“I came to Berlin to visit a friend and missed my flight home. I’ve been here ever since”
This is the story of many Berliners. I felt it on my first visit – a sense of possibility, great vibe, no stress. A place for those who don’t know what they’re doing with their lives to come and explore. Some get lost for good, others find radical new paths.
There’s something special here.
I hope it can resist the identikit cut and paste city planning culture that believes only big business can save a city. That it can survive the wealthier explorers and greedy landlords. Maintain it’s diversity.
First to distinguish – this is the Berlin I experience. My little bubble of overlapping alternative realities. This is not the Berlin of Brandenburg Gate or Potsdammerplatz. This is the alt. bubble, or as hackers at c-base describe it “the crashed spaceship”. This Berlin isn’t German, i’m not even sure it’s of this planet. It’s an experimental playground for those who wish to build their own realities.
This Berlin welcomes your eccentricity. It permits you to be free, provided you are not hurting anybody else. Anarchy combined with basic services – the freedom to play and engage, supported by essential social infrastructures.
A bohemian space, where one can sit in a cafe and talk philosophy with friends. Friends who apply their philosophy to their lives. Who dare to live it. Dinner party conversations are based on experience, not opinion. Pavlik lives without money, Onyx the jazz fiend is making his own cyborg instruments, hacking himself in the process. Whilst these are extremes, I don’t think I could list amongst my friends anyone who is not challenging social norms through their life.
It feels like something is happening here, in this space where the edges overlap. Where communist, anarchist, punk, artist and capitalist meet.
This is a primordial soup of experiments and experience. Prototyped realities both temporary (events) and permanent (spaces, businesses, infrastructures), evolving, changing and finding ways to survive and thrive.
Into this mix, certain ideals are thriving.
Collaboration, Openess, Sharing. To work without ego. Sustainable lives and alternative systems.
Here it’s easy to collaborate, to find passionate individuals motivated to explore and take action. Too easy. In this low friction environment a couple of beers and a conversation can lead to a new project. Open Design City (ODC) – a co-making space I co-founded at Betahaus was started after an email and an hour long chat.
ODC, a microcosmic metaphor for Berlin. “A space you can share”, we said, and share they did. Tools, ideas, knowledge, projects, all flowed into and through the space. Communities constructed themselves – Trial and Error, Lastenrad, Laser Hacking Group, Bausteln, Enable Berlin, Makerlab. They collaborated and built ever more interesting ideas in the overlap. DIY Cargo Bikes, Bioplastic Lampshades, Guerilla Graffiti interventions from GRL mixed up with DIY Lasers, Self Made Machines, and creative sustainable actions. An opportunity to learn anything from electronics, to knitting, programming to trash upcycling.
It’s great but sometimes you have to stop, check, and design your own reality, question whether the action takes you forwards or sideways. Distraction is easy. There is always something exciting brewing.
When you have a project, serendipity and overlapping interests align to support you. Berlin flows.
I work with a network (aka friends). We have no contracts. We work with each other for money/benefit when it suits, when we can all win. We help each other out. What keeps us honest is trust, respect, shared goals, and overlapping ideals. No formal agreement means we have to speak openly, clearly and honestly. We know that we all have to remain happy and healthy to continue. We recognise each others skills – often better than we know our own.
It’s here I have been able to say “I only work on meaningful projects that are well paid and interesting”. Here I can live on my own terms.
I live in a treehouse in my apartment, eccentric perhaps – yet there are others in Berlin who don’t find this crazy – better still they find it romantic.
Here I believe it is possible to weave together the realities and infrastructures of the alternative, to live well without guilt. To build a small parallel existence to the economy that can sustain me both emotionally and physically. A place where other means of existence are possible.
Right now I’m working in Cairo. I’ve never missed a place before, but I miss Berlin. In Berlin I can be myself. I can be human.
But for all this love I have for this city. I have a fear. That reading this you will want to also come and live here. That prices rise, and experiments die. Such spaces are fragile and vulnerable to money. I recognise my own hypocrisy. But if you come and like what you see, my message would be thus.
Don’t come live here. Copy us.
This article was originally written for revue issue 12. Which is well worth getting, especially if you speak German.