Marcel Krueger puts some of Berlin’s prevailing myths to the test.
1. Berlin is poor but sexy!

“Berlin ist arm aber sexy” comes, of course, from Berlin’s mayor Klaus Wowereit. It became the slogan of the 2009 tourism campaign, after it was used in his 2006 campaign for mayor, and is now visible on everything from the sides of buildings to hip tote bags.

While it’s somewhat cool to have a city slogan coined by an openly gay mayor — as opposed to the official “Be Berlin” campaign, which many say sounds like a stutter, or should be changed to “Bi Berlin” to reflect the city’s sexually liberal nature — the phrase is nonetheless problematic.

It’s true that Berlin is poor compared to the rest of the country. Approximately 20% of Berliners live on welfare, and one in three children here live below the poverty line (a number that is unfortunately not decreasing, say The Economist). Additionally, the city still has double the unemployment figures of the rest of Germany (12% compared to 6% overall, though areas with an unemployment rate of 18% or more do not tend to attract foreign visitors).

On the other hand, Berlin is actually on the way to becoming one of the best-performing German cities in terms of GDP, which grew an average of almost 1.75% between 2004 and 2009 — more than three times the 0.5% seen in Germany as a whole. Granted that the distribution of this wealth may be disproportionate, particularly when it comes to immigrant or minority populations, but the overall numbers present a composite picture of a city not in such dire straits as its tourism slogan suggests.

In any case poverty is hardly “sexy.” Wowereit didn’t mean his phrase too literally, but nonetheless truly impoverished areas of Berlin have genuine social problems that are no laughing matter. Many of the economically deprived neighbourhoods are situated in the former Eastern sections of Berlin or beyond the inner city “ring,” where large social-housing complexes were constructed to make up for shortages. Districts like Marzahn and Hellersdorf have around 18.6% unemployment, with many residents stuck in a predicament they cannot seem to get out of, according to the Tagesspiegel. Neukölln and Wedding are not much better.

2. Rent in Berlin is so cheap!

As in most European capitals of a reasonable size, you can find cheap accommodation in unwanted parts of Berlin — Wedding, Gesundbrunnen, Moabit, Marzahn — but the days of cheap artist lofts in popular districts like Kreuzberg or Mitte are long gone.

People still consider the fact you can bag a flat in Neukölln that’s twice the size of a similarly priced flat in London as evidence that rents overall are generally cheap. Not so. When even Britain’s The Guardian is providing advice on buying property in Berlin, you know the real-estate market is on an upward swing, and has been for a while.

As stated in our guide to renting in Berlin, the average rent in Berlin has risen 7.9% in the last couple of years, so you’ll need to have bags of swag available to be able to rent a place near Rosenthaler Platz or Bergmannstrasse. And it won’t be long before rents in Neukölln get to Mitte levels and Wedding becomes the new Friedrichshain.

3. The tourists are to blame for increasing rents! Piss off tourists!

“Everybody is welcome: apart from groups of Swabians, and English and Irish of 5 or more in Superman costumes” says a hotel bar sign at Warschauer Brücke.

It’s no secret that young (and youngish) people from all over the world are flocking to Berlin to avail themselves of cheap beer, clubs, and parties. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, the German capital is one of the “43 Places to See Before You Die.”

What do people want to see when they come here? Berlin has a plethora of museums and galleries of course, but many visitors ages 18-35 come for the cheap booze and the legendary parties — some of which don’t take place in neon-lit industrial parks but in residential areas and people’s backyards.

According to statistics from Visit Berlin, out of 20,742,727 visitors in January-November 2011, 3,342,493 tend to choose “other accommodations” than hotels, which means mostly rental apartments.

But does that mean they push the rents up? Not according to Australian-turned-Berliner Joel Atlas’s persuasive 2011 article in Der Tagesspiegel:

It is not the fault of foreign artists or party tourists; they too would prefer to pay less rent. It is caused by the mass sell-off of publicly-owned apartments, combined with the deregulation of rent prices.

Tourists, of course, do not set the rental prices; they simply create the demand that encourages the higher prices of the suppliers in a free market economy. With investors buying whole apartment blocks to turn them into short-term accommodation in the city center, Berlin’s judiciary deciding in their favour, it’s becoming obvious there’s a complex property market network involving not only tourists coming to the city, but resident-investors, foreign investors, and investors from elsewhere in Germany.

Another large factor for rising property and rental prices is the new dynamism of the local economy (see myth 1), which, according to economic historian Dr. Nikolaus Wolf, has produced extra capital in the city. Wolf urges perspective on this issue:

The extra capital moving into the city, investment from abroad…is maybe also creating sometimes some negative perception because people think, ‘oh, this is odd that all these foreign investors are coming into the city now,’ but if you compare it to London or Paris, I’m sure that the percentage of foreign investment is not particularly high in Berlin. It’s just that it wasn’t there as much before because of a very strange economic history of the city in the last 70 years.

4. Berlin is Europe’s new startup mecca! There’s this street called Silicon Allee that’s dominated by digital natives!

There’s a lot of talk about Berlin pipping London as the preferred place for digital entrepreneurs. Berlin’s senate recently published plans to establish free Wi-Fi across town. There are even plans for a massive startup-office-complex in Mitte to further stimulate the digital entrepreneurial climate.

You certainly can’t argue against the presence of the MacBook-wielding hordes around Rosenthaler Platz, the so-called digital natives of one of “Europe’s hottest startup capitals” (Wired UK). Spiegel Online recently published a list of all those tech-blogs praising the German capital as the place to be. So, this all sounds like a truism so far, right?

Well, Berlin is not yet San Jose, in the sense that all these great startups aren’t playing any major role in the city’s economic ecosystem. Better to think of them as more sideline observers in the general money-making / exchanging scheme of Berlin’s infrastructure.

Services, rather than goods or even IT, are producing most of the jobs. Berlin is, as the rest of Germany, still making its money through the classic channels of retail, export, and (mostly) tourism — which provides an astonishing 64% of yearly revenue in service and retail businesses in Berlin.

Startups and internet companies are not even listed separately in a recently published report of Berlin economics and do not yet demand enough attention to be credited with holding a large share of the local job market. And though an impressive $100 million “early-bird” investment for internet startups was recently raised, the suggestion of imposing a potentially crippling tax on freelancers would seem to work against the independent, small-business end of the startup market.

For many, it would be a wonderful thing if the city’s startup scene could thrive in the way the media hype insists it will, but realistically it’s still in its infancy. Another thing to consider: As much as we’re tired of the Poor But Sexy tag, are we really ready for Berlin: Rich & Nerdy?

5. Turks are the only significant ethnic population in Berlin!

With the obvious dominance of the Turkish population around Kottbusser Tor, Wrangelkiez, and Moabit, to name just a few, it’s easy to assume that this is true. But despite the impressive Turkish cultural and economic contributions to Berlin over the past 50 years, they are far from the only significant ethnic group in the city. As of 31 December 2010, the largest groups by foreign nationality (after Turkey) were Poland, Serbia, Italy, Russia, United States, and France.

With the European integration project diminishing many national borders for the sake of a shared currency, the difference between ethnic groups of European origin and groups outside of the continent definitely makes more of an impression. Those with a more “exotic” culture appear to represent a bigger portion of the ethnic diversity than they actually do.

But even in this sense, there are other fast-approaching ethnic groups from regions beyond Europe and North America bringing. The large Arabic-speaking community, mostly from Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq, is often confused for Turkish. Kurdish-, Persian-, and Hebrew-speaking groups are making more of an appearance in Berlin as well. Additionally, Berlin has one of the largest Vietnamese communities outside Vietnam, with around 83,000 people of Vietnamese origin.

West Africans from Senegal, Cameroon, Gambia, and Ghana are opening restaurants in Wedding, Neukölln, and Kreuzberg. Their presence is also up and coming. According to a recent study from the National Statistics Office, most Russians live in Friedrichshain, Spandau, and Unter den Linden (where the Russian embassy is located); the majority of Poles in Neukölln’s Gropiusstadt; and many Vietnamese around the Bitterfelder Strasse in Friedrichshain.

So, while there are still statistically more Turks than any other ethnic group, the city is more diverse than one might imagine. It depends greatly on where you’re living, visiting, and looking.

6. Everyone in Berlin speaks excellent English!

According to the latest numbers I could find, there are approximately 25,400 expats in Berlin from countries where the official home language is English. The total population of Berlin is about 4 million, which means English-speaking expats make up approximately 0.8%.

With English being mandatory at German schools and many expats from the US and the British Isles based in Berlin, it’s easy to think you don’t need any German to get around Berlin. And it’s true you can get around fairly easily in Berlin as an English-only-speaking tourist. Germans are generally quite helpful even if they don’t speak a foreign language (they just look unfriendly sometimes).

However, not speaking at least a little German will quickly become a problem when you want to live here for a longer period. Once you encounter your first German ‘Sachbearbeiter’ (clerk) at the ‘Bürgeramt’ (registry office), the language barrier will become painfully clear. So, before making an appointment with a plumber or buying a monthly ticket for the BVG (Berlin transport), it might be an idea to partake in one of the language exchange evenings at St. Gaudy Cafe or attend a course at the Volkshochschule (their website is German only).

If you plan to share a flat, maybe try to find a WG or flatmate that’s German-speaking. Getting to a conversational level is very important, even if some other English-speaking foreigners refuse to admit it. Otherwise, you may end up living in an expat bubble, reliant on German-speaking acquaintances to help you with bureaucratic tasks.

7. There’s so much street art in Berlin because it’s legal!

Walking around the city, it’s hard not to be distracted by the constant splashes of colour and form. You’d certainly be forgiven for thinking all this spray-can and stencil artwork was legal here — but it’s not.

According to Berlin’s police department, all graffiti / street art on private or public buildings without concession of the owner is considered illegal — and fines up to 2,000 euros or even three years in prison are the normal punishment. Despite this, defiant Berlin-based street artists have managed to become legends in the urban environment, carving a niche for themselves in the international street art scene.

While there are thousands of illegal works in alleyways (including a few by the infamous Banksy), there are also five-story-high commissioned murals by some of the world’s most famous artists.

For the real, authentic, illegal stuff, look no further than squat properties, abandoned warehouses, and old construction sites, which play host to many sprayers and bombers. Under the cloak of vague property rights, many artists can still use the city as their canvas without too much legal hassle.

The squat sites on the Spree near Warschauer Straße are perfect examples of this phenomenon. Spraying openly on the street, however, is still risky, punishable by fines and arrest. To read a potted history of the urban art scene in Berlin, click here.

8. West Berlin is so boring! It’s full of suits!

Just because the focus of most creative types (and party tourists) has been East Berlin (Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg) for the last 20 years does not mean West Berlin has nothing of interest. First of all, it has Kreuzberg — even though it’s gritty and dirty and feels very ‘East,’ it’s still in former West Berlin.

Charlottenburg, which gets perhaps the worst press of the Western districts, was once the former epicenter of Berlin’s cultural and social scenes, and still has much to offer the curious visitor. Away from the high-end retail and bustle of Kurfürstendamm and Kantstrasse, there are many interesting museums and galleries, great restaurants, at least one 24-hour bohemian cafe, excellent shops, and some very stylish and elegant hotels, too.

And let’s not forget the other Western neighbourhoods. Aside from Kreuzberg, Schöneberg is a wonderfully ‘real’ Berlin district to hang out in. Amidst the brutal architecture, it has some lovely neighbourhoods, such as Nollendorfplatz (former haunt of Christopher Isherwood) and a great food market if you’re there on Saturday.

Back in the day, before the fall of wall, Schöneberg was the place to be. Its cafes and Kneipen were full of the smoke of youth and conversation, particularly for those with alternative lifestyles. Schöneberg continues to host Berlin’s Pride festival, becoming one big rainbow the first weekend of June.

It’s also astonishing how many people associate the polarised borough of Neukölln with East Berlin. It’s definitively West, with a strong history to accompany its geography.

Wedding is the one area of former West Berlin that’s up-and-coming, looking like it’s on the cusp of being a hip place to be, though its time has not yet quite come. Originally a haven for blue-collar workers (“Red Wedding”), its spirit and economic conditions haven’t changed much, just its demographics. I live there, and it still feels like I imagined East Berlin to have been 20 years or so ago — a little rough around the edges, with a lot of heart.

9. Prenzlauer Berg has the highest population of children in Europe! It’s full of Swabian yuppies and prams!

On Sundays, when you have a hard time dodging the buggies and prams (as well as groups of tourists on their way to Mauerpark), it’s hard to imagine Prenzlauer Berg was something like Kreuzberg 10 years ago. In fact, it had a significant impact on the cultural and political life in Berlin even before the wall fell, since the area was a magnet for punks, dissidents, intellectuals, and poets.

These days, it’s allegedly full of of Swabians — German people from the south with an alleged tendency towards frugality — and their kids. Their image has become the epitome of gentrification, and they seem to be blamed every time a gritty bar is replaced with a French-themed brunch spot or bio ice cream shop.

While the area has certainly been gentrified beyond recognition and much of the grassroots arts scene has been pushed away, not all of the cliches are true. First of all, there is no increase in births compared to the other districts in Berlin.

And though clubs like the Klub der Republik have been recently forced to close, this is a citywide trend rather than a Prenzlberg one, and low-key music clubs like Ausland and Intersoup and cafes like Wohnzimmer retain a distinctly un-yuppie vibe — as do Mauerpark’s flea market and the still-standing squats that pepper trendy Kastanienallee.

All of which is to say — don’t let the hearsay put you off exploring a charming part of the city that’s low on big sights but has plenty of great cafes, top-notch restaurants and subtle history.

This story was written by Marcel Krueger and originally appeared at Slow Travel Berlin, who publish in-depth dispatches from the city, run intimate tours and creative workshops, and have produced their own companion guide full of insider tips.

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