Kunsthaus Tacheles. Photo by Eric Silva (Flickr CC)
"This is what happens to a place when too many people like it," my friend Brian said, leaning over the railing of the bar on the top floor of Tacheles.
It was around midnight on a recent summer Saturday night. The squat-ruin-arthouse Tacheles was heaving with visitors, from binge-drinking Berlin school kids to middle-class tourists from the German provinces getting in a little culture. Yet the piss-stained, grafitti-smothered supermarket of alternative lifestyle and mostly mediocre art is now nothing but a slightly original tourist attraction amidst a sea of globalised Berlin tackiness.
Mitte's Oranienburger Straße, which owes its entire rise to fame to the Tacheles of the 1990s, has mutated into an unrecognizable construction of hideous proportions. Close your eyelids slightly, and the centre of "East Berlin", just a stone's throw from the gallery district, could be interchanged with the main strip of a Thai beach: tiki torches, fluttering kite-like flags, package-tour sized restaurants serving revolting "Asian" food tailored for mainstream German tastes. Here a fake American diner, there a tacky temporary building promoting a car brand; here a hyper-sexual, corsetted prostitute, there a strip club. Meanwhile, the "Ballermann" masses - Brandenburg youths, British pubcrawlers, stag- and hen-nighters - consume this cheapness with glee and awe.
It's going to get worse on Oranienburger Straße: the one beacon of culture on the street, the excellent C|O Berlin photography space will forced out of its home in the Postfuhramt. Once gone, I suspect the other quality galleries will leave for Tiergarten or Schöneberg or Neukölln (after all, the West is the new East), leaving in their wake a trail of knick knack shops, brand outlets and bad mass market eateries.
Not that long ago, till the early 2000s, Oranienburger Straße/Hackescher Markt was ground zero for post-Wall nightlife and culture innovators: WMF, 103 Club, Eimer, tiny bars for every day of the week, and on and on. It's as if none of that ever happened, as if Berlin was destined, slowly but surely, to become not just gentrified, but to evolve into a monster of bad taste, bad architecture, cheap food, cheap sex...
Other parts of the centre have been equally trashed by tasteless commercialism.
Checkpoint Charlie: This important historical spot, already blighted by crap 1980s architecture, has descended into a tourist hell: Currywurst Museum, balloon rides, Trabi Safari car rentals, gangs of Segway riders, vendors of every kind of cheap Cold War-themed crap, photo ops with uniformed "border guards", herds of tourists turned cattle confronted with not a single intelligent aid to understand the Wall and what happened on that spot.
Pariser Platz: An architectural failure, thanks not in part to the atrocity of the American Embassy, which resembles an office park outside of Denver Airport... and tourists, not evil in themselves, just in the way they have been told to navigate and understand the city through a mishmash of incomprehensible buildings, accented with "historical" cobblestones and streetsigns, overlooked by the insanely fake Hotel Adlon, most famous in the world for being the place Michael Jackson dangled his baby out of the window...
Schlossplatz: A never-ending debacle of architectural folly and misguided historical yearning for the whole Prussian city. Will the €550 million Schloss be rebuilt?
What a mistake that would be. Despite funding delays, an multi-million euro advertising company is pushing ahead with a giant tacky "infobox" to inform the public on castle construction progress while displaying Goliath-sized H&M ads to the masses on Unter den Linden... yes, this is the "historical centre" of Berlin. Where the bizarre, charismatic ruin of the tainted Palast der Republik just a few years ago housed some of the most cutting-edge cultural experiments in the city.
I could go on... it's not about hating tourists. We need them. We need their money and input. But we're building a city that will soon lack everything they come for. Even the post-tourists, altering the outer neighbourhoods they adore, may one day no longer come.
Tourists and newcomers aren't really to blame for the demise of Mitte. The city government is: with its lack of urban vision; its bizarre architectural toleration (think Alexa); its willingless to let empty lots degrade into tacky oceans of commercial booths and parking lots; its neglect of intelligent, independent culture in the centre of the city.
Wowereit's time as city father needs to end. Maybe Green aspirant Renate Künast has some ideas up her sleeve to save the city from devastation through mediocrity.