WILL BERLIN STAY THE SAME?
THEY SAY THE AIR IS DIFFERENT IN BERLIN, "Berliner Luft" they call it. Maybe it's the vast areas of greenery to the east and west of the city that make the air more pleasant than in London or New York. The cosmpolitan atmosphere attracted many people from abroad, including Christopher Isherwood in the 1930's and David Bowie in the 1970's. During the 60's, 70's and 80's, many "alternative" types took up residence in West Berlin: Living there they didn't have to do military service. Pre-1989 West Berlin had an intimate, slightly claustrophobic, almost village-like atmosphere.
But when the wall came down, and Berlin was joined up with its hinterland, suddenly, many newcomers descended on the city, and the West Berliners, used to a quiet and comfortable life, didn't like it: Thousands of "Ossis" (East Germans) in their smoking Trabants, flocking to see West Berlin for the first time, Vietnamese guest workers, formerly employed by East Germany, who after re-unification found themselves in the middle of Europe's most economically powerful country, black marketeers from Poland and Russia, and thousands of Asylum seekers from poorer countries to the east.
But today a new group of outsiders is starting to descend on Berlin - the thousands of civil servants, officials, functionaries and politicians of the Federal Government, which is in the process of moving from Bonn to Berlin. As my former Ossi, now fully fledged citizen of the new Germany, Frank said: "Chancellor Kohl and all the rest of them could have used the GDR government buildings, but no, that wasn't good enough for them. Now we're having to pay for that huge government quarter they're building there."
Despite the fact that Germany has a huge national debt, and that taxes are high, the Federal Building Ministry has an astronomical budget, and is using it to build a massive new government quarter, which will extend on a gigantic scale from east to west in the green area near the Reichstag and River Spree - look at the City Scope QTVR panorama to see it now and in the future. What will happen when the thousands of government officials, on their federal salaries, come to live in Berlin? Will they push up rents, and make the city less affordable? Already the formerly cheap and cosmopolitan areas of the city, such as Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg, are starting to get expensive.
"Before we had the East. Now we've got the West," says Frank, "and too many people are losing out." Frank isn't doing too badly He's an electrician by trade but is currently taking a break from work, courtesy of the German social security system: He's using the time to build a superb new house for his family, while his wife earns a good salary from an administrative job in the city. But the reason why they've only got one child, a nine year old girl, is they can't afford to have any more children. The GDR offered a full year paid maternity leave, now it doesn't last for much more than eight weeks.
"I don't like Berlin any more" says Frank. "You might find all that building work interesting, but we're the ones who are having to pay for it." Well, I replied, I still like Berlin, for the similar reasons to why I like Manchester: the history, the industry, the buildings, the cosmopolitan atmosphere. But there are some extra reasons - the sheer size and diversity of the city means there's always something new to do and see, and yet despite its huge size, it feels open, spacious, easy to live in, and cheaper than London. In Berlin you can experience Ancient Greece, shop in a department store, walk in the woods, sunbathe on a beach and swim in a lake, all in the space of an hour.