The Berlin city council spent $240,000 to find out the city’s true spirit. The result: “overheated aimlessness” and “let the other German cities be the achievers”

Below is my translation of an article from Berlin’s main daily newspaper on Berliners’ own views of the city, as captured in a study commissioned by the city council as part of their search for a new marketing slogan. The context is that, unknown to the rest of the world, Germans see Berlin as the country’s capital of failure (details here). Berliners consider this a compliment, as though having the country’s worst school system (which Berlin does, to pick one example) is an achievement of countercultural emancipation.

The dysfunction did seem refreshingly quirky and countercultural when David Bowie was here in the 70s and when there were drug-fueled raves with one million people in the streets in the 90s and rent was near zero. But now the city has the world’s fastest-rising rents; skyrocketing rates of hate crime; air and water so dirty it’s being sued by the European Union; “no functioning legal system”, to quote the head of the German Bar Association; and a police department that was tracking every move of a Muslim terrorist for several years and had his phone in their possession but couldn’t stop him from killing 12 people by driving a truck through a Christmas market in 2016.

Suddenly around 2017 people started asking, apparently for the first time in Berlin’s history, whether quirky underachievement, especially among the city’s leaders and administration, is a good way to address these issues. This is the background against which the city is searching for a new marketing motto.

Italics indicate my own annotations.

Berlin is like a bridge without guardrails

What is Berlin and what does it want to be? The city council asked residents and experts. What they had to say is affectionate, interesting – and disturbing.

Tagesspiegel, July 17, 2017

What is Berlin? And what does it want to be? for the past year, the city council has been searching for the city’s DNA. They surveyed residents, marketing experts and stakeholders in civil society and summarized the results in 86 Powerpoint slides and a 37-page white paper with the tagline “Berlin remains different.” That just leaves the question: How?

“A lot changes, but nothing develops”, states the analysis, which is primarily for city marketing purposes (but it definitely comes across as a wake-call to politicians!) And: “Berlin is pervaded with overheated aimlessness.” In short: the city has no vision.

From April 2018 to March 2019 the city council surveyed 2,500 people in Berlin, elsewhere in Germany and beyond. Here’s a look into the journey of self-discovery – summarized in a few quotes from the survey.

“Let the other German cities be the achievers. They can do it better. The Berliner is the kid who sits in the back of the school bus, the one who shares the joint, who turns up the music too loud, who doesn’t shun failure.”

“Berlin’s like a family without any parental authority and everyone does whatever they want and fights. I wish there was someone who would put their foot down once in a while.”

“The feeling has changed and the promise of freedom is gone. Time to let it go and yet still defend the city’s uniqueness.”

‘”Doing your own thing” in Berlin is somewhere between the allotment gardens [home base for the provincial, closed-minded, stubborn, misanthropic and paranoid petty bourgeois which are the real bedrock of Berlin’s population] and the nightclub Berghain.

“If it was up to me they’d build a new Berlin Wall around Charlottenburg” [calm middle/upper-class borough with fewer party tourists, real-estate speculation, globalization, and less crime than the rest of Berlin]

“Berlin is a bridge without guardrails. Falling off is allowed unlike in the rest of Germany.”

Is Berlin really remaining different? According to the report, the last few years have shown that notions such as “capital of diversity” and “unbounded horizons of possibilities” can no longer be taken for granted, and that Berlin’s great promise is threatened and limited. It goes on to say that the more people do their own thing, whatever they want, the more society gets torn apart. Along with the right to individual freedom, Berlin needs the responsibility of respect for the freedom of others. There needs to be a Berlin where the common good is a priority. The limitless “me”, according to the report, needs to become a limitless “we”. Berlin needs to see itself as a capital city “that plans its growth responsibly, fairly and cooperatively, and that stands for economic strength, quality of life and solidarity.” So then let’s do it! [punctuation in the original]

[Below the article are these links to further articles on the topic:]

In search of the city’s DNA: Berlin used to be Neverland – now it has to grow up.

A mellow catastrophe of a city: Berlin is a place where nothing works yet somehow things carry on. Half the world marvels at us – but they don’t have to live here.