The current political crisis in America—Red State vs. Blue State—is not merely fall out from the American Civil War and civil rights movement; it is also a consequence of the disastrous effects of the Cold War. The nations of the former Eastern Bloc felt the brunt of that fall out, rather than the West. There is no doubt in my mind that Putin has a hand in the destabilization of the United States and by extension, the Western World. (George Soros’ involvement in this “project” is questionable. There are too many anti-Semitic reactionaries placing the onus upon his shoulders. It is all so cliched: a billionaire Hungarian Jew who seeks to subvert the world order by funding dubious “liberation movements” such as BLM and the Trump Protests. But in Putin’s case–his bankrolling of the German AfD, Marine Le Pen, the BNP, Trump’s election as well as far-right movements across the West, if not the world–it is blatantly obvious what is happening.)
Dostoyevsky, in a speech given in honor of Pushkin in 1880, insisted that the destiny of Russia was “pan-European” and “universal”–not, according to him, in a political or militaristic sense but in a sense of universal brotherhood. (1) Sergey Nikolsky, a Russian cultural philosopher, stated his views more plainly: that the most paramount idea in the collective Russian mind has been one of “empire,” of unchecked imperialism. (2) Russia has long resented its loss of international prestige and influence. For untold decades, if not centuries, Russia has seen itself destined to be the dominant moral and political force in the world. Even their adaptation of Communism in 1917 was merely a means to another end—the end being world domination.
It is no accident of history that the Soviet Union turned out to be just as imperialist and hegemonic as its arch-rival, the United States. It is no accident that during the Cold War, the USSR spent a great chunk of its energy in pushing Marxist liberation movements around the globe—from Cuba to Vietnam to Angola to even, God forbid, the United States (remember the CPUSA?). The USSR had nothing whatever to do with uniting and liberating the “workers of the world.” The USSR merely wanted to create a global empire using Marxist-Leninism as the catalyst to facilitate its creation. The Soviets saw themselves as Russians first and Marxists second. Every second and third-world nation that was formerly under Communist rule has people who distinctly recall the extreme arrogance and ethnic chauvinism of the Russian communists. Milan Kundera distrusted them deeply.(3) Indeed, there was one incident that took place in Saigon in the late 1980s: a few Europeans were walking around Saigon when they were set upon by a small band of enraged Vietnamese, shrieking “Soviet! Soviet!” The Vietnamese intended to kill the supposed “Soviets” until it was discovered that these “Soviets” were actually Australians.
McCarthyism, as blatantly reactionary and even fascist as it was, was simply a logical reaction on the part of the U.S. Government to Russian imperialism. This is not to say that the McCarthyites were correct in their line of thinking. They weren’t. McCarthy and his goons reacted the way they did against the American left for a specific reason. In the early fifties, the US had only very recently inherited the mantle of world leadership from the British Empire (the UK had lost its colonial crown jewel, India, in 1947, foretelling the collapse of the entire Empire). The presence of the Soviet Union spreading its own imperialist influence into African, Asian and Middle-Eastern nations horrified these nascent American imperialists, who were intent upon staying masters of the world. Theirs was a hard-won victory and they were intent upon savoring the fruits of that victory (not merely against Nazi Germany but, more subtly, Imperial Britain and Colonial France, as well) for as long as they could reasonably maintain it. The USSR was a major stumbling block in their pathway. In 1949, Mao’s consolidation of the Republic of China as yet another Communist state—and made up of hundreds of millions of yellow people—threw the U.S. State Department into a panic. The very presence of hard-line Communism in such an old and hallowed civilization as China confirmed this threat. Mao Zedong’s ascent to power in 1949 literally kicked off the Cold War.
In the minds of racist and reactionary US politicians and government apparatchiks, the Commies were going to stir up the niggers, gooks and spics. By 1951 these same government goons feared for their “spheres of influence” in Latin America and the Middle East—read, places where white Americans could easily disseminate their own goofy and chauvinistic ideas about culture, economics, religion, civilization and humanity in general. An American “sphere of influence” basically denotes any given nation where Americans find the general population to be warm to American cultural parochialism. I call it “international parochialism.” Today this fake Americanism, this international parochialism parades under the banner of “cultural globalism” or “globalism” or “international standards.” But in reality, “globalism” is simply white middle-class American culture, with all of its massive flaws.
1950 saw the genesis of true American “globalism.” By 1951 the State Department began fearing that their dupes in the Middle East (who were also largely still British dupes, such as the King of Iraq) were beginning to turn towards the USSR. Mossadegh represented a major threat, so had to be terminated by 1953. Nasser emerged as another threat the following year. Ho Chi Minh defeated the French at Dien Ben Phu in the summer of 1954 and on the first of November that same year, an allegedly “Marxist” group, the FLN in Algeria, declared war on the French….
The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 temporarily assured Americans that they were the dominant power for the centuries to come. It was a false reassurance, as we now see. China has emerged to become a world power in its own right. Iran has not budged one inch, in spite of the N.W.O. inspired destruction all around it. Russia’s defeat in the Cold War deeply wounded its pride. It had not intended, as we have seen, to push Marxism so much as it insisted upon pushing subservience to Moscow and Russian cultural hegemony. Nothing else could have explained the USSR’s invasion of Hungary, of Czechoslovakia, or the stationing of Russian troops in East Germany or the requirement that East German students actually learn Russian. Milan Kundera: “Unthinkable for the Russians to excoriate “Russianness,” that immaculate essence. Not a Mann, not a Gombrowicz among them.”
After their Cold War defeat, the Russians decided on a new tactic. They saw that communism had failed as a vehicle for Russian domination, so they turned to fascism and white nationalism. Fascism had a stronger and more visceral appeal to white westerners resentful of the rising tide of black, yellow and brown. It also appealed to confused non-whites, especially Latino and Middle-Eastern near-whites. The Russians also used sex to get their aims across: sex tourism in Eastern Europe, particularly the Ukraine, Czech Republic and Russia itself: a seedy glorification of the Slavic woman.
In addition to this, it also appears that many of the terrorist attacks in Europe can be traceable to Russian agents. Maybe I’m jumping the gun here, but the timing of the recent terror attack in Berlin (plus the one that took place in Switzerland and the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey) leaves me deeply suspicious. My guess is that all three of these incidents were rigged to coincide with Trump’s Electoral College vote. It is no surprise that (in spite of Russia’s obvious tampering with the U.S. elections) Trump won, overwhelmingly. And like the blustering buffoon he is, Trump–at the behest of his puppet-master in the Kremlin–is demanding that the world “change its thinking.”
The Russians are succeeding admirably in their conquest for global domination via white supremacist ideology. Only this time they are staying quietly in the background while their agents (among them, Trump, Duke, Bannon, Tillerson, Spencer, Heimbach, and others too numerous to name here) do the dirty work in unwittingly pushing Russian imperialism.(4)
For what has Russian policy been doing for these two centuries if not serving Europe, perhaps, far more than she has served herself I do not believe this came to pass through the incapacity of our statesmen. The nations of Europe know how dear they are to us. And in course of time I believe that we — not we, of course, but our children to come — will all without exception understand that to be a true Russian does indeed mean to aspire finally to reconcile the contradictions of Europe, to show the end of European yearning in our Russian soul, omni-human and all-uniting, to indude within our soul by brotherly love all our brethren, and at last, it may be, to pronounce the final Word of the great general harmony, of the final brotherly communion of all nations in accordance with the law of the gospel of Christ! (Dostoyevsky, A SPEECH DELIVERED ON JUNE 8, 1880 AT THE MEETING OF THE SOCIETY OF LOVERS OF RUSSIAN LITERATURE)
“We have always known that we live in a country whose history is an unbroken chain of territorial expansion, conquest, annexation, of their defence, of temporary losses and new conquests. The idea of empire was one of the most precious in our ideological baggage and it is this that we proclaim to other nations. It is through it that we surprise, delight or drive mad the rest of the world.” (Sergei Nikolsky, “Russkiie kak imperskii narod”, Politicheskaia Kontseptologiia, N° 1, 2014, pp. 42-43.)
” (T)he Soviet subjugation of his country had made Kundera mistrustful of Russians – all Russians” (Olga Carlisle, Interview with Milan Kundera (1985)” Also: “to my mind there is nothing more admirable in the Europe of the second half of the twentieth century than that golden chain of revolts that, over forty years, eroded the empire of the East, made it ungovernable, and tolled the death knell of its reign.” (Kundera, The Curtain)
“Bare-chested Putin gallops his horses, poses with his tigers, and shoots his guns…Barack Obama, in his increasingly metrosexual golf get-ups and his prissy poses on the nation’s tony golf courses, wants to stay cool while playing a leisure sport.” (Victor Davis Hanson, National Review, 2014)
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN KONCH MAGAZINE, JANUARY 2013, under PHILIP HENDERSON.
“Home” was a one-room, 35 square meter sublet on Hasenheide. From the outside it looked fairly glamorous; the walkway was lined with stately tenement houses, old-fashioned gas lamps, and chestnut trees. The marvelous 19th century Südstern cathedral was within close walking distance; overall the ambience was one of understated Gothic elegance.
From inside the flat was cursed with dim lighting, a non-existent kitchen, and faulty electrical wiring. “Fire hazard” was an understatement. The cheap Ikea bed was right next to the table on which I feverishly worked, digging myself deeper into an aesthetic hole. The “bathroom,” if one could call it a “bathroom,” was just a cheap shower stall with a toilet jammed next to it. Hot water was non-existent. The toilet itself was one of those horrible things with a built-in porcelain plank in place of the watery hole—one in which you could not only see your shit, but smell it, too.
Two years ago, I found myself stuck in this Kreuzberg hole with a disappointing realization. I had hoped for the better of three years that things would improve, that my financial fortunes would turn around, and that I would finally meet somebody special—the last being one of the main reasons why I came to this city. The realization was that—unfortunately, and for the foreseeable future—none of this was going to happen.
And another realization: that aside from an unfinished (and unfinishable) novel I had nothing to show for my being in Berlin.
It sounds like a corny cliché—just like something that would have happened anywhere else in the world, to anybody else—maybe in Paris, or even Harlem, where I originally wished to live. It was not heartening to know that in Harlem or Paris a flat similar to mine would have gone for four times its going price. Payday had been dragged out for over a week, and when I last checked my bank account, I had considerably less than the 420 euro it cost to rent it per month.
Nothing else that I had planned, either in my art or my writing, had been completed. I did not write a single one of the short stories I imagined I would write. My play—if you could call it a “play”—did not get beyond the basic sketch. There were a few minor poems, and a larger one that had just been published earlier that year; it turned out so far to be my only publication in Germany. The unfinished morass of a novel I had been slaving on for over five years.
Today, my situation is the same; only the dwelling has changed. It is considerably larger, yet considerably older, too. The bathroom is better constructed, although ice-cold in winter time (the flat is coal-heated). The rent is less than half of the old dwelling. My novel, thank God, is finished. But there is no publisher in sight, and absolutely no money to my name.
Even by the sorry standards of my expat friends, my case may be somewhat extreme. I can’t say for certain that I was “happy” to be in the hole. But I was certainly glad I was there, and not in a youth hostel—or, worse, back home in Maryland. I came to Berlin because I found it impossible to function there as an artist and an individual. In the U.S., in spite of having won an American Book Award I had the nagging suspicion that my ambitions were misguided, that I was devoting my life to a false vocation. “Real people” didn’t do art: they pushed papers in an office or, at least, lawnmowers. In America, real artists don’t need to be censored or imprisoned, because no one ever sees us. In Berlin—so we believe—people like ourselves are an integral part of the city’s cultural life. Although this notion is certainly open to doubt, it is true that Berlin as a rule is more congenial to the artist than New York, or Los Angeles. Rents are significantly lower than anywhere in New York or Los Angeles. Crime is also significantly lower, as is the police presence; one can walk most streets at any time of the day or night without fear of being killed.
For an African American expat—especially for one coming from a crude, philistine “urban” America—this may sound especially appealing. Adventuresome U.S. black artists must be surfeited with America’s overwhelming social problems, its lingering racism, its adolescent notions of “authentic blackness” gleamed from Hollywood and hip-hop; Berlin may well offer these artists a way out of such mindlessness. The space to create, to broaden one’s mind, to meet with other like-minded souls from all walks of life, still exists here—it has been eradicated in New York—and for that one can be thankful for the existence of Berlin. But unless one is already well-established upon coming here, financially or otherwise, the poverty and neglect one will face will not necessarily be less than that which one is already experiencing say, in New York, or Los Angeles.
In America, real artists don’t need to be censored or imprisoned, because no one ever sees us.
Naturally, one doesn’t think of such things in the very beginning. One is taken away by the euphoria of merely being in Berlin, of being free to take off one’s masks, to dress, walk, talk, or simply be any way one wishes. Now—unlike the South Bronx—you can walk the streets without perpetually looking over your shoulder for a thug, or cop, or both. Now you are free to seek out all those thousands and thousands of like-minded spirits who are said to be congregating in the innumerable bars, cafes, and bookshops across the city. You have been warned about the Neo-Nazis but you already know not to go too far out East. All the action, anyway, is in “Kreuzkolln,” a vague geographical sliver encompassing Kottbusser Damm, Mariannenstrasse, Planufer, and other connecting streets. And among the crowds of young students at the terraces and bridges are, mercifully, faces of color. You hear Spanish spoken—not merely the Spanish of Spain but also of Cuba, Mexico and Puerto Rico. And naturally, you hear American English—not merely that of American whites, but also, if one listens further, of American blacks. The scenery—most notably, around Chamissoplatz—makes you wonder just what it was you saw in Brooklyn. The buildings’ fancy façade work puts to shame everything you had ever seen in Boston or Philly. The upright street lamps are, indeed, gas lit. The streets are largely cobbled; the corner bar, which evokes in Americans many romantic notions of Europe, still exists. And of course there is an abundance of alcohol (which no one minds drinking out in the open), drugs (one can smell it wafting through the air of various Kreuzberg streets), and sex: love affairs of all kinds proliferate, prostitution is legal, and as the back-pages of Bild or B.Z. amply illustrate, anything one would want is literally available, for a price. There are galleries opening up, readings in abundance, and hoards of buskers—most of them “gypsies” from Romania or Bulgaria, whose jaunty music fills the summer air with the rhythmic blasting of horns and drums. (And as in virtually every other Continental nation, they are perceived as a menace.)
The first scale to fall from one’s eyes may take some time. You are too busy ambling along the streets of your new neighborhood, enjoying your new sublet or—if you are lucky—your new flat. While filling it up with furniture, or picking up stuff shipped over from the U.S., you notice that the faces of the employees at Postbank or DHL do not necessarily correspond to those in your neighborhood. Of course, one could have seen this the moment one’s plane landed in Tegel. There are no faces of color working on the tarmac; exceedingly few ones exist behind the desks at the airport. Berliners have found it easier to put colored faces on a poster than in any position where they may wield influence, or even, for that matter, earn a living wage. So far I have personally counted exactly six black bus drivers and about twice as many Turkish ones; there may be Asian bus drivers, I have yet to see them. (I have counted about two Asian cab drivers.) Black, brown and yellow faces are equally difficult to find behind cash registers in Kaisers and near non-existent in Aldi, Netto, Reichelt and other Berlin grocery stores and shopping outlets. There are exceedingly few transit employees or construction workers who are black, brown or yellow and virtually no black, brown or yellow cops, no black, brown or yellow executives, and no black brown or yellow faces in the halls of so-called Berlin culture. In virtually every respect—right down to Germany’s conspicuous lack of adequate civil rights legislation—Berlin reminds one unpleasantly of America fifty years ago.
Personally, I have no illusions as to what Berliners think of blacks—I had been to Berlin before taking up residence here, and have heard “nigger” used more frequently on these streets than in Richmond, Virginia. I have had confrontations with Nazi scum, as well as Turks, Arabs or Africans who despise black Americans. One doesn’t come to Berlin to escape the overwhelming racial tension that exists in, say, New York, the way that black expats came to Paris to escape the overwhelming tension of pre-Civil Rights America; one comes because one imagines it’s better to simmer in the German pot than to roast in the American fire.
Yet to simmer in the pot still means you are being cooked. The cooking is slower, more leisurely, but the end results are the same. James Baldwin wrote that the “weight” of New York City was “murderous.” Berlin’s weight seems lighter in the beginning—before you realize just how difficult it is for a foreigner to get a permanent flat in this extremely xenophobic city; before you realize that, even for Germans, jobs are impossible to come by, or before you have ever experienced winter-time Berlin: the longer one prolongs his stay in this city, the closer one gets to the unsettling truth about the city’s true spirit. “There’s a bold breed of people living in Berlin,” Goethe has written, “for whom delicacy means little. One must have hair on one’s teeth and be a little rough sometimes in order to keep one’s head above water (Goethe 127).”
Berlin is not a new Prague, let alone a new Paris. Berlin’s equivalents of Paris’s old Left Bank, Montparnasse or Montmartre don’t really exist. Paris, like Berlin, is a Northern city, yet with a distinctively Latin flair; Berlin’s Prussian hauteur is leavened with Yankee silliness and Slavic spunk. The names of some city boroughs (“Treptow,” “Pankow,” “Stralau”) and streets (Paul-Robeson Strasse) bear this out—even the very name Berlin itself; contrary to local lore it does not mean “Bear” but “swamp” in an old Slavic tongue. Perhaps this is no accident, for spiritually Berlin bears all the hallmarks of a human swamp: full of crabby people, constantly snapping at each other and pulling one another down to the same mean level.
One can sense this during any time of the year—certainly during the summer, when the celebrated Kufurstendamm fills up with the most obnoxious tourists in Western Europe. Yet even the sheer vulgarity of a Berlin summer is no match for the unspeakably raw meanness of a Berlin winter. It is not just the brusqueness in so many Berliners taking on a harsher edge, or even the Berliners bringing your own ugliness out of you. It is—as Henry Miller once wrote in Tropic of Cancer about Paris’s cold spells—a winter of the soul. Ernst Jünger, writing to Gottfried Benn said emphatically “one simply cannot be healthy” here. Elias Canetti also writes, in his autobiography, “… (H)ow quickly Berlin used up people. Anyone who didn’t know how to arrange things for himself was doomed….If you had awakened to your own animality before coming here, you had to increase it in order to hold out against the animality of other people; and if you weren’t very strong, you were soon used up (Canetti 294).”
One does have the feeling here that one is perpetually navigating through a vast, unruly jungle. Berlin does not have a spectacularly high homicide rate like, say, Detroit, or Moscow, or even a moderately high one like London or Madrid. Gun possession is relatively rare; what homicides do occur happen usually with a knife, or a club. Berlin has more understated ways of destroying an individual; its weapon of choice is apathy.
Passive-aggression is another. Recently neo-Nazis marched in the very heart of Kreuzberg, beating and stomping anything that wasn’t white. Locals certainly saw the march coming; few, however, cared enough to prevent it. Nazis had even gathered in heavily-Turkish Hermannplatz (which also has a considerable number of blacks) with little or no opposition. My guess is that the residents of “Kreuzkolln,” so called, thought themselves too cool, hip and “sophisticated” to bother with trivial things like violent racist attacks. (By contrast, the planned Nazi march in ultra-square Leipzig was quashed: anti-Nazi demonstrators prevented them from exiting the train.)
Berliners have found it easier to put colored faces on a poster than in any position where they may wield influence, or even, for that matter, earn a living wage.
It is this utter incivility and moral chaos—however low-key—that inevitably leads to bitter disillusionment. We had naively hoped the city would provide a refuge from the sickening vulgarity of Boston, or Baltimore, or Birmingham. Unfortunately Berlin’s boroughs have no shortage of philistines; in fact they tend to be in the majority, particularly in the impoverished East. Two years ago, or even six months ago, one might have blandly accepted these flaws as a part of Berlin’s local color. Now they are simply a major headache. Berliner “Schnauze”—the churlishness of a parochial people stuck in the 19th century—is as ubiquitous and hopelessly ineradicable as the bad weather, bad food and dog shit. We realize this after living in their dingy flats and riding the U-Bahn with them; shopping alongside them in Karstadt, Kaisers, Kaufland, and other stores; barhopping along Bergmannstrasse, Oranienstrasse, Prenzlauer Allee, and other so-called “bohemian” streets. And we begin to note details about local life that we, in our earlier enthusiasm, overlooked. You note that the next door neighbor who has seen you come and go for years has yet to acknowledge your presence; or that people of color in Berlin—perhaps more so than any other city in Europe—generally tend to avoid each other. You also note the Turkish kids hanging on the corner, perennially unemployed, dressed in fashions copied precisely from Jersey Shore, the popular reality TV show; you also note that too many seem to have copied precisely Italian-American racism. You see, of all things, “darky donuts” offered at the local bakery; you see the bullet-holes still in the dainty facades, the U-Bahn rails eternally under repair, the overabundance of broken glass, the ugly graffiti scrawled everywhere, the indescribable rudeness of store clerks and metro workers, the trash cans either burned or haphazardly opened by bored teens. In Ernst-Reuter Platz, a well-known comedian has a “political” poster of himself—in blackface. And above the old-time gas lamps, new NPD posters we never paid much attention to screaming for racial purity, promising to fly the “niggers” home on a carpet or, God forbid, “GAS geben!!”
It gets worse. There are the everyday events, the absurd happenings that occur anywhere but somehow shock deeper when they happen here. Coming out of the Yorckstrasse S-Bahn one night, ones eyes follow a trail of splattered blood all the way down the stairs to an ambulance outside, where an obese man lay inside with a knife buried in his chest. A confrontation in a Kaiser’s on trendy Bergmannstrasse one night ends with a man being hurled physically out of the store and into a woman on a bike, who strikes her head on a curb. In another Kaiser’s, a “wigger” wanna-be roughly kicks your roller bag and shouts obscenities at you—for kicks. You board a bus from Gesundbrunnen back to Kreuzberg one happy night and run into the most virulent Spanish fascists. A woman walks down the street on a clear spring day with a radiant smile on her model’s face which, shockingly enough, has been scarred with a razor blade. A friend of yours—a twenty-something white guy from Minnesota—comes to Berlin to be a writer and performance artist and winds up shooting heroin; another friend, German-Turkish, born into a high station in life (his father is quite wealthy and living in Sydney) nevertheless finds violent crime as his only recourse for securing the funds to complete his education. And yet another—a cheeky, twenty-something Latina from Seattle who also wished to be a writer and to taste Berlin’s “outré” vibe—wound up getting brutally stomped by her German boyfriend in front of all their friends who, not surprisingly, were also German. (Their “friends” simply sat and watched.) This is, unfortunately, but the tip of the iceberg, and not to make mention of your German friends who simply turned up dead one day in the bathtub or on the toilet bowl, having been burnt out by their own excesses, or simply years of hard-ship and scuffling.
Yes, it’s true. Berlin has its own ugliness which often rivals—and sometimes surpasses—that of the cities and towns we fled. We realize now that its streets and allees offer no true liberation of the spirit. This very flat city—much unlike Paris, or even Prague—does have its romanticism in choice areas (like Chamissoplatz, for example) but even these somehow unsettle with a bombastic glumness. It is not obscene and foreboding like New York so often is, but something cold and Gothic, sinister as a haunted house; it precipitates a certain unease in the spirit. Paris (according to rather unsubstantiated rumors) was a city of romance; Berlin, a city of cheap, tawdry sex, is where romance comes to die.
Naturally one’s resentment towards the city grows in proportion to one’s increasing awareness of its all too obvious flaws. And the main target of our exasperation will not be what we imagined we had escaped, but very thing we came here to embrace. Berlin’s much-touted “bohemia,” as it turns out, is an insufferable fraud, a mere middle-class pastiche. We were fooled by the proliferation of café terraces along Kreuzberg’s Bergmannstrasse or Oranienstrasse, or Prenzlauer Berg’s infamous Schonhauser Allee; the infestation of loud bars along Wiener Strasse, or the rash of hippies in Gorlitzer Park, where the stench of dope is stronger than the exhaust fumes. The truth is that where Paris had its Picassos, its Henry Millers, Chester Himes’s, Milan Kunderas and James Baldwins, Berlin merely has snarky, thinly talented young “hipsters” from Williamsburg. There are rare exceptions, of course, but nearly all of these new “artists” are white, over-privileged, thoroughly middle-class and thoroughly reactionary. The “Ex-Berliner,” a ridiculous rag which recently ran an article about a bike thief from Detroit (!), exemplifies what these privileged buffoons imagine “culture” to be. Few of its writers or artists would make the grade anywhere else outside of Berlin—not even in Williamsburg.
Add to this an unrelenting stream of German yuppies from Swabia (Germany’s Rhode Island) and Bavaria (Germany’s Texas), and you have a Berlin today that scarcely resembles the Berlin of even five years ago. German, Scandinavian, and Irish yuppies above all eroded the true bohemian spirit of 1990s Berlin, by buying most of the decaying flats and tenements in which this bohemia flourished. (In Kreuzberg, they were often bought from Turkish owners eager to sell their property and return to Turkey as wealthy men, rather than continue to live marginalized lives in a country that despised them.) Kreuzberg’s new bourgeois residents wished their new kiez to resemble their hometowns of Baden-Baden, Ulm or Ulster as much as possible. One by one, the notorious Berlin squats of the 1980s were killed off, sometimes violently; punk clubs began to wither and die, or—like Schokoladen—forced to clean up their outré acts.
And unfortunately, the cultural and political outlook of these new yuppie residents is no different than that of Ronald Reagan. It is bitter (saying you are a person of color) to walk along Bergmannstrasse and Oranienstrasse, not to mention Prenzlauer Allee, and watch them snatching their purses away, or hastily locking their car doors, or to overhear disparaging remarks about your race, or “auslanders” in general. It is nauseating to enter a reception in some supposedly “hip” neighborhood in Berlin and find oneself a source of amusement or contempt. It is nauseating to have to sit at a döner shop and endure the scornful stares of Germans and Turks alike. One can only build up a tolerance for such rubbish by developing a skin as thick as an elephant’s hide. Or do what so many other people of color do to survive in Berlin: forget you ever heard or saw it, or simply get drunk.
Of course, the typical Berliner Schnauze answer to the above dilemma would be curt and simple: why stay if you don’t like it? And, above all: why did you even bother to come, if you don’t like it? I know I am expected to answer such questions, which after all are posed by people who assume that it is acceptable to treat others with contempt—simply because they happen to be outsiders, moreover, of a different hue. For me, the questions are moot: given Germany’s history, and given that racial tolerance in Berlin was considerably higher before the collapse of the Wall, one need not answer them. A better question would be: where in hell is Berlin’s legendary Left when it comes to dealing with gentrification and rampant racial discrimination?
The truth is that Berlin’s so-called “leftists” have done nothing but waste a lot of words about “yuppie scum” and “revolution” while allowing this same “yuppie scum” to buy them out of their neighborhoods. On the other hand they’ve burned a good deal of trash cans during Berlin’s traditional May Day riots—a kind of political Mardi Gras where the alienated and frustrated let off steam for a day. Ideally, they should have been more tenacious in their resistance to yuppie incursions; burning their cars or, better yet, kicking their behinds would have helped (if they truly were as “leftist” or “radical” as they claimed they were). But that would have required of the Berlin left a political integrity they never truly possessed.
Nonetheless, Berlin’s true Bohemia is still very much alive. Truthfully it is mostly a musician’s bohemia, a direct carryover from the Paris expatriate jazz scene of the forties, fifties and sixties. Some of these musicians are undoubtedly brilliant, even geniuses, which is all the more shameful to see them—after so many years—reduced to playing in the street, or still passing the hat in fifth-rate watering holes, still playing the same trite arrangements of “Summertime” or “Mustang Sally” and, needless to say, completely unknown outside of Berlin. The sordid details about their everyday lives—drugs, drinking, infighting, arguments, the failed and failing relationships with lovers and spouses, the constant withering of old friendships and partnerships, the hot air about new projects that usually comes to nothing—I won’t mention here.
Any artist here serious about creating must be prepared to build another Berlin Wall—around oneself.
The rest of this bohemia is typically in dire straits. There are street performers, many from Spain, Italy, the United States, and Latin America, who have found it more lucrative to deal directly with the crowd than to slog it out on stage. There are actors, acrobats and dancers of all persuasions, a few whom are known, most of whom are not. There are painters here, who—unless they have gained a degree of fame from outside—do not fare particularly well; even street artists fare poorly here compared to other cities. (However, this is understandable in light of Berlin’s obvious material poverty.) Most of the new fly-by-night galleries feature new art that is less than mediocre: color Xeroxes of donuts, cassette tapes (which I have actually seen in Neukölln), and other junk referencing the bored, cushioned lives of Berlin’s art hipsters. The situation for writers is scarcely better. From this writer’s perspective the scene was far more lively and open in the late 90s when, according to the late Erich Maas, “a lot of second-rate artists (were) fucking around on the scene.” Unfortunately, it has worsened: the second-raters have become a new Berlin literary establishment, cranking out hermetic little poems and short stories about—you guessed it—the lives of the bored and cushioned. (Anybody who writes of anything else is routinely marginalized.) There is no “writer’s district;” though tiny, picturesque Friedenau once boasted the likes of Günter Grass, Uwe Johnson and Rainer Maria Rilke, they can hardly be found there today.
Berlin’s appreciation of the schriftsteller is a mere two steps above New York City. I believe this is only because Berlin does not have a Madison Avenue culture that thoroughly marginalizes writers. One thing you quickly realize is that you are not respected more because “schriftsteller” is scrawled into your visa—so long as you don’t write in German, of course. German audiences at German literary institutions generally ignore the speaker if the reading is not in German—this regardless of whether or not they can understand English; their ingrained chauvinism prevents them from even acknowledging your presence. It is made uglier by an equally ingrained cultural arrogance—the German audience pretends it knows more about the reality of the auslander than the auslander knows about his, or hers.
And there are virtually no publications that take good writers seriously. A few very small magazines (such as Sand) have appeared, all too briefly, and disappeared through lack of funding or interest. The Ex-Berliner doesn’t count; their “writer’s series,” hosted at Kaffee Burger is limited to the usual quirky Rick Moody schlock, with as much depth and taste as a soy bean café latte. And unless they are grinning exotics from Martinique or Zimbabwe—something charming, humorous, and above all, irrelevant—black writers are generally ignored.
However, I think it is still possible to actually create in Berlin. The aspiring artist will note that the French flaneur tradition can still work here, for there is certainly a lot to observe, much of it amusing, more of it tragic and ridiculous. (Berlin, above all, is a city of grotesques.) Such a person will not be held in much regard by Berliners (who don’t seem to hold much of anything in regard) but at least, one won’t be so relentlessly questioned by landlords as to one’s ability to pay; nor are the police going to stop and question you, as they might do in modern-day Manhattan. Nor are your friends as inclined to drag you through the coals for your not having a job—most likely your friends themselves won’t have jobs—for being on Hartz-4 in Berlin does not quite carry the same social sting as Welfare does in the United States. (Many years ago, on the super-hip, super-swinging Lower East Side, I casually admitted to being “lazy” to a friend of mine, an art dealer, who had spent a good deal of time in Berlin before the Wall collapsed. His response was typical of a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker. “Lazy!?” he shouted in my face. “Why the fuck would you even SAY such a thing? Don’t you know other people have to get up to work in the morning?”)
And yet—in the 22 years since the Wall has collapsed—there have been absolutely no artistic movements in Berlin. In fact there has been in the main a serious shortage of genuinely challenging, groundbreaking Berlin art. A probable cause for this began to dawn on me, shortly after my seventh or eighth trek to the city, after I had settled into an apartment in a cozier, quieter section of Kreuzberg. I found myself unable to produce anything of any real value my entire time there. Maybe it was because, having recently left America, I needed a necessary “time of isolation” to start seeing the world through my own eyes again, and not those of my family, friends, or CNN. Yet just the same, I felt (in spite of my relative ease) somehow distracted by my new surroundings, the readings and concerts I felt obliged to attend, the parties I felt obliged to crash, the lure of too much wine, weed and of course, too many dates with too many needy women. Any artist here serious about creating must be prepared to build another Berlin Wall—around oneself.
But there are more concrete causes for Berlin’s artistic stasis. Aside from the chronic laziness and lack of focus on the part of their artists, Berliners are simply disinterested. This cheeky, inward-looking, blue-collar bunch is simply not keen on seeing all these foreigners in their city, invading their corner pubs and occupying their apartment houses. Whatever they think of art in general, they really do not care at all to hear some spade woodshedding on violin or piano or tenor sax, or some spic typing away in a third-floor, one-room wohnung he managed to sublet from a German. Berlin is keen on one thing only—gentrifying: gentrification meaning corporations who can pump money into a city which remains, after all, very poor by Western standards. The rents are low for a reason, of course. The unemployment rate stands at a sobering 25%. The hoards of junkies congregating at Kottbusser Tor, the drunks gathering at Viktoria Park and Hallesches Tor station are also there for a reason. They are Berlin’s “block boys,” as are the gel-haired, leather-jacketed, uptight Turkish youth, who kill time on street corners, in internet cafes and hookah bars. Most of them collect Hartz-4 or Arbeitslosengeld. Corporations, not third-rate artists, bring in cash; so does mass tourism, which means that Berlin’s image must be scrubbed squeaky clean. Bergmannstrasse has become indistinguishable from any East Village avenue. Dunckerstrasse, once the center of East Berlin’s radical culture, looks like any street in Georgetown, District of Columbia. The club scene has also significantly deteriorated. People with brains generally avoid Yorckschlössen and similar clubs, leaving them to ugly, middle-aged tourists (or ugly, middle-aged Germans). Night after night, one hears nothing but the same junk played by the same lazy musicians, largely ex-military blacks, who have been clowning since 1980. The night-club owners are largely to blame for the situation; they should be put in the dockets at Nuremburg. After all, who in one’s right mind wants to hear “Summertime” played until one can’t even see?
The yuppie, of course, wishes to hear nothing. He doesn’t need a “night club”; he can listen to his iPod and stay at home, or in his Mercedes. So inevitably the clubs will shrivel up and die. Yuppies don’t want any “scenes,” any wild punks, any bohos. And as the city grows more gentrified, the former punk/bohemian centers are forced to uproot themselves (along with people of color, now currently pouring into Berlin at unprecedented rate) to Wedding; and when Wedding shows signs of gentrification, possibly to Adlershof, or Lichtenberg. And of course, it won’t end there.
So it dawns on you that Berlin—in spite of its having saved your ass—is merely a stepping stone, a halfway house. You also realize that you are staying in Berlin not so much because you love it, or even like it, but because you are simply afraid of moving on. In some instances, there may be no other stones left. So you stay on the Berlin stone and find a tolerable (if not entirely comfortable) niche; you further enmesh yourself in the illusion that you are doing something (or going to do something) significant. If you are lucky you stumble into a relationship with a German that ends in marriage; with marriage comes an unbefristet visa, and with an unlimited visa comes Arbeitslosengeld, and with Arbeitslosengeld a slackening and loss of determination. You are going under—not dramatically, in the New York fashion, but gradually, piece by piece, in the understated German manner; it shows in the increasingly shriveled look your face gets with each passing year. Even if you do leave—as many of us do, sometimes for years—you inevitably find yourself coming back, drawn in by memories of a Berlin that now exists solely in your head.
Or finally the last scale will fall from your eyes the day you realize you are even more obscure and unheralded than the day you first landed at Tegel; that all of your relationships have ended in failure; that you are denied the flat you wanted, or denied a gig, or laughed at or beaten up in the streets of your favorite kiez simply because your skin, or even your hair, is too dark. And then—stones be damned—you finally leave for good.