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Is Berlin Still Cool?

Because who better to ask than the residents of the coolest place in London, according to multiple property developers and estate agents.

Something cool happening in Berlin. Photo: Grey Hutton

Bad news: Berlin is dead. Or, at least, everyone seems to think it is.

The German capital—long considered the ultimate destination for artists, musicians, students, squatters, backpackers, ex-pats, and other pioneering broke people of all strides—has been declared "over" by a formidable list of media outlets.

In an article for Slate, Lucian Kim—who moved to Berlin a year after the Wall came down (very cool), lived in a warehouse with a bunch of punks (super cool), and had to fend off skinheads with a bucket of cobblestones while they tried to invade his apartment (SO COOL)—has announced that "being cool has ruined Berlin."

Kim's not alone. The New Republic reports that the city's hipness has become "aggressively manufactured." Max Read at Gawker claims that major press from the New York Times and Rolling Stone "marks the end of the city's decade (plus?)-long reign as Coolest City in the World." Even Germany's own leading news magazine, SPIEGEL, has given up on Berlin. In their eyes, Leipzig is the country's new culture capital: "Berlin, but better."

Isn't Berlin great, though? It's cheap, home to a thriving art scene, and the site of one of the most important geopolitical moments of the 20th century—a fact that's indelibly shaped it into the city we know and love.

I couldn't answer this question myself, so I went to Peckham—currently the hippest place in London, according to multiple property development companies and estate agents—to ask a very important question only cool people who have visited Berlin would truly know the answer to: Is Berlin still cool?

Richard, 32, owner of Old Spike Coffee

VICE: You've been to Berlin—what do you make of it?
Richard: I went there three years ago and then five years before that, and in the gap between those two trips, there was a vast difference. More recently, a lot of new restaurants have come up—it has a lot of similarities to Williamsburg in Brooklyn. I used to live in Williamsburg, and I can see the parallels quite clearly: big coffee scene, big food scene, great clubs, great bars. I guess it's changing farther and becoming more of a space for businesses to go.

When it comes to Williamsburg, it seems like people realized it was cool and flocked there because it was cool. Now, according to some, it's lost its appeal. It's too gentrified. Do you think the same thing is happening to Berlin?
I don't think it is—I know Berlin is rent controlled, and I think they've got much more of a renting market than a buying market, so I think that changes the dynamic. I think it's unique in that sense, whereas London and New York are very similar in that everywhere that's any good becomes very quickly unaffordable to live in. Berlin is somewhat exempt from that.

Do you think it's at risk of becoming uncool because it's so cool?
I think what makes it cool goes beyond bars and restaurants. It's more about an attitude, and the people who move there and create the scene. That will only get bigger as more people find it appealing, until it gets saturated. I think what makes those places amazing is that people like to feel that they've got something that no one else has got. As a place gets saturated, that feeling goes away. So naturally, those people move somewhere else.

William, 21, barista

There's a lot of fuss about Berlin becoming uncool. What's your take on that?
William: I get that. When I went, I just felt there was a lot of pretense—a lot of pressure to be cool. Which isn't that cool.

What made you feel that way?
Just in the nightlife. You can't really just let your hair down. I guess you can, but if you do, it's sort of seen as the "wrong" thing to do, which defeats the purpose of going out and having fun.

So do you think Berlin's dead?
Not at all, no. Saying all that, I still want to go back, and I still had a good time. I have good memories. When I think Berlin, I think it's cool.

Where do you think the city's headed in, say, the next five years?
I think it's over gentrified, but I think Berlin's always gonna be cool, no matter what. It just goes in cycles. People will say "it's not cool any more" until the point where it's cool again. That's just how things work.

Daisy, 20, Fine Art student

Everybody seems to want to live in Berlin. Do you think that's a problem?
Daisy: Possibly, but I feel like that's kind of going to happen any place you go. I just got back from Copenhagen, and I kind of feel like the same thing's happening there. Places get cool, creative stuff is going on, and people want to go. Even in the south of London, I feel like that's happening.

Did Berlin seem pretentiously hip when you were there?
I went to this one club where the person at the door looked at what we were wearing and how we were acting and sort of made a judgment on whether we should go in or not. They were doing it to everyone. We went in, and it was great; it was just like a normal club. But they were very aware of how people acted and who was cool.

Mehu, 26, owns Alibaba Coffee

What did you make of Berlin?
Mehu: It was very dynamic. There's a kind of freedom in the streets there—you can do whatever you want as long as you don't disturb anybody.

What do you think gives Berlin its reputation?
Because of the people who live there. They have a message and a special way of doing things. I think the Germans who live there have taught everyone else to have fun. In 1989, when the wall went down, they wanted to manifest that freedom in a certain way. And they found techno.

Some people say that Berlin is becoming so cool that it's in danger of becoming uncool.
I think that's just an impression. If you want to find the cool side of Berlin, you really have to do something cool. To participate. It's a touristic impression that it's very cool, but to actually feel that and to see [why it's cool], you have to be there, live there, and be active there.

So you don't think Berlin is dying?
No. Because if there's something real—something really cool—you can't deny that. It can't be beaten if it's real.

Beautiful. Where do you see Berlin, say, five years from now?
I think it'll be the same, if the prices and the rent don't go up. But I don't think they will. It's a really big city, and it takes time to develop in that sense—in the bad sense.

Martin, 63, comedy promoter

Some people are saying Berlin is so cool that it's becoming uncool.
Martin: It has become uncool.

How do you mean?
Every time I go to Leipzig now, I meet people from Berlin, because Berlin's become so expensive. I think the job is done, as far as Berlin's concerned. You have to be very rich to live there. I've got some very simple tests for that: A 660ml bottle of German beer in Leipzig costs a euro. In Berlin, it costs three to four euros a bottle. That's a good test of what's happening anywhere: bread, beer, and cigarettes. It's just about done and dusted, isn't it?

What do you mean?
It's just absolutely full of coffee bars, full of studios—it's full. And that's uncool. Gentrification is well documented: Somewhere's cheap, the artists move in, realize the potential of the place, improve it, and basically open the eyes of those who just want to make money. That's where Berlin is now, most definitely. There used to be a lot of empty tenement apartments, and the spaces were huge. I stayed in a few hotels that were dirt cheap. Last time I stayed there, it was like, "Whoa, Jesus!" It was a good thirty or so euro more than it was in Leipzig.

Do you think a lot of people go to Berlin just because it's known to be cool?
Yeah. I don't know if there's a problem with that, it's just that if you're cool—or want to be cool—it's not the place to go to, simple as that. I work in the art industry, so I often find myself in places where artists congregate. I can tell when an area is coming under scrutiny from the business and corporate side. So now Leipzig is definitely the cool place. It's far better than Berlin. They don't have many corporate places. Cheap rents, hundreds of studios, hundreds of factories. There are lots of opportunity for artists.

Berlin has happened. It's past cool. It's only a matter of time before it happens to Leipzig as well. The same as Peckham—it's completely changed. I've lived here for over thirty-five years, and I never imagined this would happen to Peckham, but it has. Now I can't get studio space here at all—it's either a church or a bar that brews its own beer.

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