Toronto? Berlin? Different Place, Same Story.

At the beginning of April I went to Berlin for two weeks to visit a friend who has been living and working in Berlin as an artist. Using the trip as a self-made residency, I spent the entire two weeks going to museums, galleries, flea markets and biking around the streets getting to know the city. Only after a couple days did I start picking up on an incredible tension.

The banner hung up out front the squat I was staying in.

Being born and raised in Toronto, the city makes you kind of jaded after a while. It’s described as a “cold” corporate oriented city that has an inferiority complex and a so-called “centre of the universe” attitude. All these characteristics I personally don’t identify with being a “Torontonian”. In fact, I think it’s a shame the city has these types of labels, and maybe that explains why most people who are born and raised Toronto move to other cities? Despite this, Toronto is actually a great city, it just gets a bad rep, especially for working artists.

A beautifully old low-key artist squat in Mitte.

When someone in Toronto hears of a place like Berlin, at first it sounds like paradise.
A multi-cultural hub for artists of all kinds to find affordable places to live and work in a culture that appreciates the artist?! What a dream! Or at least so I thought. Little did I know the good things I heard about Berlin were the very problems the city is currently dealing with.

At the moment… Berlin locals hate tourists.
Maybe hate is a strong word… but there is a growing anger in Berlin and I witnessed it first hand. At first I didn’t understand why a city with such a great reputation would condemn such a thing as tourism. But then I started to see the negative effects of a “good thing”. At first it was the wastoids. I watched a waitress push a group of wasted British 20somethings out of a bar, yelling “FUCK OFF YOU FUCKING TOURISTS” only to have one of the Brits yell back “FUCK YOU, YOU STUPID FUCKING GERMAN BITCH!” I suddenly found myself in between the two groups and had to run out of the way in case any punches were thrown. The group of belligerent Brits finally started to leave and I could hear one of the guys say to his friends “How rude! We spent so much money there!” Perhaps this is a general attitude “tourists” have when they visit other cities like Berlin, a skewed sense of entitlement to act like pricks because they have money?  Who knows… but I might not be too far off.

“Refugees welcome, tourists piss off”

One of the first days I was in Berlin, it was a beautiful sunny day and me and my friends walked down the street to Tacheles, one of the biggest and oldest art squat/venues in Mitte Berlin.  We had been walking all day long and were exhausted, so we sat in the backyard metal garden in the sun and drank beer, people watched and listened to the strumming of guitars.  We must have been sitting there for 20 minutes when my friend chirpped up and said “Hey, we haven’t said a single word since we got here”. And he was right. We all just nodded at that fact and basked in the sun and scenery.  It really was a peaceful moment.

Little did we know that the very next day that entire scene would be bulldozed to the ground.

A spectator plays a sad tune while city workers dismantle the bar.

I couldn’t believe it at first when we got the phone call from our friend who lived right across the street from Tacheles and could see them tearing the whole area down. We walked down the street and witnessed it for ourselves. It was true. That peaceful place that I had spent such a serene moment in, was replaced by dark clouds and a grim destructive scene. A handful of people were standing on a makeshift stage staring in astonishment over what was happening.  A trumpet player serenaded the city workers with melancholic melodies as they tore the place apart.  How could such a thing happen in a city that was supposed to respect their artists and the culture around these communities?

Turns out it has nothing to do with Berliners’ respect towards the arts, but the property owners’ and investors’. It’s the same old story time and time again.  Artists move into an area left abandoned and desolate, they spend years cultivating a community and developing the neighbourhood, then the property owners move in, kick everyone out, and then capitalize off a community they’ve contributed absolutely nothing to.  The same thing that is happening in Toronto, is happening in Berlin… and happening all over the world… the only difference is that Berlin actually had time to cultivate a community and a culture before the corporate take over.  In Toronto we never even seem to get that far. It’s sad that this is happening in Berlin, but at the same time, they’re lucky for having squats that lasted as long as they did. Most cities aren’t so lucky.

So obviously, people are angry and upset. By why direct the anger towards tourists?

“A precedent for big changes has already been set in former squatters’ residences across Berlin. In 2005, the police stormed Yorck 59, a kind of political collective that existed in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district for 18 years before investors bought it. The building has since been turned into luxury lofts.”

Because locals dont live in loft condos, tourists do.
So instead of getting mad at the city, the politicians, the property owners or the investors,
the anger is directed towards the tourists who come to Berlin to make “the scene” and get shit-faced every night.  Frankly, I dont blame them… because if there wasn’t a such a market of try-hard suckers willing to pay for overpriced “lofts” to live in a community that no longer exists, i’d be pretty pissed off at tourists too.

I read in a Berlin paper that Tacheles had been bought out for 1 million € but when I talked to some of the artists who still worked at Tacheles during the demolition, they said that was all bullshit. Turns out, the few people who managed the “Zapata Cafe” out in the backyard area that I was sitting in the day before, made this slimy deal without telling anyone, took the money and fucked off, leaving over 80 artists to deal with the aftermath. These artists who currently run and work in the space haven’t seen a dime. One artist who I was talking to became more and more upset as he explained the situation and ended it off with “Yea, everyone is mad at those greedy fuckers, and people are trying to track them down.”

Harsh tokes.

So at the end of my trip, I felt really disillusioned, and kept asking the question…will artists ever have any rights to the property and communities they cultivate?   Are artists always destined to struggle??  Would we be real artists if we didn’t suffer?  Some people will argue this fact, that this cyclical problem is necessary for the creation of ‘true’ art… however… to me it sounds more like artist denial.  Like a battered wife going back to her husband because “he really does love me”, artists who support their own oppression and degradation seem to be conditioned to tolerate such defeats.  Honestly, I think we can do better.

Maybe one day… in a perfect world… in the (not so?) distant future.

2 thoughts on “Toronto? Berlin? Different Place, Same Story.

  1. I visited Cafe Zapata in 2005, one of the coolest bars I’ve seen in my life. I wanted to revisit the bar, but it looks like it got torn down? I watched the video on youtube which shows the bulldozer, but I can’t ell what perspective it is from. What happened to Cafe Zapata? I guess if it’s torn down it will save me a trip to Berlin, since that was the main reason for me going back.

  2. The perspective it at the entrance to the cafe. It is gone completely, and if that was your only reason for going to Berlin, then i guess i saved you a trip.

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