Sunday, April 15, 2007

I The City’s New Self Esteem

“Whoever looks to the future, heads to Berlin!” trumpeted Der Tagesspiegel yesterday, after a temperature reading of the Internet showed that Berlin was considered Europe’s “place to be.” The article went on to excitedly point out that after years of economic stagnation, bankruptcy, and population shrinkage, things were finally looking up. This hopefulness sounded almost like the hype of the early 1990s, when everyone expected Berlin to become the financial, cultural, and geographic capital of post-Cold War Europe. (It didn’t.) Yet the optimism was backed up by the assertion that in the last fiscal quarter of 2006, more jobs were created in Berlin than anywhere else in Germany.

Fair enough. But read on and discover that Berlin also has the second-slowest growing economy in Germany, i.e. that its dismal fiscal situation remains, well, dismal. It clocks in at 1.9%, barely missing the booby prize, which the small Western German state of Saarland wins with 1.6%. This figure complicates the idea of Berlin as the capital of job creation and innovation—if so many jobs are being created, why isn’t the economy growing? Perhaps because more jobs are also being lost, or because people are still leaving for cities with greater native industry. The most optimistic assumption is that growth figures haven’t caught up with job creation yet. However, the market growth that the piece touts seems more like fiction than fact.

What this article is really celebrating is the change in Zeitgeist, that is, Berlin’s slow transformation into the Next Trendy Metropolis. After that one measley scientific figure about job creation, author Ralf Schönball gives up the pretense of a financial thesis and shows he is thrilled, just thrilled, that people around the world are really starting to like Berlin, citing growing numbers of tourists as well as the city’s extreme image boost after the summer 2006 World Cup. He even proudly mentions that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie—those child-adopting beacons of humanism! Those attractive ambassadors of taste!—recently bought an apartment here.

Without citing statistics, I must say that Schönball appears to be right, from my expatriate—and hence, member of the club of new admirers—perspective. Hipsters from New York are swarming around in great numbers, the art scene here is exploding (see Post April 3) and I truly don’t remember seeing quite as many tourists two years ago; even the Berlinale film festival (see above photo) seemed more chaotic than previous. And he is right in celebrating: Germany is still heavily associated with its dark past in the eyes of many foreign observers, and it is high time people began to adore its darling, scruffy, good-timing capital city. Schönball's piece is really just a platform for Der Tagesspiegel's giddy announcement of an upcoming series dedicated to describing “fourteen successful New-Berliners.” And why not? Everyone deserves the chance to cry out, eyes misty and arms outreached, “You like me! You really like me!”

II Unbearable News

As long as it doesn't try to maintain the pretense of real findings, and simply allows itself to a fabulous, self-admiring, sociological-human-interest project of Berlin worship, Der Tagesspiegel's series promises to be great fun. Less fun is some of the recent news from Berlin: Tilo, one of the city's mascot brown bears who are kept in a special, non-zoo-related enclosure, succumbed to lymph node cancer. This just after Yan Yan, a Zoo panda bear, died of intestinal congestion at the end of March. Of course, all eyes remain on Knut, (See Posts Mar. 30, Mar. 28), the little polar bear who no one expected to survive; the Zoo recently clocked 90,000 visitors since his March 23rd public debut and counting.

Bears have a way of capturing public fascination in Germany; the shooting of a brown bear who wandered into Bavaria from Austria caused outrage in the fall. His body had to be hidden from angry environmental groups and is currently being kept at an undisclosed location. The creature, dubbed Bruno, had captured the public imagination partially because wild bears are extinct here, and perhaps this gets at the root of the collective fixation--a whopping guilt complex, a hope that current adoration can make up for foolhardy hunting of the past. Or perhaps the bear fascination is much older than modernity: witness the Albert I, who lived in what is now Northern Germany from about 1100 to 1170. The warrior who defeated the Slavs to conquer the area of Brandenburg in which Berlin lies was dubbed "Albert the Bear." And of course, being a city whose official seal bears (pun intended) a rather chicly stylized bear, Berlin is the best setting for ursine fixation. Here's betting Der Tagesspiegel cannot resist the temptation to list Knut as one of their "fourteen successful new-Berliners."

Knut photo courtesy Franka Bruns, AP. Bruns' last name may be a variation on Bruin or Bruun, old English/Dutch words used to mean "baby brown bear." (And now adopted by sports teams a-la the UCLA Bruins.)

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