Thirty years after the Cold War barrier was removed, Dr João Florêncio, a lecturer at the University of Exeter, and Ben Miller, a writer and researcher, consider the origins of the ‘legend of Berlin’ and how the newly undivided city provided queer folk spaces to explore sex, intimacy and belonging.
In March of 1990, soon after the Berlin Wall fell and a few months before he would die of an AIDS-related illness, gay communist writer Ronald M. Schernikau gave a speech at the last conference of East German writers. “On November 9, 1989,” he said, “the counterrevolution won… I do not think that it will be possible to write books in the future without realising this.”
The legend of Berlin was born with the fall of the Wall in 1989. There was the summer of love, the subcultures blossoming in abandoned buildings, the techno parties in warehouses in the center of the city. Cash poured in from other parts of the country as the Federal Republic of Germany forged Berlin into the capital of the newly-unified state, worthy of a leading place in the new, liberal Europe. Unlike other Western capitals, Berlin was affordable and in the making, and that sense of possibility drove subcultures into the city where they found room to blossom in properties evacuated by refugees from the fall in living standards in the former East.
Yet, the feelings of freedom and optimism that are today still associated with the fall of the Wall were also the product of the new neoliberal economic and political system that would rationalise our lives and bodies and culminate in the privatisation and gentrification of our cities, economies, minds, pleasures, and experiences. In many districts of the former East Berlin — like Prenzlauer Berg, where rental prices are now among the highest in the city — apartments had been abandoned by Easterners moving West. With six million people having moved from the East to the West between 1989 and 2017, they were replaced in the heart of Berlin by West Germans and a creative class of international migrants, who are now themselves being threatened by a wave of startup capital and property speculation.
Queer subcultures took off in the city, which has always had a reputation as a wide-open town, someplace where sexual minorities could make a home. In the 1970s, the island of West Berlin had been one of the hotspots of the German gay liberation movement, which rediscovered the forgotten heroes of Weimar-era homosexual emancipation. In Schöneberg, which even before the Nazi era had been a centre for gay and lesbian bars and trans and drag clubs, a budding leather and fetish bar scene blossomed. In the neighborhoods of Kreuzberg and Neukölln, which had been poorly situated and undesirable in the divided city and been home to migrants and punks, gay bars moved in and rents began to rise – first slowly, then rapidly.
The city began to see subculture as its brand: with its former mayor, Klaus Wowereit, openly gay, calling Berlin “poor, but sexy.” As a result, in the former East, techno slowly became institutionalised: the roving anarchist fetish Snax parties having become Berghain, the world-renowned techno club which now has the same tax status as an opera house; the illegally-occupied club about:blank having worked with city representatives to legalise and regularise its operations.
While rising rents are the main threat to Berlin’s subcultures, sometimes the limits and priorities of institutionalised gay and lesbian politics have been pressing against, even abrogating, complicated queer sex cultures. In Tempelhof-Schöneberg, a district council controlled by the Greens (which have heavy support from middle-class gay and lesbian people and focus on ‘LGBT issues’ as part of their ecological social-liberalism) has been aggressively enforcing building code regulations against long-standing working-class gay bars after a sauna with unlicensed renovations caught fire in 2017. Darkrooms have closed, bars have closed, because a staircase is a tad too narrow or a backroom totally unlit. Some of these spaces have been able to negotiate with their landlords to make the required adjustments, some have not. Building codes exist for a reason: three people died in that 2017 fire. Critics have said, however, that the current level of enforcement is part of a social cleansing of the neighborhood: out with the dirty bars, in with well-appointed gay cafes and upscale boutiques.
The changes that have been happening in Berlin over the last three decades are a stark reminder of the limits of a social and economic model that has promised freedom and liberation but not without a hefty cost — one which, just like in other cities around the world, is being paid by queers, migrants, and the working classes. And yet, while gentrification seems to have already completely taken over and reformed metropolitan areas like New York, London, or San Francisco, all of which once left their mark on Western subcultural histories, Berlin, as always late to the party but making an impact when it arrives, is organising. Politicians have been forced to cap rents and a ballot initiative currently making its way through the convoluted halls of power is promising to re-socialise more than 200,000 units of housing. Berliners are optimistic, at least temporarily, that the city can be saved, unlike the hopeless gallows humor one often hears from residents of New York, London, or San Francisco.
In that same speech in 1989, Schernikau said, “the only thing that interests me is to be able to praise something. I hate negation.” Maybe the political organisation against property speculation and urban gentrification in Berlin will prove ineffectual or merely delay a process that some see as unavoidable. Or maybe it will become a case study in how the inhabitants of a city brought back to life by a most diverse group of people from the margins can still come together not to negate the status-quo but to work affirmatively and collectively towards an alternative.
Alongside musician Liam Byrne, Dr Joao Florencio and Ben Miller will be drawing on this and more at their Being Human festival 2019 event ‘Gay Sex and the Disappearing City’. The performance will explore the ways in which our cities, such as Berlin, have provided queer folk spaces to explore sex, intimacy and belonging. Covering a wide range of topics that impact the LGBTQ+ community, it will also look at opportunities for political organising, and how gentrification, increasing living costs, and property speculation are endangering those spaces and, consequently, limiting our opportunities to experiment with queer forms of sociability and world-making.