Saturday, December 23, 2006

Us vs. Them

“East Berlin wishes you a good trip home! Christmas 2006.” What a nice sign to have hanging on lampposts and buildings all over trendy, fast-gentrifying Prenzlauer Berg! Except that the implication is that those who were not born in the neighborhood are not “real” residents, or not truly at home—distance markers below the slogan show mileage to western cities a ways from Berlin. The ubiquitous signs are anonymous, reports the Berliner Zeitung, although they have been linked to a store called Koof im Kiez, which translates clumsily as "Buy Locally."

Rivalry between older and newer residents is an unavoidable phenomenon of areas that grow stylish: as more people move in and new shops open their doors, demand increases, prices rise, and those who have lived there for a long time feel squeezed. They also don’t appreciate the physical changes they see in a neighborhood that they feel belongs more to them than to the newbies introducing these changes. This resentment is understandable; everyone likes home to feel like home and even the corner falafel stand in Prenzlauer Berg costs too much compared to a less trendy neighborhood like southwestern Kreuzberg (in photo above). The current mood is comparable to the controversy about the gentrification of Williamsburg in New York City.

However, this incarnation of the timeless new vs. old resentment is distinctly Berlin in its East vs. West framing. “Westerners are like this,” one long-time resident is quoted as saying, pushing his nose in the air with his finger. He is echoing sentiments that have been around since early 1990, when a t-shirt saying “I want my wall back” became popular throughout Berlin. As author Peter Schneider predicted quite presciently in 1982, “It will take us longer to tear down the wall in our heads than any wrecking company will need for the Wall we can see.”[1]

In the article, another resident accuses, “They all act so cool, as though they brought their smugness with them from the West.” Defensive words from a local--except that he just moved in four years ago and was born in western Hannover. In other words, it is easy to frame petty, common resentment (Us vs. Them, Old vs. New, me vs. the Other) in the rhetoric of East vs. West; it is almost expected, and it gives such assessments a wave of self-aware, self-justifying flavor. Have you ever met a middle-class sociology major who despises the “bourgeoisie?” Exactly.

In fact, “feeling the pain” or at least identifying with those who grew up in the former East has become a bit stylish itself with the recent rise of ostalgie, or nostalgia for things Eastern. It represents both backlash against reunification sweetened by time into romanticized memory, and also an attempt to re-color history along more pleasing lines. Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin (2003) is a fantastic example, wherein the pitfalls of life in East vs. West Germany are summarized as outdated, anachronistic-looking food packaging and less trendy clothing.

The Christmas signs aren’t just reactionary, however, they’re also inaccurate. Frequently “outsiders” appreciate a place better than those born there, for the tautological reason that they chose to come, indicating a certain esteem for the location. Like New York, Berlin is an immigrant city made up of people from other places who frequently don’t identify with their birthplace as much as with the cosmopolitan place they now call home. “Outsiders” who become "insiders" most often make a city better by directing their energies towards use, enhancement, and preservation of its good qualities.

Luckily, according to the article, the younger generation in diapers when the Wall “fell,” seems relatively free of resentment, geographic or otherwise. One can only hope they retain their open-minded outlook when, as middle-aged taxpayers, trendsetters from other cities move into their neighborhoods and start selling chic commodities. When grumbling about how their daily latte costs twice as much, one hopes they leave behind labels of “east” and “west,” which, as time passes, are becoming just—dare I say it?—trendier, smugger ways to express tribalism.

[1] Peter Schneider, The Wall Jumper: A Berlin Story, Trans. Leigh Hafrey, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 119.

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