The steps of Rathaus Neukölln are caked with the gainfully unemployed. I zig-zag between them. Nothing about the sprawling mess of camo pants and 2-litre cola bottles suggests contrition for blocking the entrance. The clock tower above can be seen for a way down Karl-Marx-Straße in both directions. A helpful measure of – as with other bastions of bureaucracy – the Bürgeramt’s prohibitively short opening hours.
I’m here because I’ve been in Berlin over five months now, so I might as well make it official. Also, I’m legally obliged.
Inside, behind either an information or security desk (it’s unclear which), two men with sunken eyes and matching jackets offer rehearsed directions to the Bürgeramt.
Endless rows of doors line the corridors. Heavy doors, painted brown, with steel skirting and peepholes. Right, right, left. I snake deeper into the stone labyrinth. The non-descript hallways serve to disorient. I hear footsteps echoing but see no people, except one more grey-faced security guard/information clerk encased in a booth.
Upon reaching the Bürgeramt, I realise I could have spared myself the stimulus for future Kafka-esque nightmares by coming straight in the back entrance. People hover around, impatient and agitated.
I croak out some apologetic German, but a woman behind a desk pre-empts me. “Yes I know,” she says, shovelling paperwork at me. “Everyone here is moving to Berlin.”
I’m given a form, its English equivalent as a guide, and a queue number. If I was hoping to feel unique, this cattle run of immigration is not the place.
But that’s precisely what many people come here hoping to find. A platform, or perhaps simply the permission, for self-expression. So much so that Berlin is creaking under the weight of new additions. It’s not uncommon to send off 30 or 40 rental applications before finding a concrete lead. Even then, chances are it’s just a shitty spare room in a WG co-habited by a veritable mixed bag of humanity.
And yet still
they we (I realise I am part of the problem) flock here in our unsustainable thousands. Perhaps not unsustainable in an economic sense. More that it risks crowding out the social appeal. Warping it, at the very least.
It’s been repeatedly drilled into me by those in the more affluent climes of Düsseldorf and Frankfurt that “Berlin is not where you go to make money.” What it does provide, however, is an attainable (read: cheaper) entry point. This is partly what fuels the leisure migration. We’re talking gap years, spiritual journeys, artistic sabbaticals and the like. Berlin has become a Neverland for self-styled young ‘creatives’. An oasis where the beer is cheap and the lifestyle permissive.
Each new acquaintance comes with their own puzzle of what their true motives are. Were they led here on a romantic whim that fizzled out? Did something unpleasant happen back home, the fallout of which they’re deferring? Are they just partying and picking up the language while they work out their next move? Or, horror of horrors, were they tempted here by a genuinely good job offer?
Whatever the case, they keep coming. Some talented and unassuming. Many noticeably less so. Little do they know (or perhaps care) they’re disturbing a delicate ecosystem. Bulldozing the environment to make room for themselves, then wondering where all the native species went. Rents go up. Abandoned relics are gentrified. Whatever culture is leftover gets caged and commodified, while locals are pushed towards the fringes.
Berlin is suffering from that most prized and double-edged asset – it’s cool. The bullring-pierced, superfluous hat-wearing, Club Mate-sipping aesthetic starts to become a parody of itself after a while. See Williamsburg or Vesterbro for how this plays out. It’s all fun and games until the coolness gets co-opted.
There’s no doubt that tensions exist between hardcore natives and the hordes of Ausländers. It may be a simmering, passive tension, played out through graffiti and occasional drunken slurs on the train, but it’s there.
The difficulty in finding anyone to openly address it stems from the fact that true locals are increasingly hard to find. My social circle is a motley mix of Brits, Americans, Australians, Belgians, Indians, Finns and others. The Germans I know tend to hail from elsewhere anyway.
To the patchwork population add a tumultuous history and it’s almost impossible to pin down what this city is or might become. 70 years ago it was basically rubble. Up until 25 years ago it was still forcefully divided, fenced off from the world and itself.
“It’s not really Germany,” is the common refrain. The truth is, it’s not really like anywhere. Its identity and personnel are always in flux, riddled with contradictions.
Historically, this country has had a tricky time knowing exactly what to memorialise and what to sweep under the rug. After more than one oppressive infancy, Berlin is a troubled teen left to its own devices. The absentee parents, their authority irreparably undermined, have left the keys to the house and said, “Sorry for your shitty upbringing. Here, have fun.”
The angst and appetite for rebellion remain, even when there’s nothing left to oppose. In the meantime, Berlin is happy to swing from the chandelier and draw dicks on the walls, exercising the kind of freedom and right to protest that previous generations were not afforded.
It is haughty and rancorous. Manic and unclean. Yet oddly impervious to criticism.
So maybe it’s too much to expect others not to want to join the party. If its reputation becomes too big to sustain what fuelled its appeal in the first place, it will undoubtedly adapt. Or the party will simply move on elsewhere. But for now the city still throbs with eclecticism in a haze of nonchalantly blown, self-rolled smoke.
I’m not even halfway through the form when my number chimes in the waiting room. So much for convoluted German bureaucracy. They’re burning through it today. Not like when my visa application stalled as I was made to comb through insurance fine print for the exact amount set aside for the repatriation of my hypothetical corpse ($15,000 for those playing at home).
Today they don’t even ask for my lease agreement. And barely a glance at my passport before I’m stamped and approved. I sign one more document – presumably pledging my undying allegiance to techno and vowing never to open a beer with an actual bottle opener.
A deadpan caricature of a German accent tells me, “So congratulations. You are now a Berliner.” Whatever that means.