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Save Berlin: The art of unfriendliness

A more comfortable Berlin is a more expensive Berlin. Kreuzberg's activists understood this and evicted the BMW Guggenheim Lab's "Confronting Comfort" exhibition in March.

Image for Save Berlin: The art of unfriendliness
BMW Guggenheim Lab finding a more welcoming atmosphere in Prenzlauer Berg. Photo by Astrid Warberg

The graffiti says, “Kreuzberg bleibt unfreundlich!” – Berlin’s edgiest district stays unfriendly! Need proof? How about the hasty eviction of the BMW Guggenheim Lab from its planned home across from Barbie Deinhoff’s. The Guggenheim chose an empty lot overlooking the Spree as the landing pad for its high-tech mobile pavilion devoted to the cities of tomorrow. Six weeks of events were planned with the theme, “Confronting Comfort”… but then Kreuzbergers made things uncomfortable and the Lab changed course for more hospitable Prenzlauer Berg.

Cranky activists were pissed about BMW’s anti-union practices, but they might have questioned the Lab’s mission: earnest effort to enlighten the public, or cynical ploy to inject two stodgy institutions with some Berlin buzz? Safely housed inside the walls of Pfefferberg, the Guggenheim’s international experts promise dozens of talks, tours and screenings exploring the city’s future, but Berlin’s already got an army of full-time, home-grown planning wonks who host almost-daily chat-fests. Will the Lab be more of the same, just with snazzier graphics?

Most cruelly, the Lab will emphasise “participation”, blinding its audience to the hard reality that, for 99.99 percent of us, urban planning is a spectator sport. For those who can effect change, it’s more crisis management – piling sandbags against the shifting tides of politics, economics and demographics. Let’s assume the Guggenheim-BMW Lab’s visitation is fruitful. After six weeks, it blasts off for its next stop, Bombay, leaving Berlin a paradise of comfort. As those cranky Kreuzbergers instinctively know, a more comfortable city is a more expensive one.

Berlin’s number one “comfort” today is low rent. As the city’s rough edges disappear, well-heeled German professionals flow into the now-comfy capital, happy to pay luxury rates. The Lab’s emphasis should be on the “confronting” part: seeking, trapping and killing comfort before it grows.

Here are five flavours of urban discomfort that make Berlin such a wonderful town:

CLASS WARFARE Anti-yuppie graffiti is one thing, but what about that unemployed Berliner who set fire to 102 luxury autos in 2010? For decades, Berlin’s leftists have burned buildings, cars and even baby carriages to ward off bourgeois invasions. Has it worked? The May 1st riots have morphed into a tourist draw. Film star Daniel Brühl laments he can’t park a Ferrari on the street, but he’d never give up his Kreuzberg flat.

BAD TASTE Most clueless landlords are happy to ‘improve’ their historic buildings by ripping out century-old details, but mega-landlord Harry Gerlach adds his own touch: alarming colour schemes (photo). Along with Turkish wedding dress shops and day-glo bubble tea emporiums, Gerlach’s garish buildings in Neukölln and Wedding are guaranteed to scare off any self-respecting Bavarian highbrow.

XENOPHOBIA It’s no secret that most Germans like multiculturalism on their dinner plates but not living next door. Berlin’s biggest rent increases have been in the almost-all-white former East. The large – and growing! – throngs of Turks, Arabs, Africans and other non-Germans in Neukölln, Kreuzberg and Wedding are a good omen for continued low rents.

FILTH Sidewalks and parks strewn with doggie doo and cast-off fridges are like a deflector shield against an invasion of German Tiger Moms, so it’s comforting news that the city’s cash-strapped districts are cutting their cleaning budgets. Even Prenzlauer Berg announced they’ve cancelled the cleaning contract for Mauerpark starting May 1. City Councilman Jens-Holger Kirchner politely requests park visitors to pick up after themselves.

POVERTY Our city may be “poor but sexy”, but a lot of Berliners are just plain poor. The city has the highest unemployment rate in Germany, around 13 percent, almost twice the national average. It’s simple economics – landlords have to cater to the market they have. So as you enjoy the comfort of your (still relatively) low rent, say a prayer for those welfare families whose suffering makes it possible.

The BMW Guggenheim Lab will offer public programs from June 15 to July 29. For details, see www.bmwguggenheimlab.org.

Mauerpark is home to Berlin’s best flea market, but more importantly it’s one of Berlin’s last refuges of untamed freedom. Help stop the city’s plan to sell off chunks for apartments – sign this online petition: www.welt-buerger-park.de/index.php?id=5