Alternatives

Minorities, and the concept of difference, are endlessly fascinating to me. An insight into a counterculture on its own is often enough to draw me in, but there is a deeper revelation in the heart of such a rebellion against the mainstream that fascinates me more. It's that these labels, modes and styles are not static, but flexible, and ever-changing. Taste and acceptability is a shifting maelstrom of cultural touchstones. What is alternative gradually becomes broader and more popular, and in response the spectrum shifts and alternative comes to mean something else.

Rock and roll was dangerous and seedy, then became the default, and has now diminished in popularity. Electronica evolved in revolt against rock bands, and now pop music is full of electronic dance beats. Today's alternative music has thus pushed back against the dance and is back to the folksy piano and guitars of forty years ago. All of which is a longwinded way of saying that in order to understand a culture, a time, a city, you have to try and define the boundaries of what it is, and what it isn't. If you have a general grasp of the whole, you ought to see who is pushing back against it, and in what context, both historical and cultural.

Berlin is an amazing city. It is weird and wonderful. Of every place we've visited, I feel like I have the best understanding of why this city is what it is. I took an alternative walking tour today through its underbelly with a fantastic tour guide from an organisation that only hires artists from the street scene with intimate knowledge of the area. Ours was an American that had lived here for nearly five years on an arts visa. Many tours offer historical insights and explain what happened in places or buildings as you pass, but this one went further. Rather than spooling off drab facts, he used them as a tool to explain Berlin as it is today. That's what's missing from so many tours - okay, I get what the city was, but what is it now?

Berlin is utterly shaped by its past, but if you only focus on what happened here you miss the marvel of what it is today. It is a city built to hold seven million people, but only has three and a half million residents. It's the third biggest Turkish city in the world, with a huge expat population, and has thousands of Vietnamese too. It is kind of a ghost town, with empty buildings, seventy billion euros in debt, and on a beautiful summer's Saturday there was no one really around. It hadn't registered consciously but there was an emptiness to it that you have to kind of blink and look at before you see.

Our tour guide set up the history, and then connected the dots to explain the underground culture and why street art was so prevalent. The lack of money, empty buildings and post-Stasi cultural aversion to surveillance creates an atmosphere in which there is little state action against graffiti. In a metropolis where you can still see the bullet holes and bomb residue etched into the exterior of many buildings, the money to fight it is better spent elsewhere (not that the capital has much of a budget anyway). Squatters take over empty buildings, and artists use the space to paint without fear of reprisal. As is the nature of these things, though, the poor artists create an atmosphere or a caf? culture, and then the cool people move in, and soon you have Starbucks on the corner and real estate developers on your doorstep, gentrifying the area.

This has lead to resistance against commercialism from the underground community. A lot of the famous artistic niches are being bought out from underneath its people. An historic post office that was turned into a photography gallery has been purchased and will become a hotel. A once-beloved street artist that received a degree of commercial success has seen their work across the city be disfigured with black paint. Impressive faces jackhammered into the sides of buildings by a Spanish artist with the tagline 'go forth' were discovered to be commissioned by Levi jeans. A four storey image of soccer players has Nike logos on their shorts and was confirmed to be advertising. Large messages adorn many riverside properties in protest. One says "fuck off media spree" in letters that are one storey high.

The Tacheles building, originally a department store in the Jewish sector, and then a Nazi prizon, was taken over by artists during the reunification in the '90s and made into a hub of communal creativity. It was going to be demolished, but the artists fought for it. As it was still structurally sound, they managed to get it classified as a historic landmark. Last year, a property developer bought the land out from underneath them, and despite resistance has been paying off all the store owners on the lower level for ?1 million each in an effort to gain control. After being the ones to save the area, and restoring it to a thriving, desirable scene where it was just seediness and vacant lots, they are now being pushed out.

The underground community has been directly responsible for the discovery and preservation of other areas of historical note too. After they took over a two storey building above a designated free art zone (not that the state really does anything about the art elsewhere), they uncovered the history of its previous owner, Otto Weidt. A German man, he employed disabled Jewish workers to make brooms and brushes for his business. During the Nazi occupation, when the Gestapo came to deport his staff, he successfully argued that as they were disabled they would be no help as physical labourers and his shop was vital for the war effort. As efforts increased, he forged paperwork and bribed officers in order to protect his people.

One of most amazing stories on a tour full of fascinating experiences was of a treehouse. When the separation of east and west Berlin happened overnight, the temporary barbed wire fencing placed in straight lines to save on material. As it happened, they fenced off a triangular section of eastern Berlin land on the western side of the fence. A Turkish immigrant took it over, and grew a garden there, gradually building a treehouse for himself from whatever he could find around him. It became a symbol of eastern liberalism against the capitalist west Berlin, and a centre of passive resistance. When threatened by the police, the occupants responded that as they were on eastern property the police had no authority over them.

After the wall came down, the reunified state, concerned about the not-quite-up-to-building-code house, attempted to oust the Turkish man. However, a church on the adjacent block, and which technically owned the land, produced an 1800s document stating that they had the prerogative to donate land to those who it deemed fit and in need of asylum. And so the Islamic Turk was granted ownership of the land he'd lived on for years through the graces of a Christian church. It speaks to the amazing sense of community and connection the people of the city strive for in the wake of their shared history.

The culture is in a weird place too. Population growth has plateaued, so the government introduced significant baby bonuses and other incentives like sixteen months of parental leave to be split between the mother and father. This has created a district colloquially called 'pregnancy hill', where the mothers, relatively cashed up and with time to kill, swan about buying only the best organic green fair trade soy fibre slim jeans for their toddlers. There's also a stipend for pet owners, so there are basically no strays in Berlin or animals in pet shelters. Despite the incredible costs of these social programs, the state is hoping that the short term debt will be paid off by economic growth from the future baby boom.

Three years ago, the state controversially rebuilt part of the Berlin wall that was falling apart, with tax dollars (!), because other than the technology industry (empty property, low prices, easy for web startups and app developers), the biggest money influx comes from the tourist business. And if there's no Berlin wall left, they lose tourist dollars. So citizens' taxes went towards rebuilding what for many is still an incredibly recent and sensitive symbol of oppression. Again, it's a weird place.

Berlin is indelibly imprinted with the scars of its history, but it has a fascinating and unique culture. Resistance against surveillance and cult mindsets (they banned Scientology a few years ago), legalisation of prostitution and marijuana possession, large debt and vacant properties, and a reactionary level of hyper-tolerance for difference, individuality and fetishism has created a melting pot unlike any other. I asked our guide, himself an artist and typically low on cash (the tour was free, but tips were expected, as they receive no salary), whether he thought the city was on the precipice of a rebirth, or an implosion. He sighed. "It is walking a line right down the middle. It could go either way." One has to hope, should it boom, that the alternative culture and community that kept the city alive, and is fundamentally responsible for turning wasteland into desirable suburbs, is not cast aside along the way.

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