Ruining the coolest city in the world

Posters protest rent increases in the Neukoelln district in Berlin. Students, creative types and tourists are flocking to Neukoelln and the locals are none too pleased.
Posters protest rent increases in the Neukoelln district in Berlin. Students, creative types and tourists are flocking to Neukoelln and the locals are none too pleased. Photo: Getty Images

Let me tell you about the time I ruined Berlin. Not knowingly, but I've come to see that I probably did chip something out of the greatness of a city I love.

It was cold that day, one of those grey winter afternoons in the German capital when people hunch their shoulders and dig their hands deep into their pockets. Wind whipped bits of paper across the pavement; a cloud darker than the rest rolled slowly over the rooftops.

We needed to get inside, as much to warm up as to avoid the coming downpour. Now wasn't a time to be choosy, so my friends and I ducked into the first little joint that looked like a cafe or a bar. That'd do.

We were in Neukoelln, an "up-and-coming" suburb in an up-and-coming city. While other formerly cool parts of Berlin have been polished and gentrified beyond recognition, awash with prams and strollers instead of punks and ravers, Neukoelln is different.

It's ratty enough to have retained its sense of careless charm. The buildings are strewn with graffiti, badges of times past and the people who have claimed it as their own. The residents shuffling along the streets come in all kinds, from immigrants to pensioners to hipsters to parents. It used to be dangerous here but the area is changing. Now you can walk the streets untroubled.

Neukoelln is the sort of suburb that's made Berlin popular among a certain set of travellers. This is a city that can cater to almost every persuasion and every whim. Frequent visitors long ago discovered that behind the gritty facade of all that graffiti on Eastern bloc architecture lies a warm, welcoming city, a place where it's OK to be whatever it is you are. No pretension. No judgment.

Neukoelln epitomises that. Or at least, so I thought.

This bar we'd stumbled upon was named Freies Neukoelln - or, in English, Free Neukoelln. We didn't stop to consider the name but pushed our way inside, into the warmth, to find a little wooden table next to a radiator.

A waitress called out "Hallo" from the behind the bar. A few regulars looked up, smiled, went back to their beers. We flicked through a menu, looked around.

This is why I love Berlin. Pick a bar at random and it turns out to be perfect. Freies Neukoelln was clearly a local place, but friendly. The shabby walls were plastered with slogans supporting refugee rights; the bar contained a couple of taps for Bavarian beers; and that was it.

We clinked glasses and ordered some food. The plates arrived from below table height as two little hands appeared from out of nowhere, pushing dishes in front of us. "It's my daughter," the waitress explained as a little girl giggled and ran away from our table. "I have decided to give her a job."

We spent the whole afternoon in Freies Neukoelln, chatting to people, making work for one enthusiastic child. As we rose to leave, pulling on coats and scarves, the waitress asked our plans for the week. We shrugged and said we didn't have any.

"Please come back here if you want to," she said. "It would be nice to see you."

And with that we left, fairly certain we'd found the nicest place in the coolest city in the world.

I Googled Freies Neukoelln a few hours later, just to see what everyone else was saying about it, to confirm they all agreed. The second link on the page, however, shattered everything. It was a video made by Matthias Merkle, the bar's owner. I clicked on it. It was bitingly funny and scathing of ... me.

The video is a protest piece, loaded with scorn for the outsiders - the students, the artists, the travellers, the creative types - who are piling into Neukoelln en masse, packing the bars, moving into the flats, driving up rents and changing the suburb from a cosy enclave to the cornerstone of cool. People like my friends and me. Some, such as Matthias, aren't happy.

In his eyes I helped ruin Berlin just by being there, the same as I've changed so many other destinations around the world with my presence as an outsider. It's something you have to accept when you travel, to find a way to make it OK. That's why some people like to think of themselves only as "travellers" instead of "tourists", as a way to deflect the nagging belief that they're as much to blame for all those bumbling holidaymakers changing a destination as anyone.

In Berlin, the phenomenon is writ large. The city is changing rapidly, from an edgy urban enclave to another modern hub with a bit too much graffiti.

I don't regret my part in it, however, because I enjoyed it so much and felt so welcome. Someone should tell the wait staff to stop being nice.

bengroundwater@gmail.com

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