imomus (imomus) wrote,

Bubble people in end-of-history districts

Of course, just because you've moved to a new apartment in a new district where the sun shines on the balcony, the rent is low, the people passing by are a young, beautiful, cosmopolitan "creative class", there are pleasing little designy shops, open-air markets, cool galleries, comfortable bars and vegan cafes, and you're listening to Caetano Veloso's Domingo while your little black rabbit plays around with the pink curtains... well, that doesn't mean it's "the end of history". I mean, not unless "the end of history" is, like Kafka's Day of Judgement, a "court of eternal session" in which you always win your case (plus substantial damages) and can retire and live forever in fulfillment and happiness. No, your personal history will continue, just as history itself continues. You will suffer setbacks, you will eventually die, just as historical events -- stuff like the current tension between Japan and China -- will continue to surprise you with its unexpected awfulness. But while you're in this "end of history" mood (and while you're preparing an "end of history" sort of album, an album where, delightfully, nothing ever happens) it seems like a little piece of a fabulous forever, a place out of time, a place without drama. Like a Caetano Veloso record, time passes with a gentle ticking of claves and brushes, an ever-changing yet static progression of sophisticated jazz chords. No tension, no build, no conflict, no surprises. The end of history.

An e mail came in this morning from a girl in Athens, Georgia. She's called Kim. She's throwing a party to sell her drawings and sculptures. "Show some love for me," says Kim to me and 32 other addressees, "buy this art for cheap so I won't have anything else to take to Berlin." Kim will almost certainly end up in one of Berlin's "end of history districts" for creatives: Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain or Kreuzberg. Most probably Friedrichshain, though, where she'll perhaps find an apartment as pleasant as the one I'm in now: €360 a month, bills included, shared between two of us. That's £125 a month, Londoners. Bills included. No wonder nobody seems to work here: people sit at the sidewalk cafes all day, smoking and eating and talking about their "projects", showing off their cute small dogs. This area isn't quite as yuppie-ish as Prenzlauer Berg, but it's on the way. The people here are younger and more "creative", so within five years this will perhaps be on a par with Prenzlauer Berg. But for now it still retains some of its working class East German feel, particularly as you move away from Boxhagener Platz, its spiritual centre. And when Friedrichshain becomes the new Prenzlauer Berg, what will become the new Friedrichshain? That's already been decided. According to a recent edition of Tip magazine, the next hot area is Wedding, a working class wilderness north of Mitte where history has not yet been ended by design boutiques selling retro-modernist pipe-cleaner chairs.

It's easy to scoff at end of history districts, places where people think like you, where people, having climbed to the very top of Abraham Maslow's "ladder of needs", self-actualize and create rather than working to pay the rent. I don't scoff, though. To me it's such a fragile achievement that it needs to be supported. It's like a balancing act. Humans so rarely get to the top of Maslow's pyramid, and so much of their lives is spent toiling at the lower levels for a few hours of leisure, a couple of weeks of holiday, a fulfilling hobby... For me, an "end of history district" like the one I can now survey from my balcony is a thing to be cherished, a ludic and leisurely bubble that might, in some utopian future, encompass the whole world, but probably won't because there are too many assholes who want to spread war and hate and tension and drama and conflict. Or perhaps because there are just too many of us around, and we're sure to run out of resources and clash and battle with each other for what's left. Of course, it would be easy to portray the bubble people in their end of history districts as part of the problem, not the solution. They're breeding too: many of the young on Friedrichshain streets are pushing prams and showing off cute little designer kids alongside their cute little designer dogs. But I prefer to see the bubble places as part of the revolution that began in the 1960s and continues in the boom of what Richard Florida has called the "creative class". It's the acceptable face of consumer capitalism, a place where people buy organic vegetables and think about sustainability and work on trying to be nice and peaceful and playful and creative and liberal and tolerant.

Jean Snow draws my attention to the new edition of Art It magazine, which concentrates on 180 Tokyo bubble people living and creating in Tokyo's end of history districts. (Ozaki Tetsuya, editor of the RealTokyo listings website and Art It's publisher, explains the issue here.) It would be so easy to be grudgeful about the privilege of these 180 "creatives", or of the 180,000 aspiring to be like them. But I think the best attitude is just to exclaim loudly that wonderful Japanese expression for non-malicious envy: ii naaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! You're sooooooooo lucky!

A note on Florida: I've used Richard Florida's creative class idea in this entry, but if you read Florida it's all pretty much about how "more and more businesses are recognising the importance of employing members of the creative class to maximise profits". The problem with this is that it's a capitalist argument for something that goes beyond capitalism. The most "creative" city in Florida's index is San Francisco, and we saw in the 1990s how a hook-up between capitalism and creativity there ended up chasing many of the creatives out of the city by making the cost of living less and less affordable. Berlin (and to some extent "slow life" Japan) is in a very different cycle. The "creative classes" here are made possible by under-performing, slowing economies. The appalling state of the local Berlin economy is the reason the rents are so low here, and will remain low for the forseeable future. And the lack of jobs is why the "creative class" here have time to work on projects which are all about the inherent participatory value rather than any prospect of making money.

In Europe and Japan I think there's a post-capitalist creative class emerging, a class of slow life furitas like the leisurely Friedrichshainers who are my new neighbours. By staying somewhat at arm's length from capitalist dabblings, these people keep the vicious circles seen in 1990s San Francisco from happening (artists add value, added value increases rent, high rent expels artists). Partly because the local economy just won't let it happen, these people's bubble districts won't be overheating any time soon. In the comments section of yesterday's entry someone called Juan drew my attention to one European proponent of this emerging tendency, architect Herman Verkerk, whose website you can see here.
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