Igor Schwarzmann (IS) runs Third Wave, a Berlin-based strategy and research firm “for the New Normal”; Boris Anthony (BA) is an independent advisor and consultant from Berlin who works in strategic design.
PT: When The Alpine Review was starting out, there were a lot of people in Berlin with little work and really cheap rent. Is it still that way?
BA: Now you're making me deeply question whether I want to move back to Montreal...
IS: It's definitely changing, but for the capital city of a European country, it's still immensely cheap. Last week I was in New York and couldn't help but think about the amount of stress and energy it takes just to pay rent in that city. Sometimes a bit of pressure is actually helpful to get off the ground, but at the same time it's hard for me to imagine how someone like myself could operate in New York or London because it would mean I would need to make three or four times as much money.
BA: Similarly in Montreal, the low cost of living and the high quality of life make it a really attractive place where lots of people want to be. However, if you can work five days of the month and cover your rent and expenses—as great as it sounds—it does lessen your ambition. You can argue it's a little too comfortable.
I was at a birthday party in Manhattan recently and Montreal came up in conversation. Everyone said, “The city sounds like heaven, it's amazing.” I couldn't help but look at the Empire State Building and think, “Montreal doesn't have one of those. There's nobody in that city that has the ambition to build something like that.” I think the same is true of Berlin to a certain extent.
IS: Yeah, definitely. In Berlin we have more and more German start-ups happening. The first wave were foreigners who came to Berlin with a determination that likely didn't come from living in Berlin. It can be a good starting ground for people that are shaping new projects.
BA: It depends of course who we're talking about. Artists and start-up people are going there because there's low-cost infrastructure. Meanwhile there's people who just go there and party six days a week. But the city is starting to change: rent is going up and gentrification is happening.
IS: It's been about 25 years since the wall came down and I feel like there's finally a convergence between artists, technology, and politics.
PT: Connecting these different silos is a discussion that often comes up in Montreal. You can look at PechaKucha, an event Boris organized in Montreal, and how that brought a really different group of people together.
BA: You're giving me shivers. I need to get back and do that. But at the same time, I could also do something like that in Berlin. You make a good point Igor: we're starting to see this kind of convergence at events like re:publica where you have activists, journalists, and techies all coming together.
IS: Re:publica started out as a very small, closed circle of people who were mostly motivated by web politics. Now it's become the largest German web technology conference in the world. There's more than six thousand participants and it attracts all kinds of different people.
BA: Berlin keeps coming up in the media because of things like WikiLeaks, Appelbaum being there, and now Ai Weiwei. When you give that much attention to a city it fundamentally starts to change. Rents go up and gentrification happens, which the city is trying to fight to some extent.
IS: It's the first city in Germany with a stabilized rent situation. You could say it still might be too expensive for some, but at least it's nothing like Munich, Cologne, or Frankfurt, rent-wise. Historically speaking, Berlin didn't have the opportunity to develop the kind of businesses that other German cities had. Take a neighborhood like Mitte for instance. Fifteen years ago there were squatters and underground parties in cellars and now it's on its way to becoming the SoHo of Berlin. Will the city eventually become as expensive as Munich or will it remain this weird place where we have a mellow life but can still do interesting things that you'd find in London, New York, or LA?
PT: What do you think the average Berliner wants in terms of rent control and how does the government fit into that equation?
BA: Who is an average Berliner these days, and is there a limit to the amount of transformation a society like that will allow?
PT: Are people going to move into Moabit?
IS: Monocle featured Wedding as the next place to go.
BA: They didn't get the memo that that's been a joke for the last fifteen years.
IS: It's definitely starting to become more popular. But Wedding isn't going to gentrify as quickly as, for example, Neukölln, which is super dense and really easy to get to. There are certain areas in Berlin that, because of the way they're built, are protected.
BA: I mentioned Moabit because it's as if Berlin's transportation agency doesn't want people to go there. It's a great area, but getting in and out of Moabit is a nightmare.
IS: In the eastern part of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg there are places where people literally just left their houses empty when the wall came down. There's a bunch of people who have moved there and started from scratch. Then we have the “old west” in Schöneberg and Charlottenberg. Whenever we go to these places you step off the train and you're like, "Right, old people." Because in areas like Mitte we don't see people over the age of 50. Everyone who could, moved. The people who live there now moved in when they were students or artists and now they have two kids and an apartment. The average face that you see in Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte is a lot younger than in West Berlin.
PT: Yeah, stroller after stroller after stroller.
IS: Then you have areas like Kreuzberg and Neukölln which really have their own identity. Technically they were West Berlin so they're not in the same position as Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, but the reason why everybody's moving there is because it's on the U8 train line and everybody's going up and down between Mitte, Kreuzberg and Neukolln. There's also a lot of immigrant families there. For people coming to Berlin it was cheap and attractive.
BA: I don't know if you've ever seen the NFB movie Our Streets are Paved with Gold? It's a fantastic documentary about Saint Laurent Boulevard in Montreal, a street that saw successive waves of immigration moving in. It's how we ended up with the ethnic distribution of the Plateau-Mont-Royal today. Again, it's an infrastructure question. How does the arrangement of a city sustain the attention it's receiving? Immigration to Montreal has fluctuated tremendously over the last twenty years.
PT: It's interesting that you talk about the U-Bahn and Saint Laurent Boulevard influencing the arrangement of a city.
IS: Another infrastructure thing in Berlin is the S-Bahn ring, the train that connects all the main boroughs in Berlin. Nobody we know moves outside the S-Bahn ring because there's a lot of empty buildings; there's no restaurants, coffee shops, or jobs that are close by.
BA: There's nothing going on there. There's no diversity. You get to the edge of the city and the pavement suddenly crumbles away into a dirt road. You walk fifteen to twenty minutes up the road and all of a sudden you're thinking, "What's going on here?"
PT: Where do you think it's going next? Is Berlin done or is the speed of things just changing?
IS: I think the speed is definitely changing. There's less people who are in their 20s and want to party and we're starting to see more 30- and 40-year-olds who just want to grab a good dinner and go on vacation two or three times a year.