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STREET SPIRIT – Berlin reviewed

Berlin has been through a lot. After the Nazi regime finally fell in 1945, the occupying powers fell out over who should control Germany’s shattered capital. For the next four decades, the tectonics plates of East and West ground together here, and the population was divided by a ten foot wall.

But since a euphoric revolution in ’89 and the tearing down of the wall, Berlin has been all about freedom of expression, with a massive alternative scene attracting people from all over Europe.

The train ride from the airport lets you know just what you’re in for. It’s a non-stop graffiti show – huge, exuberant lettering splashed endlessly across the buildings, bridges and walls that line the route. It looks like a defiant statement of anarchy, and then you notice – the train seats have a graffiti design printed on them too.

You get the feeling that the young people are in charge here, and the statistics back that up. In some areas, it’s strange to see anyone over 50.

My lonely planet guide told me I was about discover Europe’s party capital – a wonderland of clubs and bars. But this was not for me – a skint slacker lusts after free-range fun. My destination was the underground, and I’m not talking about train-spotting.

But first, certain sights had to be visited…

The hyper-gothic cathedral, Brandenburg gate and Reichstag were all worth seeing. Also the Marx and Engels monument – a reminder that the original ideas of communism were spot on.

The most unmistakable icon of the GDR era, the 368 metre TV Tower, is an ever-visible landmark. Built in 1967 as a cold war status symbol, it now seems stunningly contemporary: perfectly camp and perfectly eastern – it’s a glitterball on a kebab skewer. Best of all though is the holocaust memorial.

Big twentieth century history is everywhere you look here. But there’s nothing showing you where exactly the Berlin wall once stood, apart from a short remaining section which is used as a graffiti gallery. Possibly the authorities are only too aware of the divide between East and West which still exists in many peoples’ minds.

My first hostel was smart and comfortable, but situated in a rather dull area, with 1960s apartment blocks towering anonymously outside.

So on day five I moved to Friedrichstain – a bohemian district of criss-crossing streets, where the pavement cafes and treasure-trove shops are joyfully plastered with posters, graffiti and stencil-work.

This hostel had a more interesting class of traveler, up for exploring the diverse delights of bohemian Berlin. Additional features of the area included top-class skaters, punky winos and squats.

Berlin’s squat movement took off twenty years ago, when anarchist punks took over buildings that had been left abandoned when people were moved into the tower blocks mentioned above.

Under communism, individualism had been punished. Punk culture was targeted by the state, and gigs were not allowed. You could even be imprisoned for being a punk. But after the wall came down, creativity ran riot and the squat scene attracted alternative types from across Germany.

The subculture is highly political. Most squats are run as collectives, with non-capitalistic aims. Gay and Lesbian groups are highly organised. Anti-fascist punk groups have their own nights and fanzines.

It’s not just a punk thing. The largest squat-type place I found was Cassiopia – it’s a complex of buildings that may have been an industrial site. Now the site comprises several gig/club spaces, where you can hear dubstep, drum’n’bass or rock. There are also artists’ studios, two cafes, a skate park and climbing wall.

Since ‘93 the authorities have been making life hard for squatters, and there have hardly been any new squats created since that time. Many of the buildings have been sold and turned into flats, but still there are parties or gigs across this scene most nights of the week.

Actually, to call it a scene is completely wrong, ‘cos nobody is trying to be cool and there are no boundaries. Never before have I seen street punks dancing to A-Ha and Madonna, for instance, as I did on Rigaerstrasse.

As with all of Berlin, commercial forces are moving in – MTV has bought one of the buildings in the Cassiopiea complex, in which they are making Germany’s version of ‘Pimp My Ride’! – how horrible is that?

To sum up Berlin? I would never try. I only spent two weeks there, scratching at the underbelly, so I can’t offer a full appraisal. But I will say this: Berlin is a true city of culture.

Those Liverpool council bureaucrats who have tried (and failed) to sterilise our city’s streets, and to disregard our music culture by criminalising fly-posting outside of the ‘official’ sites, if they came to Berlin they would have a heart attack. ‘Cos it’s not under control. And yet it threatens no-one.

The anarchic spirit of these streets is what makes them worth living in. And if those sad, confused bureaucrats ever did visit, they should also look down at the pavements. They would see no gum or litter there – and then they’d be really confused.

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