How Bad Is It…Really?

First, a couple of caveats. I’m not an economist. Neither have I read the local press much over the years. But one thing is crystal clear: Berlin is in serious trouble.

It’s not exactly headline news; anyone who’s spent a little time here knows it. As the once-and-future capital of Germany, it wound up absorbing a hugely disproportionate percentage of the costs of reunification. With less than seven years remaining until the government moved from Bonn, Berlin had to get its transportation system, telecommunications system, water and power lines, and, well, just about everything else up to world-class speed before 2000.

Given that half the city had been East Germany, that meant that the eastern part of town got a lot of preferential treatment: I never had touch-tone dialling before moving to the former east in 1996, for instance. But I got it because the East Berlin telephone system was so out of date it couldn’t be updated. It had to be replaced. The equipment had already been manufactured before the unification even happened, and it was reassigned to the east.

This caused several problems. For one, taxes were raised to help pay for all of this, and much muttering was heard in the west about having to pay for those damn lazy Ossis, who didn’t make enough to even pay those taxes. For another, Helmut Kohl’s government made some serious mistakes, starting with a one-for-one currency exchange: one Ostmark for one Deutsche Mark. As I said, I’m not an economist, although I’ve read numerous accounts of why this was a very bad idea (not only in Germany, but in other East Bloc countries where “shock therapy” tactics were used), and if I understand correctly, it helped dig the hole we’re in a little deeper. There was also the matter of some of Kohl’s buddies buying up eastern properties and flipping them for huge profits, and there was also a bank some of them were in charge of that went belly-up. Predictably, nobody involved in any of this actually did any hard time.

And the government coming here meant a building boom. Not only the Spreebogen complex of hideous Alphaville buildings stretching along the (rebuilt and rechannelled) Spree River away from the Reichstag, which itself was given Sir Norman Foster’s new dome, but a huge amount of retail and residential space went up for all the people who’d be living and shopping here once Berlin became the gleaming new hub of Europe. That explains the eyesore that is Potsdamer Platz, and the mighty scrubbing Friedrichstr. between Kochstr. and Unter den Linden underwent. This was another disaster: plenty of ex-Bonners hated Berlin, and never moved, preferring to rack up frequent flier miles between Berlin Tegel and Cologne-Bonn Airport. And while it’s true that Sony, for instance, established their European music center here, very few of its employees wanted to live here, either, and once the merger with Bertelsmann looked like it was happening, they scampered off to Munich, happy as can be. That big old Sony Center at Potz Platz has lots of vacancies, if you’re looking for office space. Of course, if you are, there’s lots cheaper office space to be had, too. Lots.

As someone covering the culture beat here, as I did for the Wall Street Journal Europe from 1996 to 2003, it all became distressingly obvious after the Millenium. Suddenly, the culture funds started disappearing, and the support the city used to give just dried up. I remember the night this became crystal clear: I went to cover an exhbition of new Australian art that was the keynote of the new arts season at the Hamburger Bahnhof museum, and it was so godawful the editor rejected it. How on earth did this atrocity get mounted, anyway? And then it dawned on me: it had been 100% paid for by the Australians. All Berlin had to give was the space. And that’s the way it’s been ever since: the big museum shows here have either been wholly assembled elsewhere and set up here (the Museum of Modern Art show of a couple of years ago was the template for that), or else some curator has just re-shuffled Berlin’s own holdings into a show.

As for the music scene, that was a scandal, too: the city voted to keep supporting three opera companies, despite the fact that one is almost totally artistically moribund, and totally de-funded Podewil, the scrappy little avant-garde outfit near Alexanderplatz which attracted worldwide audiences and worldwide attention because of them. And forget popular music: that never had any government support at all, and with people’s incomes declining, attendance at gigs tapered off so badly that most touring acts totally skip Berlin these days.

Here’s the bottom line, though: Berlin is 60 billion Euros in the hole. You read that right. The other night a bunch of us were sitting around and some lightning-fast calculator heard that figure and, after a minute, said “Uh, that’s three-quarters the GNP of Australia.” Yup. And even higher than the debt of the state of California, which is considered a scandal in some quarters in America.

The schools here, I hear, are falling apart. I do know that the new U-Bahn line that was supposed to run between the Reichstag and Alexanderplatz, the U 5, can’t be completed now, even though enough holes have been dug for it. (Exactly why we need to connect the Reichstag and Alex, however, hasn’t been explained).

That’s why I love it when people extol Berlin’s virtues to me. “It’s so cheap to live here!” Sure, dude. You’re probably too young for the phrase “a cheap holiday in other people’s misery” to resonate.

And, just the other week while I was in the States, a small item in the Times caught my eye: the German equivalent of the Supreme Court denied Berlin’s appeal for money to help alleviate the debt. Nope. Not gonna happen.

So when I say I need to get out of here, it’s not just personal. It’s about living in a place where everyone is depressed by the lack of opportunity, not just me. It’s about wanting to live somewhere where people are more likely to be employed than not, where you can start a business and maybe have it succeed because people have money to spend.

If you look at people’s faces here, unhappiness is written large on a striking number of them. I don’t want to become one of those people, scowling, mouths turned down, shuffling along the street. I’m not sure how I’m going to do it (no, I didn’t sell my book and I don’t know if I actually have an agent to do it, thanks), but it’s going to happen. And, I hope, soon.

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