American Expatriots in Berlin
- Words: Cameron Macdonald
Generations of North American eyes have viewed Berlin as a paradise. The romance was there in the Roaring Twenties, amidst the clatter of glasses, laughter, and brassy horns of the city's speakeasies and cabarets. During harder times, Berlin's West became an Eden worth risking one's life to escape to.
Years after the masses' optimistic hands took down the Wall, and Loveparade flooded the streets with millions of bohemian revelers, the rent is still dirt cheap, many clubs are open all night long, and nimble artists can scrape by without holding down a "real" job. Paradise, my friend. Paradise.
In the past few years, Berlin has reeled in many American and Canadian artists, DJs, hipsters, and bohos. Techno mavens like Richie Hawtin, Daniel Bell, and A Guy Called Gerald took residence there, along with rapper Fat Jon of Five Deez and post-techno explorers and iconoclasts like Andrew Pekler, Khan, and Kevin Blechdom. Like Los Angeles, Barcelona, and Brooklyn's Williamsburg district, the media has portrayed Berlin as an enclave for expatriate artists.
But not all of them are simply trend-following lemmings; many North American Berliners moved to the German capital for a change of pace, either financially, socially, or politically. Stewart Walker, the formerly Boston-based minimal techno producer who moved there in 2003, saw the city as a relief. "Somebody told me recently that Berlin is how New York would be if all of the professionals got up and left, and only the artists remained," he recounts. "That's a simplification, but it still excites me."
Hawtin, who has called England, Canada, and New York home, explains that he wanted to reconnect with his European roots and live in a different, but comfortable place. "I left my car three years ago in Canada and traded it in for my bicycle," he says. "The neighborhoods, people hanging out, walking around–the city is alive, unlike most automobile-driven North American cities."
Of course, "cheap" is the golden word to many artists seeking to eke out a modest living. Most pay a smidgen of what they might in New York or San Francisco for apartments twice the size.
"I pay more than the average artist in Berlin, because I chose to have a renovated apartment in a nice, tree-lined neighborhood," says Walker. “But the benefit of Berlin is that you can pay around €200 (about $260) a month for a good-sized apartment. They are rare, but still available,” he notes, adding that they’re often coal-heated. For just €400 a month, techno experimentalist and California native Andrew Pekler is kicking back in a centrally located, 900-square-foot flat with hardwood floors and a balcony.
Walker argues that many of Berlin’s ongoing urban troubles have benefited artists from abroad. “The problems that vex the general population are what allow the immigrating artist population to thrive,” he notes, “[Like] a bankrupt city government, no jobs, too much space, cheap rents, confusion over land rights, etcetera.”
As ex-Oakland, CA resident Kevin Blechdom puts it, “[Almost] everyone is really poor, but are doing what they want to do.”
Paradise, right? But do American artists just up and move, and show up at a club ready for work?
“Europe is pretty accommodating when it comes to accepting artists from America,” says Walker. “I have a residence/artist visa, which allows me to live here but specifically precludes me from getting a job. But earning money as a performer is allowed. The main requirements are that I maintain health insurance, earn an income, and pay tax on it.”
Pekler applied for, and received, permanent-resident status through Berlin’s Culture Ministry. “Basically, I had to show that I was an artist with professional contacts to record companies in Berlin,” he explains.
Of course, those connections don’t get you health care (which all native and naturalized Germans are provided; outsiders are required to get it themselves). “Germany is quite socialist when it comes to maintaining a social safety net,” informs Walker. “There’s lots of squatters who receive ‘the dole,’ and we always laugh about how, if you’re jobless, you can also get a stipend for each dog you have.”
But there’s more to it than money, despite the scarcity of day jobs and the frequent need to hustle. Berlin’s communities are music- and art-heavy; less the scenester-ruled places that the US offers. “One can participate here and there and yet remain fairly anonymous, without going through the networking vortex that seems prevalent in scenes elsewhere,” says Pekler.
But it doesn’t work out for everyone. Matthew Curry (a.k.a. Safety Scissors) briefly lived in Berlin because he felt artistically encouraged by the city’s “openness,” but much of the music got to him after awhile and he chose to move back to San Francisco.
“I did eventually realize that there was a lot of monotony in the clubs, and the everlasting techno times did get a bit grating,” he says. “Maybe I just missed San Francisco, but I surely noticed a lack of grit and more song elements in the music. Those things missing in the predominant Berlin scene became more important in my music.”
Naturally, barriers still abound for North Americans in Berlin: everything from learning German to enduring long, depressing winters to attempting to create cell phone accounts (companies often demand proof of residency). But where posters of Dubya catch more darts than dartboards do, sometimes they’ve got bigger problems. Drunks (“and Canadians,” Blechdom notes) often hassle Americans for being “ignorant Yankees.”
“My reaction is usually just sarcasm, you know, ‘Ooh, you’re so political!” Walker laughs. “They don’t usually know more than the people they’re trying to insult. I’ve had people tell me with a straight face [that] they don’t need to visit America to be an authority on its problems.”
Perhaps it’s the exception more than the rule, but the city’s Cold War past and old division of East and West is still present in the streets; it’s only been 16 years since Germany was reunified. A few stops on the metro can take you to an entirely different city within Berlin, one of decaying Communist-built structures, a recently restored, 30-foot-tall bust of Lenin, and the “Plattenbauten” on Karl Marx Allee, a famous prefab proletarian housing development designed just like those in Warsaw and Moscow. To many former East Germans, communities were stronger and people were more altruistic during the Communist era, says Walker. “There was no monetary one-upmanship, only friends and family, and work and vacation.”
Those ideas of community haven’t died entirely, though–they’re what folks like Hawtin relocated for: a strong sense of safety and a tremendous feeling of life in the streets. “You go out on the streets, walking around at night, without having to worry about much. Sometimes you are coming home from the club at 5 a.m. on your bike and the streets are still busy with people walking, riding, and hanging,” he texts XLR8R, while sitting in one of the city’s many parks. “It’s just different, and sometimes hard to explain.”
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