A chill wind is blowing through Mitte, the once drab district in central Berlin that is fast becoming hangout central for the world's creative types. Davide Grazioli, used to warmer climes, pulls his black woolly hat over his head and strides up Kastanien Allee now dubbed Casting Alley because of all the wannabe film directors and actors who frequent its cafés. Grazioli is an Italian artist whose work includes unraveled embroideries from India and skulls made of organic incense. Three years ago, he moved to Berlin from Milan with his wife and young daughter, and though his German is rudimentary, he's reveling in the city. This year, he's branched out into "sustainable fashion," creating a men's clothing collection made in Africa from organic cotton and linen colored with vegetable and other gentle dyes. Walking to his spacious studio, in one of Berlin's countless courtyards, he stops off to admire handmade surfboards in a store, and then heads to his favorite café where a Korean barista makes him a cappuccino that meets his Italian standards. Berlin is "a place for new beginnings," Grazioli says. "Being in an unfinished place has a huge impact on you. In Milan I wouldn't have allowed myself to do something new."
Germany has a lot of fine qualities, but being hip isn't usually thought to be one of them. Up-and-coming artists, especially ones from abroad, used to flock to London, Amsterdam or New York City rather than Hamburg, Munich or Cologne. As for Berlin, it hasn't been on the international cool list since Christopher Isherwood lived in the city in the early 1930s and chronicled the demise of its rambunctious culture under the Nazis. If foreigners came to visit, they were hippies, spies, U.S. Presidents or peeping tourists curious to catch a glimpse of communism from a safe distance.
But two decades after the Wall that cut through Berlin's heart came tumbling down, the city is once again a happening place, drawing a host of international designers, writers, architects, musicians and visual artists like Grazioli, some just to visit, many to stay. The influx is transforming the city. "Yes, artists from all over the world are now living in Berlin and, some nights, they all seemed to end up on my living-room sofa," says Jeffrey Eugenides, the American Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who lived in Berlin from 1999 to 2003 and goes back every summer. "It's a much wilder place than New York City. There are all kinds of trapdoors you can fall through. It's a bit dangerous, but estimable. The dinner conversation is always serious and never about real estate."
That's true. While the cost of housing can be an obsession in other cities, Berlin's plentiful supply of inexpensive pads is a key factor in its appeal. A big overhang of cheap apartments and abandoned factories and warehouses in the formerly communist eastern half has depressed prices throughout the city. Studio space is to be had for next to nothing. Even in Mitte, the center of Berlin's new Szene, newly renovated apartments rent for less than one quarter of what you'd pay in London. That's a big draw. But Berlin isn't just cheap. Some flock there because it is not yet set in brick, stone and concrete, but in the process of redefining itself. Guido Axmann came to Berlin from Oldenburg, near Bremen, and switched from being a doctor to running a consultancy on environmental issues. "[The city] has physical space, but also mental space. It allows you to develop," he says.
Counterculture to Capital
Berlin has always been different. During the Cold War era it was a magnet for young West German gays, punks and pacifists who got out of doing military service by moving there. They remain an important part of the culture: there are still squats in derelict buildings, and a vibrant, semilegal club scene. "The place still has an outlawish feel," says James Docwra, who works for an agency that books DJs. But in the transition from hippy to hip, some of the anarchy of earlier times has gone, particularly since the government moved from Bonn in the 1990s. Birkenstocks have made way for handmade $400 Trippen boots "that express an individuality not found in the traditional mass market," as the Berlin company's founders, Angela Spieth and Michael Oehler, put it. Especially in parts of Mitte, there's been a mini-invasion of BMWs and Mercedes in smartly restored streets that just a few years ago were pockmarked legacies of communist-era neglect.
In some ways, the city now is the way it used to be. Before World War II, what became East Berlin was the smart center of town. Unter den Linden, a treelined boulevard that was Germany's answer to Paris' Champs Elysées, led eastwards from the Brandenburg Gate to an island on the Spree packed with neoclassical museums. Behind that was Mitte and the residential district of Prenzlauer Berg. When the Wall went up, the East went down; fine apartment buildings, many of them damaged in the war, decayed further. Some areas were entirely razed to make way for the Wall and the death strips either side of it. West Berliners moved out into what had been leafy suburbs and the center of commercial life moved west. Now the city's focal point has shifted back east again, but it's an evolving process. There are still large areas of the eastern part of town that are filled with hideous communist-era concrete blocks, or just big holes waiting to be filled.