Monday, June 11, 2018

“These humans are extras.”: Walking the Streets of Kreuzberg, on streets art and ghosts in Berlin

We just didn't bring enough fetish gear to get into the KitKat Club. 

There are angels over the streets of Berlin. 

Alessandra posted a photo of myself and marc and caption: “ - such a great conversation: urban gardening, gentrification, marxism, in-fighting, religion, sex-clubs, etc... Looking forward to more topics and exchange to come.”

She also posted these photos from our romp through the city, with the translation:

“If I can't smoke, it's not my revolution
Too much anger, too little rage 
[my translation] [I<3 Berlin bar toilets].”
Image result for reichstag burned
Image result for reichstag burned
The Reichstag fire of 1933. 
Berlin 2018

The streets of Berlin have always thrilled me.  Full of light and color, memories and ghosts, they feel alive as any place I have ever been.

I had seen themBerlin on two previous occasions, in August of 1991 and 2009. Each time, the streets felt different.  They felt wide open in 1991, rebuilt in 2009, and under threat in 2018.

A week before I arrived, the people of Kreuzberg, the Turkish corner of town, full of punks and Turks, held a demonstration called “Noise Against Google.” Cities all over the world are facing the same challenge: can they beat back the tides of identical details, of google, Starbucks, and monoculture and thrive.  Berlin faces the same challenge.

In the airport bar at JFK, a man by me and ordered a tequila and then another.  Wearing all black and tattoos over his fingers, he asked if he had time for another drink and a food order before making his flight.  Sure about the drink, maybe not enough time for the food order, I replied.  Where are you going he asked me.


Really. I live there.

What are you doing there?

Trying to find Bowie’s Berlin.  Do you think I can find it?  Does it still exists?

Of course it does.

He wrote down the names of a few clubs and places to get high.
Go to Kater Blau and Sisyphus, like the myth.
But don’t look too normal. No jeans.
These are bondage clubs.

But if everyone tries not to look normal, then not looking normal looks normal. 
Its the same thing.

Go to café two place, across from mama’s bar.  It’s a Turkish place.
They will sell you whatever you need there.

And then go down to the river. 
Its where everyone is hanging out in the summer.
You can drink there.
Its legal.

A few days later, I arrived at my hotel, Die Fabrik, Baxpax Hotel, at Schlesische Straße 18, in Kreuzberg, greeted by graffiti, people sitting in cafes, drinking cheap beer from the nearby bodegas.

I love the trains and train stations in Berlin.  But this time the Berlin Hbf feels like a shopping mall, just like all city train stations.

Be warned, Marc noted on the phone earlier, its not easy to navigate, especially if you are short. Those signs are pretty high.

He was right.  I couldn’t read a thing.

So I circled the station as I always do in new cities, trying to get my bearings, figuring out how to find my way through the labyrinth.

Walking from the subway, new buildings are going up everywhere, bulldozers razing street murals, just like Hong Kong.

My friend Marc was there to greet me.  We’d last seen each other at the COP21 in Paris in 2015 and his father’s funeral the subsequent year.

Marc is the editor of one of my favorite journals ever, the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, as well as a student of the messy nuances of social movements and the art people use to communicate about them.  We laughed for hours in Paris.  And did the same in Berlin.  My friend Allesandra, who JC introduced me to at 169 Bar in Chinatown years ago, dropped us a message saying she was around.  We should all get a beer.  The evening was planned.

The amiable desk clerk at Die Fabrik reminded me of a gentleman in the same role who used to greet my dad at the Chelsea Hotel, back in the day. In between old maps of Berlin, a sign in the lobby declared:

“Blessed are the weird people,
The poets and misfits
The artists
The writers
The dreamers
The outsiders
For they force us to see the world

The beat spirit is everywhere in Kreuzberg.

But it’s position is a precarious one.

Marc took me out into the Berlin sunshine to have a beer on the corner, telling me about his writing and drawings, his research on the ghost dance and the way he was trying to write about it.

I thought of a poem Art gave me years ago in San Francisco.   Doomed to die in a hospice, he moved out weeks later . . . . "All those 'what if's' were sucking the life out of me."  A Catholic priest, called himself a "healing worker", he moved to San Francisco from New York in 1982 and died in 1994 after that first short interview.  The next summer I showed his poem to Cleve Jones during a long interview.




WAS          FOR SOME





"Yea, I would have it be frightening too.  I talk about it (the Ghost Dance) a lot.  I hope that it's not a complete rehearsal.  I don't think that it is," Cleve Jones replied when I showed him the poem in 1995.

Civilizations crumble and new ones are born, but the memories of old struggles linger.   That’s what I sense walking the streets of Berlin, feeling those old ghosts, of Checkpoint Charlie, walls rising and crumbling, the massacres and towering infernos which once consumed this place.

There are angels in the streets of Berlin, Wim Wenders and Peter Handke. reminded us all those years ago in Wings of Desire, my favorite movie about Berlin.
·         When the child was a child
it walked with its arms swinging,
wanted the brook to be a river,
the river to be a torrent,
and this puddle to be the sea.
When the child was a child,
it didn’t know that it was a child,
to it, everything had a soul,
and all souls were one.
When the child was a child,
it had no opinion about anything,
had no habits,
it often sat cross-legged,
took off running,
had a cowlick in its hair,
and made no faces when photographed.

When the child was a child,
It was the time for these questions:
Why am I me, and why not you?
Why am I here, and why not there?
When did time begin, and where does space end?
Is life under the sun not just a dream?
Is what I see and hear and smell
not just the reflection of a world before the world?
Is there really such a thing as evil, and people
who really are the Bad Guys?
How can it be that the I, who I am,
didn’t exist before I came to be,
and that, someday, the I who I am,
will no longer be who I am?

·         Lied Vom Kindsein (Song of Childhood) – Peter Handke.

Of course, Columbo, or Peter Falk has the best lines.

To smoke, and have coffee - and if you do it together, it's fantastic.
What a dear face! Interesting. What a nostril. A dramatic nostril. These people are extras. Extra people. Extras are so patient. They just sit. Extras. These humans are extras. Extra humans.

I always feel them walking these streets.

Marc and I stroll, stepping into a few bookstores, taking snap shots and horsing around,
“Kill all straight men, starting with yourself,” declares one.

Look, someone leaves mattresses out with messages for the streets. 

“Too expensive,” bemoans a woman in a mural, as we are passing through the majestic Garlitzer Park.  A whiff of pot passed across my face.
“Pot, hash,” a man whispered, murals everywhere, kinderbauerhof, a kids play space / park to the right.

People sit taking in the sunshine.

“Robby could not believe that public space could be like this,” notes Marc, referring to his twin brother.

“the only good idea is procrastination,” notes another marker.

We meet Alessandra at Prinzessinnen Garten at 7 PM.

She shows us the garden plots and bike repair station inside the garden and we drank a beer.

The neighborhood is changing, she explains.
Just like Brooklyn. 

Cities around the world are going through the same challenge, asking the same questions about sustainability. 

Green spaces like this could be the future of cities.

This garden is great. Its part of the solution, a green space that brings people inside, creating hubs of energy, paradoxically creating conditions that help increase property values, displacing those who have supported the place.  It’s a pattern that takes place around the world, from Berlin to East Village Brooklyn.

The garden has just gotten a 99-year lease.

A group of activists is sitting discussing what the garden can be and how it can best sustain itself and the neighborhood over the next hundred years.

Its time for me to leave notes Alessandra.

She is moving to a neighborhood across the city.

Walking, we sit at another bar at a social center.

Alessandra and Marc talk about the organizers who bickered over what the garden was going to be. It always comes down to money and power.

“All these alternative scenes fight each,” laments Alessandra.  “…even here in one of the most vital scenes in Europe, people become dogmatic.”   She gives an example of the annual gay pride parade.   For many years, Krezberg had a gay pride parade that everyone joined.  We felt like we were all supporting difference.  Then one group after another split off and started their own parades.  They had a fight over a fight over police and the flag.   And more marches got planned.  It was supposed to be about supporting difference. But everything had a new march. We could each have one. But it wasn’t supporting each other  anymore, we were celebrating identity. It took the joy our of it.

We are undermining each other, spending more time fighting each other.

There was a demo every week.  Some days I just wanted to get home. 

Is it self service or a relationship?  Is there room for compromise or an identity?

Is there still room for a big broad left imagination?

Should we go to KitKat Club?
Not on Monday, notes Alessandra.

Walking to the river, Alessandra, regales us with stories of her adventures at the Kit Kat Club, 
public sex and fetish gear.
Kids are hanging out in the summer night. And we talk late into the night.

The next day, my friend Steve visits.

“Its just like the east village here,” he smiles, glancing at the punks and graffiti.

 We wander over to the Reischtag.  The big gate reminds me of the angels and demons, the fire of 27 February 1933 that Hitler used to justify his power grab, invading armies battling over the fate over the fate of the city, the building crumbling and rising and bombed and rising again. 

We walk, looking at government buildings. 

The first time I was here the spaces around here felt aered in in flux.  Men were selling old soviet garb.  The next time, we stopped at a giant student bookstore, just next door.  And this time, it feels full of tourists and a building boom. 

Its amazing that this place is holding Europe together, observes Steve.

The Germans are a mature people, he theorizes. They have seen what happens when government makes bad decisions or falls pray to the lesser angels of their nature. So now they take decision making seriously. American lacks that maturity, he concludes.  Its just about ourselves, just about greed.

Its not quite the Kit Kat Club, but the
Clarchens Ballhouse, where we wandered after dinner, is just right.
People are sitting outside eating traditional German food; inside the old ballhouse they are dancing.

Its great to see people here.

Steve and I make our way back to Kreuzberg.

After the five k walk here, the subway home is a relief.

We sit in Krezberg drinking the final beer of the day, reflecing on our changed lives.  Berlin is a place to stay out, he smiles looking at the red lights in the bar, the Clash playing.

I remember riding back from Barbes with you in the snow. New York was great, he laments.
Europe is not always easy.  Neither is the US, which seems unable to grasp the common sense supports, Europe provides of citizens, free schools, healthcare, vacations, and general livability. Its just not a question notes Steve.   The life is better here, even if you can’t always fit in.

We have coffee the next day in the sun and I make my way back to catch my flight. I walk past the graffiti and street art for the train to the bus to the plane to the tram to the subway, to make my way all that way back home.

Visiting Berlin is like visiting an old friend. Are you  doing well, you ask when you visit? 
The Nazis and Communists are outg  But google is not bar behind, a different threat erasing difference, homogenizing the neighborhoods. Can I say I found Bowie’s Berlin – probably not. But the beer on the river still felt special, the graffiti still felt compelling, the stories of this space still thrilling.   Keep Austin Weird, the t shirts declare.  Keep Google out of Berlin.

Day two in Berlin. 

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