Berlin has always been a mecca for escapists and alternative thinkers, from the bawdy cabarets of the Weimar Republic to the GDR’s attempts to build a socialist ideal. The legend of a utopian post-Wall Berlin was born of its kinetic Wild West underground nightlife and artists that hijacked the city’s empty spaces. Twenty five years later the city is going through some major growing pains: legendary squats and clubs are being forced to shut down, and rents are on the rise. But the city still attracts artists and dreamers, young and old, pioneers striving to create their version of an ideal community. In our Utopia summer special, we look at a few of these experiments in post-Wall Berlin, many of which literally emerged from the wasteland of the former death strip. Listen to our hour-long special below:
Follow along our journey through the city’s utopian projects with this handy map: Berlin Stories Utopia Map
We begin at Bernauer Straße, a street that has changed considerably in the past 25 years. Formerly part of the death strip of the Berlin Wall, the street and surrounding area is fast becoming the hub of Berlin’s fledgling start-up scene. Our reporter Rachel Stern talks to Simon Schaefer, the man behind Factory, a new campus of IT companies located on this historic street. To listen to the story, view photos and find out more about the Factory, click here.
Next stop: the weird and wonderful world of Mindpirates, a thriving art collective led by the charismatic Ralf Schmerberg. In a time when many legendary art squats and collectives, like Tacheles and Artitude, have been forced to close, the Mindpirates have found a way to mix business with pleasure to stay afloat. Our host Gisela Williams soaks up the atmosphere during an evening of avant-garde music at the artist collective. To listen to the story, view photos and find out more about Mindpirates, click here.
We take a step back from the buzz of Berlin’s art scene with an interlude by author Gideon Lewis-Kraus. When Lewis-Kraus lived in Berlin in the mid to late aughts, he had many encounters with art communities, which he humorously describes in his memoir A Sense of Direction. In an excerpt from the book, he remembers these encounters, the city’s never-ending parties, and when he decided to finally leave Berlin. Listen to his story here.
Moving on to Kreuzberg, we find ourselves in a beautiful 19th century market hall with aged mustard brick walls and tall, turquoise beams: Markthalle Neun. Berlin isn’t often associated with the slow food movement — artists don’t spend much money on food. But the revival of this historic market hall in Kreuzberg is gradually changing the way Berliners understand where their food comes from. Gisela Williams indulges our taste buds with a visit to Markthalle Neun. To listen to the story, view photos and find out more about Markthalle Neun, click here.
Not too far from Markthalle Neun, lies the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Graefekiez, which used to border the Berlin Wall and has always been a hub for radical free thinkers. Today, the neighborhood boasts the world’s highest density of businesses that accept the virtual currency bitcoin, and is often called “Bitcoin Kiez.” Rachel Stern investigates the city’s vibrant Bitcoin scene. To listen to the story, view photos and find out more about Berlin’s bitcoin scene, click here.
But Bitcoin isn’t the only alternative economy in Berlin. In a brand-new Berlin Stories Original, Swedish expat Malin Elmlid tells us about her unique bartering project, the Bread Exchange. Her book, also called The Bread Exchange, is being published by Chronicle Books this fall. Listen to Elmlid’s story here.
No discussion of utopias in Berlin can go without at least mentioning Bar 25. When the legendary club (think Burning Man meets Studio 54) was forced to close in 2010, many thought it was the end of an era. But this year, against all odds, some of the founders are back with a 75-year lease, millions of Euros from investors, and a project called Holzmarkt. Gisela Williams investigates how a group of eccentric party-ers and artists managed to beat the system. To listen to the story, view photos and find out more about Berlin’s bitcoin scene, click here.
Just across the river from Holzmarkt is a very different kind of radical utopian project. Sandwiched between techno clubs and new luxury apartment blocks, about forty people are living off the grid on a piece of overgrown wasteland formerly part of the Berlin Wall. But Teepee Land is not your average Berlin squat. Our reporter Thalia Gigerenzer visits this village in the middle of the city. To listen to the story, view photos and find out more about Berlin’s bitcoin scene, click here.
It’s not just squatters who revel in Berlin’s abandoned spaces. Novelist Brittani Sonnenberg has a special affinity for Berlin’s undefined, wild spaces. In another new Berlin Stories Original, she speaks about her favorite in-between space in the city. Listen to her story here.
For our final report in today’s summer special, a look at a very different kind of utopian project. Berlin has always been famous for its iconic bridges, but we found a bridge unlike any other in the city. Thalia Gigerenzer reports on Berlin’s first squirrel bridge and delves into the city’s history as a haven for animals. To listen to the story, view photos and find out more about the squirrel bridge, click here.
Thanks for joining us for this special episode of Berlin Stories, a magazine of culture and ideas in Berlin, founded by Gisela Williams and Anna Winger. This episode was produced by Carolyn Beeler and Thalia Gigerenzer. Special thanks also to Rachel Stern, Nick Simpson, Anna Winger and Oliver Brod. The photo above was taken by Nick Simpson.
Podington Bear – In
Floor Plan – Chord Principle
Kaiserbase – Berlin Du Bist So Wunderbar
Podington Bear – Heavy Flutter
Podington Bear – Biplane
Movement III Linear Tableau With Intersecting Surprise
Hauschka – Schönes Mädchen
Ennio Morricone – The Good, Bad and the Ugly
Podington Bear – Vector Meloday
Lullatone – Leaves Falling
Podington Bear – Data
Podington Bear – Mensa
Podington Bear – Theme in G