EXPATS IN BERLIN HAVE TURNED THE CITY INTO ONE BIG ARTY PARTY. BY ADAM FISHER, NY Times Travel, Spring 08

"What New York was in the ’80s, Berlin is now,” says Nadja Vancauwenberghe, the French editor in chief of Berlin’s English-language magazine, the Exberliner. "That’s the cliché.” She shakes her head and smiles. "The reality,” Maurice Frank, the Exberliner’s publisher, chimes in, "is that rents here are a third of what they are in Paris or London.”
The two of them are trying to explain why Berlin has emerged as the creative capital of Europe, if not the world. "It’s cool, its cheap, it’s international,” Vancauwenberghe says, ticking off the contributing factors. "But it’s kind of a feedback loop at this point,” says Frank. In other words, the people who are immigrating now are not drawn by Berlin per se but rather by the Berlin of the cliché — and they’re finding it in the city’s vast expat population.
Berlin, the biggest city in continental Europe by far, has actually been losing its German population for years, but for the last five — the five years that the Exberliner has been publishing — that loss has been more than made up for by an influx of expats. What’s more, they’re settling down: buying funky apartments, starting creative businesses, having precocious children. "We’re a little overrun,” Vancauwenberghe concludes, looking out her window. For a long time, the neighborhood outside, Prenzlauer Berg, boasted a thriving international squat scene. Today the main strip is choked with baby strollers and stylish boutiques.
The expats who are gentrifying Prenzlauer Berg are creative types, the kind of people who don’t necessarily want a standard career. This is perhaps a good thing, since the unemployment rate in Berlin is currently around 20 percent. There may not be many opportunities for regular employment, but there are plenty of good gigs. For musicians, Berlin is an ideal staging ground; its central location makes touring Europe easy and more profitable. For visual artists, it’s all about the city’s cultural wealth. Berlin’s divided legacy means that there are twice the number of museums and art-supporting institutions than usual. Plus there is a long tradition of social tolerance here. Where else would the mayor, who is openly gay, roll out an official welcome to a gathering of sadomasochist conventioneers, praising their party weekend as "pure joie de vivre”? As Mayor Klaus Wowereit likes to say about his city: "We are poor, but sexy.”
According to the last census count, in 2006, there were about 13,100 Americans living here, and, invariably, they cite Berlin’s bohemianism as the draw. "I interview Americans all the time, and they’ll tell you they moved here to get away from George Bush,” says a skeptical Vancauwenberghe. "But if you dig a little deeper, 8 times out of 10 they’ve come on behalf of a German boyfriend or girlfriend. Usually the relationship doesn’t last, but they stay anyway, because they’ve fallen in love with the city.”
That’s certainly the profile of Marc Siegel. who was studying film at U.C.L.A. when he fell in love with a German actress named Susanne Sachsse in 1999 — which was a surprise, since prior to that Siegel had mostly been dating men. After moving to Berlin to finish his dissertation, Siegel fell into the local theater scene, and with friends, including Daniel Hendrickson, his former boyfriend, founded a performance-art collective called Cheap. The troupe became known for its queer sensibility and eventually attracted the attention and funding of the German national children’s theater, which wanted Cheap to produce a piece for kids. It used the opportunity to lure Vaginal Davis, a drag performer from Los Angeles, whom they cast as the guest star of the children’s production, to Berlin. ("I had to get away from Miss Amerikkka,” says Davis. "Her cities are turning into malls!”) The troupe, jokes Siegel, "has slowly become a welfare project for Americans going through withdrawal.”
Toby Dammit and Jessie Evans are professional musicians from the United States who found each other in Berlin. The 41-year-old Dammit is a musician’s musician, who played for many years with Iggy Pop. He moved here from New York in 2006, wanting to step off the treadmill: "I was making money, but it doesn’t matter how hard you work in New York, you end up throwing it out the window,” says Dammit, who counts two of the most famous expats in Berlin, Rufus Wainwright and Peaches, as friends. Evans, a veteran of various "slutty all-girl punk bands,” moved from San Francisco in 2004 in order to reinvent herself as a chanteuse. The best thing about the place, according to the aspiring singer, is that "you don’t have to be famous to get respect as an artist.”
Jean Griffin Borho, who arrived here two years ago, is not an artist but rather a patron and collector who grew up in Manhattan and ended up marrying a German man who ran a hedge fund in the city. They divorced, and Borho decided to pick up the pieces in Germany. She came to build a new life as an art consultant catering to American collectors curious about the Berlin scene, but she was also glad to say auf wiedersehen to her hometown. "In New York, being divorced is a stigma,” Borho claims. "Here, no one cares.”
The artist Dean Sameshima, a native of Los Angeles, came for the opening of his first Berlin show at Peres Projects last March and never really left. "In L.A., my studio was my bedroom, but here I can afford studio space,” he says. "And a studio assistant.” According to Robert Goff of Goff + Rosenthal, one of the first New York galleries to open a Berlin branch, "the low rents have made Berlin the art-production capital of Europe. At least half of the young artists I meet in New York are seriously thinking about moving to Berlin to work.”
The common thread is that everyone feels they’re leading lives they could never have back home. "Cheap in the States?” Siegel wonders. "There, we never even would have thought that we were the kind of people who could pull this off.” Dammit’s voice cracks with awe when he talks about the production facilities he now has at his disposal, and Evans is just happy to have been able to quit her day job. "In San Francisco,” she says, "I was working at a junkyard.” Borho, too, feels freer: "One of the things I really love is techno music,” says the 37-year-old. "In New York, I’d always be one of the oldest people at a club. But here you see people in their 70s.”
Berlin is undoubtedly fun. The loose liquor laws don’t require bars to close until the last patron has quaffed his last drink, and some club parties can go for the entire weekend. If there is any problem with Berlin, it may be that it’s too free, too wild. "Rent is cheap, studio space is cheap, but for every artist, there’s also a spot on a guest list,” says Alex Konuk, the half-American, half-German owner of 8MM, a dive bar with an intellectual air. "So the test here is being able to live up to the creative standards you’ve set for yourself.”
Or not. The real charm of the city’s night life lies in its goofier manifestations. Dr. Pong is a bar bunkered in a concrete Prenzlauer Berg pile, the main room lit by a single fluorescent tube, as if Dan Flavin had placed it here himself. Its light shines on a lone Ping-Pong table in the center of the room. To the beat of dance music, with a paddle in one hand and a beer in the other, patrons run around the table while attempting to keep a rally going. It’s the drinking version of rundlauf, a traditional German schoolyard game. The bar’s owner, Oliver Miller, is an American expat. Miller came to Berlin after graduating from Princeton’s architecture school, looking to avoid the fate of his classmates, who were joining big firms in New York. "I’m not interested in climbing the career ladder, since you’ll never ever get to the top,” he explains. "I’m interested in taking that ladder and putting it on its side.” In practice, that means running Dr. Pong and its fraternal twin, Kim, two popular bars that Miller sees as nothing less than conceptual architecture: "I like the fact that the bars look like they’re still under construction. If the building is still in process, getting built, that implies that process can go on inside.”
The whole of Berlin’s bohemia — expat and German, arty and punk — resonates with the same kind of attitude. Things are invariably provisional, experimental, cerebral. But what could be a Teutonic bore is leavened with a comic exuberance that is irony-free. There is no better place to enjoy this than at Monster Ronson’s Ichiban Karaoke Bar in the still-raw neighborhood of Friedrichshain. Monster himself — a k a Ron Rineck, a 32-year-old American expat decked out in a Mohawk, suit and tie — greets you at the door and ushers your party to one of the many soundproof karaoke booths. Rineck has been in Berlin almost since the beginning. His story is one of the weirdest, but it’s also emblematic of how much Berlin has changed, and how much it has stayed the same.
Monster hails from Salt Lake City and, while visiting Berlin on the invitation of a German pen pal that he barely knew, decided to move here in 1999. He remembers those pioneer days fondly. "I lived on my savings, $7,000, for two years,” he says. "And I lived like a king.” Then, with his last remaining dollars, he bought a used karaoke machine and moved with it into his station wagon. "Within six months,” he recalls, "I was getting paying gigs in squat houses all over Europe.” The bar was a natural evolution. His biggest challenge these days is trying to live inside the law. Especially vexing is Berlin’s new indoor smoking ban that went into effect on the first of the year. "If the rules get any stricter, I’m going to have to leave this city,” he says, frowning. Suddenly he brightens: "I hear Kiev is nice.”
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