Berlin: a city in a state of nervous flux

Some Berliners worry the city’s free spirit – and affordable rents – are being eroded by property speculation

Derek Scally in his neighbourhood in the Wilmersdorf area in western Berlin.

Derek Scally in his neighbourhood in the Wilmersdorf area in western Berlin.

Thu, Aug 14, 2014, 01:00

A quarter of a century after toppling its dividing wall, Berlin is growing together and growing up. Now on its sixth iteration in a century, the German capital remains in a state of nervous flux. After imperial, Weimar, Third Reich and two Cold War Berlins, today’s united city is a self-governing city-state in Germany’s 16-state federal structure and, since 1999, the seat of the federal government. At 892sq km it’s slightly smaller than the greater Dublin region, with a population of 3.4 million, growing to 4.5 million in the metropolitan area.

Decades off the grid made Berlin the capital that capitalism forgot. These days, however, it is so popular with tourists, hipsters and investors, that locals worry the city they loved is vanishing before their eyes.

I live in the western neighbourhood of Wilmersdorf, south of the leafy Kurfürstendamm that is western Berlin’s main thoroughfare. Like Charlottenburg to the north, Wilmersdorf was built later than the eastern city centre, mostly after German unification in 1871. The streets here were home – and playground – for the city’s new professional, creative class, including many secular Jews.

Albert Einstein lived here in the decades before E came to equal mc2. Around the corner from him lived Anita Berber, the Weimar-era performance artist notorious for her drug-induced naked dance routines.

The area’s buildings range from stuccoed Jugendstil apartments to bombastic Nazi-era blocks and, where I live, Bauhaus apartments built around green, block-sized courtyards.

Like most Berlin neighbourhoods, Wilmersdorf offers a self-contained residential-commercial mix. There is no shortage of money – or Russians – living here, judging by the proliferation of badly-parked Porsches and the fur-caviar concentration at the weekend markets. There are five train lines, half a dozen buses, and the Autobahn lies at the district’s outer perimeter for quick exits. There are good facilities for families, too: larger apartments, good schools, roomy playgrounds and parks, not to mention the Grunewald forest and lakes to the west.

While life in the German capital is far less stressful than London, Paris or even Dublin, there is definitely a charge in the air that wasn’t here before. But it’s hard to know when the switch was flicked.

Some say it was the 2006 World Cup that put Berlin back on the map it had slipped off decades earlier. Others say the adrenalin shot came during the euro crisis as investors – German and foreign – sought a safe haven for their capital. They moved in en masse and, from an admittedly low base, the Berlin residential property market has taken off. Irish investors were among those who moved in during the past decade. Some made a packet, others lost their shirt and departed with a bad reputation for flipping buildings for profit and to hell with the tenants.

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