Dodging responsibility. Till the very end. Even in his press conference announcing he would resign on December 11, our “governing mayor” Klaus Wowereit blamed “rants and speculations” including those of people in his own party, the SPD, for making it too difficult to carry out the work of governing.
So what has Wowi, Berlin’s Teddy-Bear-in-Chief, achieved in 13 years?
His crowning achievement was his declaration “I am gay and that’s good.” Spoken in a speech before he was actually voted into office. Great. Huge PR for tolerant Berlin. It was all downhill from there on.
“Wir sind zwar arm, aber trotzdem sexy” was pretty awesome, though. We’re poor, but sexy. Even though Wowi had that inspired brainwave in a 2003 interview with a German business magazine, it was instantly reproduced everywhere from the New York Times to Sydney Morning Herald. Along with the opening of the Easyjet hub in Schönefeld in 2004, this single phrase did more to trigger the mass immigration of tens of thousands of “poor” (but sexy) creatives than any other artificial city-marketing measures (remember “be Berlin”?). The Easyjetset was born.
Of course the whole push to get all the artists and DJs to come to Berlin was part of Wowi’s grand plan: to make Berlin a paradise for property investors. And it worked. Around the world, the press churned out lifestyle articles on Berghain and “48 hours in Berlin” and “Berlin street food” like there was no tomorrow. In his pursuit of creative industries he lured the Bread and Butter fashion fair to Tempelhof Airport, and celebrated it like it was a major coup, even though it utilises the massive building only two weeks per year. Fashion Week. Music Week. Art Week. Web Week. All classic Wowereit-style “Berlin-as-creative-city” brand-building.
It worked. Media, start-ups, galleries, fashion labels, supper clubs – all that creative stuff blossomed like never before. And the property investors, seduced by all this creative talk, came from far and wide. From the proverbial thrifty Swabian dentist to the cash-rich Greek oligarch fleeing the crisis back home. These and everyone in between flung cash at Berlin, often assuming it must be a stable place to buy a flat or building. Luxury developments boomed. It was the capital of Germany after all.
Wowi welcomed them all with open arms, sold off hundreds of thousands of publicly owned flats to Wall Street investment firms (supposedly to reduce Berlin’s public debt), let property prices bubble ever higher – and rents along with them. Construction workers in Brandenburg had jobs again. Real estate agents gloated, but Wowi did nothing to intervene in the overheating property market that began pricing locals and the low paid out of the inner city. Only this year did Wowi seem to remember that he belonged to a centre-left party, the SPD. His government finally took action on the housing problem with new restrictions on holiday flats and promises to build low-income housing. Too little, too late, dear Wowi.
Airports were his curse. He failed to convince Berliners of his bland development plan for closed down Tempelhof, including the €200 million central library that nobody wanted. That was nothing compared to the flak he got for BER: as head of the airport commission he failed to get a grip on the most embarrassing construction project in the history of post-war Germany, an undertaking that has been mired in corruption, technical incompetence, legal and financial problems for years. And when the airport does open (three times or four times over budget) in 2016, 2017 or 2018, it will already be too small.
In light of the joke that BER has become, the true surprise is not that Wowi is stepping down, but that it took him so long to do it. He evaded so many problems. He simply took a hands off approach to important issues, sometimes with disastrous results – like the Oranienplatz refugee crisis, which he wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, preferring to let the CDU interior minister and Green mayor of Kreuzberg fight it out.
Wowi, we’ll miss you… for your great one-liners.