” is a dangerous word outside of regional context. It is simply offensive to call Berlin poor at an international level, and, even at a European level, the tag does not really fit. Though clearly the “poor” eastern counterpart to her richer German economic powerhouse brothers like Munich and Hamburg, Berlin is nowhere near the economic straits of the former Warsaw Pact cities to her east, eager simply to be viable enough to convert to Euros. And the only people starving in Berlin are those unable to make it back to a homeless shelter in the evenings. But I turned to the natives for some authentic German no-nonsense. Who’s calling Berlin poor? And why the negativity? It took a few tries. After a few university cafeterias and a public library café, I called my last resort.

My last and most helpful “native” was my former host-brother Patrick, who is also, coincidentally, Berlin spokesperson for Greenpeace. Of course, I did promise him the views he shared with The Sun would be kept apart from those of his organization. Among other things, he explained a bit of Reunification economics:

When the wall was still up, Berlin used to be like an economic beauty contest. You had to look good compared to the competition. West Berlin was a tiny pod of democratic capitalism in a relatively closed-off sphere of Soviet-controlled communism. West Berlin had to “represent,” if you will. The Federal Republic of Germany, West Germany, sent along tax breaks to encourage big business to set up camp in West Berlin. During the German separation, West Berlin was a beacon of capitalist success, and a reminder to the “Ossies” — inhabitants of East Berlin — of what they did not have. Then the wall came down, government aid switched over to rebuilding the scraggly East, and industry taxation leveled off, matching other German cities. At the same time, highly economically desperate Eastern Europe opened up. Well! Businessmen worth their name move production to where the going is cheap, and Berlin lost out.

The jury is out. Berlin appears “poor” compared to its former self, and “sexy” by its own standards. In a city with four large public universities, a gay mayor, an interest in renewable energy technology that approaches “mainstream” and, all the same, a nearly religious fear of crossing the cross walk before the light turns green, Berliners value the flow of ideas and the comfort of anonymity, the embracing of progressive politics and the pursuit orderly conduct. True to Berlin irony, capitalizing on its alternative life-style, tourism in this strange city is ever on the rise, and oddballs from all over flock eagerly to where the flats are cheap and the graffiti is clever.