In Search of the "Berlin Spirit"

Berlin’s original spirit has been lost to mass culture and tourism. But one sector has preserved the city’s spirit of optimism and enthusiasm: The start-up industry. In Berlin, anyone can still be someone with a good idea and a plan.

Especially during the summer, Berlin turns into a tourist’s dream destination. Adventurous travellers from all generations and countries embark to discover the mythical “Berlin spirit”, of which stories are told and retold throughout the world. Young Italians and Spaniards cruise through the streets on rented bikes. The city center is hopelessly crowded; the sidewalks are filled with people. Near Hackescher Markt, the recent addition of Mustafa’s veggie kebab (long a favorite of tourist guidebooks and locals) is attracting large crowds who willingly endure the long queue for a bit of fatty food. Access to nearby streets is all but impossible.

It takes a while until one realizes that the “Berlin spirit” is taking a summer break as well, or that it has even decided to emigrate. Fifteen years ago, one of the streets near Hackescher Markt – the Neue Schönhauser – was a dreamy little road without fancy stores but flanked by buildings in varying stages of decay and repair. Around the corner, at Sophienstraße, bourgeois residences stood in their original grace. The passage of time had left a romantic patina on the local church, and the small graveyard that surrounds it was filled with flowers and shaded by old trees. Tourists were nowhere to be seen. Turning a corner, one sometimes had the feeling of being the first person to set foot in that particular place. A walk through the city was still a process of discovery, a very personal adventure of the urbanite.

What was the unique appeal of Berlin fifteen years ago? The inhabitants of the city formed an organism with a tremendous capacity for self-organization. Public spaces were truly public, and the typical “Berlin Mitte” crowd didn’t exist yet. Today, the city government is asserting its power, but its presence usually manifests itself in the failure of traditional insignia of law and order: Berlin’s infrastructure is crumbling. Public transportation is a cause of constant headaches, the new airport is turning into a political and infrastructural nightmare, the privatization of water supplies has led to an utter lack of transparency, and taxi drivers and cyclists awake every morning to new construction sites. Never before has anarchy been as prevalent in Berlin – curiously enough, it is caused by authorities whose task it is to ensure public order.

The anarchy of fifteen years ago was different. It breathed the air of a hopeful future: A time when everything that was good about Berlin would be preserved and expanded. The source of this shared hope wasn’t a consensus of convictions and values, but a radical tolerance of difference. It was a time when the view of Berlin’s skyline from the Oberbaumbrücke – a beautiful historic bridge – wasn’t yet obstructed by the ugly façade of the O2 multipurpose arena.

One of the defining elements of Berlin fifteen years ago was the sense of living in a time of new beginnings. Construction was taking place everywhere, the German government moved from Bonn back to Berlin after the end of the Cold War. Anyone could be someone in Berlin as long as you had a good idea and the enthusiasm to see it through. The optimism of the 1990s isn’t marginalized by the fact that entrepreneurs mainly sought to open new party locations or bars.

Today, the party scene lacks that sense of optimism. The goal is to squeeze as many tourists as possible for as much money as possible. It’s not uncommon to pay 9 Euros for a Gin Tonic. What might count as normal in other cities still seems like racketeering in Berlin. In the city center, many shops have introduced doorbells, which customers must ring before being admitted. Tourists are kept out, and the bouncer is experiencing an unexpected job market renaissance.

Berlin’s optimism didn’t really extend to traditional industrial sectors. After the end of World War II, German industry clustered in different parts of the country. Even after reunification, few incentives existed to move factories to the German capital. The Leftist and Social Democratic government contributed their share as well, and refused to roll out the red carpet for industrial investors.

Today’s age of new beginnings is thus found in a new economic sector: The start-up industry. It’s marked by the same spirit that drove Berlin’s development in the 1990s. Indeed, the spirit of that earlier period is a big factor for the accumulation of start-up entrepreneurs in Berlin today.

A job in the start-up sector has now become as sought after as a job with a big consulting firm or investment bank. The breath of fresh air – and the implicit promise that, still, anyone can be someone in Berlin – is trumping the high salaries of corporate offices.

The start-up industry has emerged as a vital factor for the future of Berlin. History has conspired in its favor to keep the great spirit of Berlin alive – and to inspire other industries as well. In the meantime, we can enjoy the (few) sunny days the city has to offer.

Newconomy is the new weekly column for the start-up industry. It focuses on the intersection of classical and new economies and of politics and entrepreneurialism. Newconomy is sponsored by Factory, the new start-up hub in Berlin.

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