Alternative Berlin: How Photographers, Writers and Artists Coexist in a City Of Expats & Opportunity
“Is that a urinal in the middle of the street?”
“Yep, and it really works,” Kae Viktoria says nonchalantly, as if working urinals in the middle of the city are normal.
Then again… it is Berlin.
Kae Viktoria, Photographer
I'm in Berlin for a few different reasons, and one of those is to connect with creatives like photographer Kae Viktoria.
Kae is an incredibly talented photographer who specializes in photographing strangers and sharing the hidden gems of Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood. She’s able to capture normal, everyday people in this city of contrasts, and her photos represent her effervescent, cheerful personality and knowledge of this vibrant world.
She’s from Frankfurt, and when she moved to Berlin her wardrobe slowly became the city’s unofficial color scheme of all-black. We talk about some of the weird norms of the city, from having to pay for public restrooms to the fact that if you’re wearing a nice dress you’re more likely to get rejected by bouncers at club as casual dress codes reign supreme.
Kae came to Berlin to find something beyond what she’d known working in the corporate world. She had traveled around Europe, but it was when she picked up her camera in Amsterdam and started doing photoshoots with strangers that something clicked, and she moved to Berlin to do this work professionally.
She’s great at what she does — I don’t particularly love having photos taken of me, but when Kae takes out her camera to take a photo of me, she’s thoughtful and funny in her direction. It’s clear she’s a pro, both in taking portraits of strangers and in making them feel completely at ease with her.
As we walk through the trendy neighborhood of Kreuzberg — stopping occasionally to snap photos — Kae shows me a rose garden lined with street art that used to be a canal, a Cathedral that has fallen in disarray and has art exhibits out front, and wander past movie theaters that seem to have been here for as long as the city has been.
We stop on a bridge covered with beer caps that seem to be part of the stone. In Berlin, it’s legal to walk around with an opened beer, so people congregate on this bridge and press their bottle caps in-between the cobblestones until they've just fused with the bridge.
Musicians often play here, so people will come and congregate for some free live music and sip beer as the sun sets over the canals. It’s incredible, and an example of the slice of life I’d experience here during my trip.
Kae also won’t let me jaywalk — except for once, where we inadvertently step out into the crosswalk just as the light changes. “My palms are sweating — are your palms sweating?” she asks, and as I laugh I’m reminded of my trip to New York earlier this year where I felt like stoplights were merely a suggestion. In Berlin, they’re much more mandatory.
“Are there any good bookstores around here?” I ask.
“Well there’s this one around the corner — but it’s not for me,” she says, laughing.
“Why, is it a sex club by night?” I joke, well aware of Berlin's infamous night life.
“The owner put a mattress in the center of it — so I think that might have been the intent.”
Even with the quirky individuals, this city is full of life. As we finish wandering through Kreuzberg, Kae makes sure I have all the recommendations I need for the rest of the trip, from hole-in-the-wall bars to the best Vegan spots. (Berlin, she tells me, is the vegan capital of Germany.)
Artists and musicians are present everywhere you go in Berlin. Every day that I walk by the S-Bahn train station near my hostel, a young musician is playing outside. From French rappers to German guitarists, creative expression is bursting at the seams. Every inch of the city is covered in graffiti, from the elementary schools to what’s standing of the Berlin wall at the East Gallery.
Kae represents one of the types of artists you’ll find in Berlin: friendly, passionate about her work and this place, and fully aware of the history of this city — while remaking the future. If you visit Berlin, be sure to book a tour and photowalk with Kae through AirBnb Experiences.
Expats, Startups, And Writers in Berlin
“This isn’t just a museum for kids!” I protest, and then proceed to jump through a series of lasers at the Berlin spy museum, dodging their beams so I can presumably save the world. (I don’t, the bomb goes off, and the world ends. Ah, well, I gave it the college try.)
My friend Ilan Benjamin doesn’t fare too well, either — the world also ends as he darts through the laser room. Glad we’re not the last hope for humanity.
Ilan’s an expat from Los Angeles: he and I went to USC together (and he’s contributed to Kingdom of Pavement in the past!) and he moved to Berlin to work with and write for the successful startup Galatea before moving on to found his own company.
I’m impressed by Ilan’s ability to uproot from his Los Angeles life and move across the world along with how he's able to move like a chameleon through both Hollywood and the Berlin tech scene, but the way he puts it, he didn't have a choice.
"I'm going to sound like a cliche when I say this -- but it's true. Like every other expat I've met, I moved to Berlin because I was basically having a breakdown," Ilan says when I ask him to elaborate on why he decided to make the jump.
"I loved and hated living in Los Angeles, like everyone, but it came to a point where I didn't recognize myself in the mirror anymore. I knew I need to shake something up. Berlin called to me, mostly because of an awesome writing job. But also because it's a city of fuck-ups and transients. The city itself is schizophrenic when you think about what it's gone through over the past 100 years. The amount of times it's been divided, destroyed, it's ideology reconfigured, its people torn apart... of course, as a descendent of Holocaust survivors, living here is even more poignant. But the reason I fall in love with the city over and over everyday is because it's a city that flaunts its scars with pride. This is a city that knows it's fucked up and loves it."
It's true: the patchwork neighborhoods can seem starkly different from one another, the scars of its past evident as I wandered from one to the next during my stay.
"It's not for everybody," Ilan tells me. "Watching homeless shoot up on the Ubahn everyday can be pretty rough. But then that's part of its charm too. It feels a lot like NYC or SF used to feel. Like a real city still."
As Ilan shows me around the city (to decidedly less-touristy spots than the spy museum, which was my idea of course) we end up at a screenwriting mixer at a bar in the yuppie, gentrified neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg. Some would argue a part of the city that no longer feels "real."
We chat with writers who have written everything from feature films to video games out here in Berlin, and it strikes me how this place feels ripe for a creative revolution -- perhaps one that's already underway.
But it's not all sunshine and rainbows, either.
The Changing City
While Kingdom of Pavement focuses on artistic communities in Los Angeles, we can learn a lot from urban art hubs around the world. Our kingdom is only as powerful as we make it, which is why it’s important to examine how other cities are tackling some of the problems that affect the creative community (and the community at large.)
Unlike most of Los Angeles, Berlin is still “affordable” — but that’s changing, fast. According to this article in the New Yorker, “since 2004, property prices have more than doubled; in 2017 alone, they increased by 20.5 per cent.”
As Berlin becomes a hub for startups, writers, and artists, it becomes a more desirable place to live. As the “cool” intrudes and the luxury apartments go up next to historic buildings in Kreuzberg, the locals get pushed out and the city loses some of what made it so unique and vibrant in the first place.
Kae tells me about the protests that are happening, and I read about the city’s response and the regulations going into place to control rent ceilings and keep the city affordable for the population of young artists and long-time locals it houses.
Berlin's tech boom is evident, with a flurry of startups calling the trendy hub home. I spent a day working with Ilan at a Berlin co-working space that boasts nap pods and ball pits that’s also shared by companies like Google, and was surprised by the number of foreign tech companies that have staked territory here.
Why wouldn’t they? The cost of living is far below San Francisco, and there’s a burgeoning tech scene with accelerators and investors starting to populating the scene out here.
Ilan sees it as well, noting that start-ups are trying to "ruin the city just like they ruined SF. And I know I'm part of the problem, being a member of that eco-system. But I've learned that there are ways to integrate into a city, beyond simply consuming and taking. It could be as simple as volunteering to clean up the golden squares with the names of holocaust survivors. Or learning about the rent crisis and contributing what you can to stop it. We Expats don't have to be the problem. In fact, Berlin insists we be a part of the solution. Or, at the very least, like the city itself, a contradiction."
As I’m sitting on a beanbag that overlooks the trendy workspace Ilan and I are in, I wonder: what does it take to keep a city artist friendly? What needs to be in place to protect the unique spirit of the photographers, writers, and locals that call it home?
I don’t have the answers. I’m just a tourist who jumps through lasers and listens to live music on bottle-cap bridges. But I’d like to.
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