So I’m sitting in a cafe in Kreuzberg, Berlin. My chair is a tastefully salvaged scoop of 1970s furniture. I’m surrounded by antique cabinets and tasselled lamps, and artfully distressed shelves stacked with paperbacks and vinyl. A breakfast special is decked with artisan cheeses, Greek yoghurt, an organic egg and impeccably sourced coffee. The staff member serving it looks like he just got out of bed. And there are beards. Lots of beards.
The details are delicious. I want to love them. But something niggles. There’s nothing random about the room, no sense of layers accrued or added over time. Everything feels… well, curated.
At first, I thought I’d walked into one of those stumble-upon gems that has you reaching for the notepad. A couple of doors down, however, there’s another cafe just like it. Walk further — walk anywhere in eastern Kreuzberg — and there are others just like that. Sure, they’ll have different books, fit-outs and menus. But it feels like the same space, recurring over and over again.
Several decades ago, Kreuzberg was an isolated quarter of West Berlin. Its bohemian and Turkish immigrant communities have witnessed radical gentrification, however — today, it’s best known as Europe’s hipster heartland. Ryanair and EasyJet flights parachute peeps and partygoers in for quick fixes of its bars, galleries and basement clubs.
Nearby, the northern reaches of Neukölln remain grittier, but are clearly on the same journey. Everywhere you go, there are skinny jeans, ironic tees, courier bags, Maori tattoos and great big bushes of late-Victorian beard. Every cafe is eclectic. Every new business feels like Berlin trying to out-Berlin itself.
OK, I’m exaggerating — but only slightly. Neukölln’s metamorphosis seems unstoppable, but not everyone has embraced this hipster utopia. A few years back, black-and-white posters began cropping up around the neighbourhood, complaining that the very people who’d migrated here in search of authenticity were driving up rents for locals that had lived there for decades. Artists, students and wheelie-case weekend breakers (like myself) were having an adverse effect too. ‘Be creative and active against gentrification,’ read one of the posters, as reported in Der Spiegel.
Of course, the hipster backlash is nothing new. Think of London’s Shoreditch, New York’s Williamsburg, or Copenhagen’s Nørrebro. All of them, like Kreuzberg, have become near parodies of themselves. What’s going on in this cafe is different, though. For the first time in Berlin, I’m feeling… er, bored. Sitting here, listing off the handcrafted details conspiring together to create this ‘unique’ atmosphere make me realise it’s not unique at all. It’s uniform. I’m not just sensing a saturation point; I’m feeling actively annoyed.
Kreuzberg has some awesome bars, clubs, galleries and cafes. But its architecture is monotonous — street ‘artists’ have tagged it to within an inch of its life, and honestly, how many brunches does one neighbourhood need? It’s neighbour, northern Neukölln, feels fresher and edgier, but the vibe is basically the same. It’s like a college campus that has suddenly blossomed with, and been overrun by, business start-ups.
After a couple of days, I find myself craving something I never thought possible in Berlin: normality. I want a bar that’s been there forever, serving the same stinking beer. I wanted a big, fat bratwurst. I want the polished pop culture of The Kennedys museum, next to the bog-standard Brandenburg Gate. I want the is-as-it-is oomph of the Stasi Museum (on my last visit, the educational video was narrated by Roger Moore).
And yes, it’s easy to do those things, too. The joy of travel lies in the fact that if you don’t like a cafe, or a neighbourhood, you can just up and leave. I’ve got some great memories of Kreuzberg. But when everywhere is so self-consciously special, how can anywhere be? I’m moving on. I hope Kreuzberg does too.
Published in the September 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)