Image: Holocaust Memorial
Markus Schreiber  /  AP
Visitors rest at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin on Aug. 19. As Germany prepares to mark 20 years since east and west were reunited as one, Berlin is undergoing a boom.
By
updated 8/24/2010 6:46:27 PM ET 2010-08-24T22:46:27

Berlin has long been a rarity among the great cities of Europe: exciting, freewheeling, beautiful — and cheap.

Now, as Germany prepares to mark 20 years since east and west were reunited as one, Berlin is finally undergoing the boom that lawmakers had envisioned when they tapped it as the nation's capital in 1991 — and that is causing worries that its "poor but sexy" image is under threat.

Many complain the increase in prosperity is eroding the very Bohemian spirit that has made it attractive, triggering an identity crisis. The students and artists who have long put Berlin at the cutting edge of trends now complain they can no longer afford the skyrocketing rents.

London, Rome and Paris have all gone through the double-edged process of good times sapping their scenes of creative vigor. Now some Berliners fear the same thing is happening to them.

After spending the 1990s ranked with the lowest gross domestic output of Germany's major cities, according to the DIW economic institute, Berlin has recorded the strongest economic growth for the past five years. A population decline has been reversed and a record 4.2 million tourists flocked here in the first six months of 2010, making it the third most popular city in Europe, after Paris and London.

"Berlin is moving and there is everything here: culture, nature, architecture, history, lifestyle — everyone can find their niche here," said Johanna Ebert, 34, manager of the newly opened Hotel4youth, situated on a strip of the land where for six decades the Berlin Wall stood.

The capital — which doubles as a city and a state — reported a more than 1.6 percent jump in overall economic output for 2004 to 2009, according to figures gathered by the DIW. That compares to a national average of barely 0.5 percent.

Changing neighborhoods
Yet there are concerns that the long-sought increase of wealth threatens those elements that have helped make the city exceptional: its chaotic feel, spontaneous clubs and abundance of open spaces and affordable rents that have nurtured a rich experimental art scene.

"Everything is being renovated, money flows in, but the individuality is flowing out," Ebert said.

Indeed, the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood where the hotel is located has undergone an 80 percent turnover of its original population since 1990. First students and artists drove out the former East German residents, only to see their own rents soar as investors bought up the crumbling prewar buildings and turned them into stylish upscale dwellings.

In the central Mitte district, people are up in arms about a threat to evict artists from a 1990s-era commune, Tacheles, and renovate the dilapidated department store they first squatted in, then rented for a nominal fee.

  1. Don't miss these Travel stories
    1. Lords of the gourd compete for Punkin Chunkin honors

      With teams using more than 100 unique apparatuses to launch globular projectiles a half-mile or more, the 27th annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin event is our pick as November’s Weird Festival of the Month.

    2. Airports, airlines work hard to return your lost items
    3. Expert: Tourist hordes threaten Sistine Chapel's art
    4. MGM Grand wants Las Vegas guests to Stay Well
    5. Report: Airlines collecting $36.1B in fees this year

"There is a danger of demolishing without thinking," said Martin Wollenberg, 45, runs the "Berlin on Bike" tour company. He recalled the former East German parliament building that was torn down in 2008 after a lengthy legal battle to try to save it.

Although tourism currently accounts for only 3 percent of Berlin's economy, the DIW credited the increasing number of visitors with helping feed other service industries.

"Tourism in Berlin is booming much stronger than in other German cities," said Karl Brenke, a researcher with the DIW.

'We can't stop the changes'
Yet the capital's unemployment rate remains one of the highest in the nation. Some 12.3 percent of the city's 3.4 million people were out of work in July, as compared with 7.6 percent nationwide.

Experts say many of newly created jobs are going to people moving to the capital, instead of Berlin natives, many of whom have are trained in Germany's more traditional sectors including hard industry and construction. It is therefore in city officials' interest to see more jobs growth in building and renovation.

The classic example of demolishing without thinking was the Berlin Wall itself, the remains of which are now the city's most sought-after tourist attraction, although only a handful of small stretches remain of the original barrier that was torn down in 1989.

The city's main Wall Memorial has seen its visitor numbers double in the past year, even as it scrambled to recreate a stretch of the original border along the Bernauer Street, securing a former East German watchtower from elsewhere in the nation to stand in the replace of an original that was torn down.

"Tourists are searching for an authenticity that is still there," said Wollenberg, a Berlin native.

He said his company's most popular tours include one retracing the path of the wall that divided the city for nearly four decades with another that follows the path of gentrification, leading tourists past a strip of newly built townhouses across the street from a dilapidated school.

"It is difficult that nothing stays as it was, but we can't stop the changes," Wollenberg said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall

loading photos...
  1. Fireworks illuminate the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Monday as part of the celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Tens of thousands lined the route where the wall once stood. (Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Giant domino pieces, many painted by schoolchildren, along a stretch of the Berlin Wall's original path. (Tobias Schwarz / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spectators of the commemoration brave rain near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Monday. (Markus Schreiber / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to the crowd at the Brandenburg Gate on Monday.. (Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Former Polish President Lech Walesa prepares to push the first giant domino block, representative of the Berlin Wall, at the Reichstag Gate on Monday. (Pawel Kopczynski / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A spectator at the Bornholmer crossing wipes away a tear during a ceremony at the Boesebrucke bridge on Bornholmer Strasse during a ceremony attended by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev and former Polish President Lech Walesa on Monday. (Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev cross the Bornholmer bridge Monday. The bridge was the border crossing between East and West Berlin in 1989. (Herbert Knosowski / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. People in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, destroy a wall representing the Berlin Wall on Monday as part of the celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall and the demise of European communism. (Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Children draw in on a preserved segment of the Berlin Wall during a commemorative event in Berlin. (Axel Schmidt / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. An actress dressed like an angel stands on the roof of a building in Berlin. Eight actors with artificial wings are part of the installation "Angels over Berlin" to symbolize the destiny of various people in Berlin before the Berlin Wall came down. (Christian Charisius / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Segments of the original Berlin Wall are displayed outside the European Parliament in Brussels during day-long celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. (Yves Herman / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton poses with students from the east German city of Oranienburg, next to one of 1,000 large plastic-foam dominoes, prior to commemorations of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, in Berlin, Germany. (Michael Sohn / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Men dressed as U.S. and Soviet soldiers wait for tourists in Berlin to take pictures with them at the former allied post Checkpoint Charlie. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A man looks at the individually painted dominos along the former route of the wall in front of landmark Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, on Sunday, Nov. 8, as part of the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Some 1,000 giant dominos, many of them decorated by schoolchildren, will be toppled during the official ceremony on Monday. (Eric Feferberg / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. People view an original, 10-panel section of the Berlin Wall erected on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles to commemorate the fall of the wall. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Miniature replicas of the Berlin Wall are displayed at the Brandenburg Gate on Sunday. (Carsten Koall / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Two tourists try to look through a crack in an original section of the inner Berlin Wall at Bernauer Strasse on Sunday. (Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A couple poses for a photo as they visit a reproduction of the Berlin Wall outside the German Embassy in Madrid on Sunday. An 890-foot life-size reproduction of the wall will surround the embassy until Nov. 16. (Susana Vera / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Two tourists attempt to climb over an original section of the wall at Bernauer Strasse on Sunday. (Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Artists paint graffiti on a wall in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, as part of the celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of Eurpoean communism. (Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A tourist tries on an East German soldier's hat as she browses communist souvenirs near Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, on Saturday, Nov. 7. (Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Bodypainting models pose in front of a recreation of part of the Berlin Wall on Saturday. The section features the famous kiss between then Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, left, and East German leader Erich Honecker during a bet at the 184th edition of the TV show "Wetten, dass..?" (Let's Make a Bet). (Jochen Luebke / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Tourists cross the old line of the Berlin Wall near Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin on Saturday. (Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. As the highlight of the $7.4 million celebration, a one-mile- long segment of the wall will stand for two days along the original route, from the Brandenburg Gate to the Potsdamer Platz. A thousand domino-like rectangles, painted by schoolchildren, will be toppled as a tribute to the collapse of the wall. (Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Visitors write "20" in the air with sparklers in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Saturday. (Dpa / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  1. Image: Fireworks illuminate the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin
    Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters
    Above: Slideshow (25) Celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall
  2. Barbed Wire At Gate
    John Waterman / Fox Photos via Getty Images
    Slideshow (22) Rise and fall of the Berlin Wall

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments