The mayor of Berlin is sitting in his office, enjoying a few moments of quiet before launching into a busy day. After a dozen years governing one of the world’s most important capitals, Klaus Wowereit’s calm might disguise how groundbreaking it was for him to be elected to this post.
Wowereit is the city’s first openly gay mayor. He publicly came out after his nomination in 2001, declaring,“Ich bin schwul, und das ist auch gut so.” (“I’m gay, and that is absolutely fine.”) His 2001 victory made Berlin one of only three major European cities with an openly gay mayor, and he has also proven to be one of the city’s most beloved officials, winning re-election in 2006 and again in 2011.
Since the beginning of his political service, Wowereit has watched the city expand as an international hub of business, tourism and cultural events. Just six years ago, Wowereit described his city as“poor, but sexy.”My recent visit confirmed that the sexy part still rings true, but the artistry and vibrancy of its cultural scene make it seem anything but poor.
The city has achieved a new maturity during its evolution since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The once hip Mitte neighborhood is now bourgeois — dotted with high-end hotels, shopping, and dining. Kreuzberg, lined with cafes and boutiques, has emerged as Berlin’s Madison Avenue, while the artsy crowd has been pushed to the edge of Potsdamer Straße. A tour of Wowereit’s favorite bars and restaurants lead one through the Schöneberg district around Nollendorfplatz. “It is still very lively and creative with new places popping up regularly,” Wowereit says of the area, which has served as a haven for gays and lesbians since the 1920s.
Berlin has clearly undergone a renaissance — recently capturing the spot as Europe’s third-most-visited European city (knocking Rome down a notch to fourth). Wowereit brags that the city had nearly 25 million overnight stays last year, up 7 million from 20 years ago. He also notes, with pride, that Berlin has grown into a top destination particularly for gay travel, promoting gay events and Pride celebrations in the heart of the culturally colorful city.
Leaving Wowereit to attend matters of governing, I moved on to explore the eclectic city, and to check in with a couple of transplants who traded Brooklyn for Berlin. A few years ago, Jeff Sfire left New York City, headed to Berlin to DJ, and never left. His partner, Kevin Avery, followed suit, leaving his position as chef at the buzzy Williamsburg eatery Diner. Soon, Avery had parlayed his time cooking for hungry hipsters into his own restaurant, Little Otik, on a quiet street in Kreuzberg.
“We wanted to make the restaurant into a little country house,” said Avery of his eatery, now a local hot spot. Little Otik represents much of what’s hot in food philosophy — supporting local farmers to fit a seasonal menu that changes daily. He even sources his mushrooms from nearby Poland.
When I dined there, the menu du jour started with homemade brown sugar and sweet paprika–roasted almonds, and proceeded to a salad composed of endive, Jerusalem artichokes, fennel and clementines. Next came a hand-rolled pici pasta and ricotta cheese with butternut squash and kale. Side dishes included the intriguing potatoes with lavender, and a dessert assortment spanned from bay leaf pot de crème to apple cheddar tarte tatin. With food like this, I might never leave either.
From culinary creativity, I moved on to a different kind of culture, specifically the East Side Gallery (eastsidegallery.com): an art space bound to impress even the most critical connoisseurs. The murals here draw heavily on popular culture, and there is a recurring theme of tolerance running through the works. But perhaps their most extraordinary attribute is that they are painted on the Berlin Wall, which famously divided the city for nearly thirty years.
Arguably the East Side Gallery’s most famous mural, “The Kiss of Death” depicts Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev kissing the president of East Germany, Erich Honecker.
Collection of contemporary art (sammlung- boros.de), which is located in a World War II bunker. The pieces range from modern paintings to photographs and installations. Christian Boros’s private collection boasts 600 works of art, and what’s on display rotates twice per year. Showing these beautiful modern works in an old bunker seems like a metaphor for the Berlin itself: It’s focused on the future, though anchored in a tragic past.
This dialogue between past and future is an undercurrent that runs throughout the city, making a walk through Berlin a bit like time traveling. The ominous-looking Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (the Holocaust memorial; holocaust-mahnmal.de) stands in the city center, asking all who pass to pause and pay respect. The outdoor monument is comprised of cement blocks, representing the train cars that transported thousands of victims to the work camps. Across the street in a city park, the gays and lesbians who were killed by the Third Reich have their own dedicated tribute: another cement structure with a peephole through which one can view a continual stream of black-and-white film clips of homosexuals expressing affection.
A few steps away, there stands a grander monument to the past: The Brandenberg Gate. Though first rebuilt in the late 18th century as a symbol of triumph, it has gone on to be associated with a number of historic events. When President John F. Kennedy visited Berlin
in 1963 to give his famous“Ich bin ein Berlinner” speech, the Soviets hung red banners meant to hide the view through the gate towards the east. President Ronald Reagan also famously stood at the gate and said,“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
When the Berlin Wall finally did fall in 1989, the Gate was opened, unifying the two halves of the city. Though majestic during the day, it is best viewed in the evening when it is dramatically illuminated.
When it comes to Berlin it is helpful to remember that before the city came under Nazi control, it was a vibrant place that attracted all manner of outsiders to its streets (think of the characters of Cabaret). Today, Berlin again opens its arms to those seeking diversity and tolerance, and it is often referred to as one of Europe’s“gay capitals.”
One of the most anticipated events of the year is Gay Pride (out-in-berlin.com/ csdevents), which is scheduled in 2013 from June 15–June 22. The main event, the Berlin Gay Pride Parade, is held on “Christopher Street Day” — a tribute to the New York City location of the historical Stonewall riots that proved such a catalyst for the gay rights movement.
The week before the Berlin Gay Pride Parade, the city hosts Lesbisch-Schwules Stadtfest (Lesbian and Gay Festival), where guests can attend musical performances, art exhibitions, learn about cultural clubs and social programs, eat, drink, and shop. An estimated 450,000 are expected to attend this year.
If you’re considering visiting Berlin during Pride season, “Get ready,” suggests mayor Wowereitz,“for a city with many faces and a very special atmosphere — the characteristic mix of tolerance, open-mindedness, and cultural diversity that makes today’s Berlin so unique.” And the city is waiting to say Willkommen! with open arms.