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Sun, Jul. 19th, 2009 11:15 am
Living in NKLN to keep PZBG alive

When you do a lot of interviews you tend to trot out rather similar answers to (inevitably) similar questions. But sometimes the phrasing of a question, a nudge or an effort -- a mental splurge further -- brings you to a new statement, a new insight which you find yourself making on the record. Those are the times it's really fun to do interviews -- as much fun as I'd imagine psychoanalysis must be.



On Friday I found myself sitting in my favourite Prenzlauer Berg cafe during a violent thunderstorm, talking to Jenna Sutela from a yet-to-be-launched Finnish design webzine called OK-DO. Just before Jenna arrived I snapped the photo above, which shows a part of the cafe sign (the word "happy") and, above it, the building's seriously bullet-pocked facade, a remnant of heavy fighting on this street between Nazis and Soviets back in 1945, and a very Berlin reminder of how even the happiest area might have been -- within living memory -- a site of strife.

Jenna's questions were nudging me towards the relationship between place and creative process, and I found myself telling her (it happens in psychoanalysis) something I didn't even quite know myself until I started saying it: that I live in Neukolln in order to incarnate the values of Prenzlauer Berg, whereas if I actually lived in Prenzlauer Berg I'd have to rebel against them.

Now, Prenzlauer Berg is what I've called an "end of history district" -- "no tension, no build, no conflict, no surprises". Here, all the problems of life seem to have been resolved, and here everybody thinks the same way. Everybody in Prenzlauer Berg is white, is creative, has excellent taste, and is reproducing. I exaggerate, of course, and the bullet scars show how recently things were different (why, even fifteen years ago this was a dangerous area, I hear). But that's the impression I get of PZBG now.

PZBG isn't Neukolln. After the interview was finished I met up with Hisae and we walked up Lychener Strasse, feeling like people shopping on holiday. There was lots to investigate: a new, super-chic stationery store, a Japanese crafts shop selling delightful handmade cloth bags from Kyoto, a shop selling sexy dresses for young pregnant mothers, the biggest organic supermarket I've ever seen, and Sasaya, Berlin's most tasteful, tasty Japanese restaurant, where we leafed through copies of Men's Fudge and Numéro Japan.



It was all great, but at the same time it was all way too bourgeois. Living here, I'd feel there were no more battles to fight, no more doors to kick open. History would stop, there'd be nothing to do but create future generations to hand one's good-taste, enlightened, healthy-living values down to.

Stuff in PZBG is stuff white people like. I'm a white person, and I like that stuff, but it all feels a bit tribal when you're there in PZBG, in the thick of it. You can't really feel individually responsible for that stuff any more. And if you're like me, you want to feel personally and individually responsible for communal and tribal values. Because you're perverse, or something. So what you do is live somewhere else, somewhere like Neukolln, and live in poverty, and only aspire vaguely to PZBG values, without ever seeing them realised around you. Because, as Kafka said, happiness consists in having an ideal and not advancing towards it.

Living in NKLN as a way to keep PZBG values alive in yourself, that's perverse! But it reminds me of how I felt when I married Shazna, my Bangladeshi wife. I felt like I could, for the first time, stop slumming, stop denying my bourgeois origins, but incarnate those values completely, precisely because Shazna didn't come from that background, and perhaps aspired towards it. If I'd married someone from my own culture and class, it would just have been robotic and tribal and idiotic. But because there was a cultural exchange going on, I could actually be proud of my Edinburgh New Town values, and since I was the only one there (in Paris, with Shazna) subscribing to them, I could feel personally responsible for them, feel like I owned them.

It's also possible that I came to share Shazna's aspirational perspective towards those values, in other words that I came to see them as something difficult-to-achieve rather than something fated and inevitable. And that's a bit like living in NKLN and only making the occasional trip up to PZBG, and working to bring little bits of PZBG to NKLN without seeing the hood swing entirely that way, and feeling the strangeness and frail glamour of PZBG, on tourist trips up there, without ever having to feel it pressing in on you from all sides like an oppressive totalising tribal system, a binding etiquette, a monoculture.

I don't want to live in PZBG because I don't want to have to rebel against it.

46CommentReply

krskrft
krskrft
Sun, Jul. 19th, 2009 09:55 am (UTC)

But, in a way, you're rebelling against it by not living there, right? The ideal is better off in your head than it is existing at a real place.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Jul. 19th, 2009 10:07 am (UTC)

Yes. As anyone who's ever conducted a long-distance affair knows, physical distance creates longing (but also a raft of problems all its own).


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oedipamaas49
oedipamaas49
Dan
Sun, Jul. 19th, 2009 10:21 am (UTC)

So essentially, you like being a colonist?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Jul. 19th, 2009 10:40 am (UTC)

I don't think "colonist" is a good word for the kind of cultural exchange I'm describing. I prefer "emigré" or "exile".

Your stretch to the word "colonist" relates to the conversation we were having yesterday about the word "condescending", and my point that there are other modes than condescension for people from different backgrounds to relate to each other. And I think people who reach for those words tend to have been educated during the PC era, when it almost seemed like no contact between different groups should happen, because all contact would necessarily evoke slavery, colonialism, or be "condescending".

There's a word for failing to relate to the class or race other, and it's segregation.


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nurenzia
nurenzia
Nurka
Sun, Jul. 19th, 2009 11:35 am (UTC)

It's like one guy from New York told me: "I don't live in Soho anymore because... too many strollers, you know" :)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Jul. 19th, 2009 11:50 am (UTC)

Tell me about it! I swear there were no children at all in this corner of NKLN when I moved in here three years ago. In fact, the person whose lease I took over had a kid, and left for PZBG in a "white flight" manoeuvre, scared out of NKLN by media reports of gang fights between North Africans and Turks in the Weserstrasse schools nearby. So I'm only here because people with kids left, effectively.

Now, though, the block is alive with the din of white childrens' voices and the squeak of pram wheels. There's a new ice cream parlour round the corner, Fraulein Frost, that throngs with kids and their bobo parents all afternoon:



Things get even more intense along the canal at the Weichselplatz. PZBG-ification is advancing. I'm not sure what happened with the gangs in the schools. Maybe the law was changed and you can bus your white kids up to PZBG schools now. Or maybe the gangs just bottled out and the prams moved in. Meanwhile the funky culture moved deeper into NKLN.

I'm not really complaining -- this happens. It's okay as long as the neighbourhood doesn't swing, ie become monocultural.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Jul. 19th, 2009 12:53 pm (UTC)

"I don't want to live in PZBG because I don't want to have to rebel against it."

I love that apparently your rebelious nature it's one of the most central, most solid bits of your personality; it's the bit you can't negotiate with, so you arrange everything around it.

It is central to the 'Momus' persona, I'd think.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Jul. 19th, 2009 01:34 pm (UTC)

Should we feel good about our values, knowing that we only have them in order to distinguish ourselves from the commonplace?

Isn't the high moral stance of green liberalism and socialism really just a rationalization of what was initially an adolescent rebellion against a system that didn't accept us?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Jul. 19th, 2009 02:23 pm (UTC)

Should we feel good about our values, knowing that we only have them in order to distinguish ourselves from the commonplace?

I think values can be both positional and substantial. In other words, you can embrace a set of values for the reasons that Bourdieu outlines in Distinction -- as a way to mark your position, separate yourself from those other people -- but also because you find inherent value in the content of the things you like. You know, liking Bach makes you look smart, but Bach is also good. So I'd dispute your "only".

Isn't the high moral stance of green liberalism and socialism really just a rationalization of what was initially an adolescent rebellion against a system that didn't accept us?

I'm going to have to object to "really just" in that sentence! People who embrace those politics clearly believe that equality and sustainability are important goals. Why try to shrink it down to the Oedipus complex when you have, you know, the future of the world in there too?


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Jul. 19th, 2009 03:06 pm (UTC)

It's important to remember that rebellion -- in other words, the part of our value system that is determined by position, by dialectics, by reaction -- is a kind of collaboration with the things rebelled against.

For instance, right now I'm wearing a t-shirt turned inside out, because I've decided t-shirts with slogans or images on them are naff. I'm listening to a very abstract piece of music by David Toop, partly to erase or complicate the courtyard ambience of Michael Jackson hits and make the soundscape in my flat a bit "classier". In both cases, my stance is a collaboration with the "naff" things I'm deliberately snubbing. They become the ground to my figure, the thing that makes it connote. I really have to thank the people I'm rebelling against for "collaborating" with me in this way! Without them, I couldn't be me.


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thomascott
thomascott
Thomas Scott
Sun, Jul. 19th, 2009 04:11 pm (UTC)

Your post pretty much echoes my own feelings on Prenzlauer Berg during a recent holiday in Berlin.
I like to visit, browse through pretty shops that I cannot afford to buy anything in and leave..

I stayed with my friend in Schoneberg, near Yorkstrasse.
This area seems impervious to the sort of PZBG gentrification that you refer to, perhaps because there is an agreeable mix of demographics in relation to ethnicity, age, income etcetera.

Areas that seem impervious to gentrification interest me because I wonder can areas like Neukolln and Friedrichshain can resist gentrification indefinitely.

Having lived in Berlin for several years, what are your thoughts on this?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Jul. 19th, 2009 09:16 pm (UTC)

Neukolln is huge, the size of a city in itself, so there's no way the whole thing is ever going to gentrify. There'll be little pockets here and there.

Friedrichshain, on the other hand, is already fucked, I would humbly submit.

I know nothing of the Yorkstrasse area. It's one of those "between" districts that you fly over on the elevated train.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Jul. 19th, 2009 05:09 pm (UTC)
Utopia

Living here, I'd feel there were no more battles to fight, no more doors to kick open.

Dada, Situationist International, Fluxus; they all appear to have at their heart an idea of a utopia. Did they really want this? Does anyone ever really want the realization of a utopia?

I'm using cultural examples (those who fought their battles against State ideology via the cultural branch of it; or cultural ideological State apparatus to quote Althusser) but I'm sure examples could be brought from other areas.

Where does the idea of Utopias come into your discussion Momus? And what are your thoughts on it?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Jul. 19th, 2009 09:26 pm (UTC)
Re: Utopia

Dada, Situationist International, Fluxus; they all appear to have at their heart an idea of a utopia.

I'm not sure that they do, you know. I think it's really the designers and architects who are the utopians. Artists are too skeptical of all forms of planning. They're irrational and pessimistic. They don't believe in the future, they believe in the unconscious.

I don't think I believe in utopia either. If I somehow ended up in one, I'd be dropping banana skins, scattering thumb tacks and sticking chewing gum on all surfaces.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Jul. 19th, 2009 05:51 pm (UTC)

Plus the fact you cant afford to live in PZBG in the first place... why portray it as a choice?


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pulled-up.blogspot.com
pulled-up.blogspot.com
Sun, Jul. 19th, 2009 07:15 pm (UTC)

The edges of Prenzlauerberg where it meets Wedding, up between Voltastrasse U and the Mauerpark are just as cheap, often cheaper than where Nick lives right now. I actually think the rents are going down slightly as people move across to Neukolln.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Jul. 19th, 2009 11:57 pm (UTC)
But Momus wants to live in that famous commune called, er, Tokyo..

In truth - get outta London, New York, Paris, Tokyo. Yes, even Berlin. Go somewhere the scenes aren't scenes or post-scenes and there are no magazines lighting the way ahead. There are many doors to kick open, and they take more energy than trying to live near money close enough to share its lower retail items.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Jul. 20th, 2009 03:45 am (UTC)

I really liked this post. To me it was somehow... poignant, I guess? One's sense of self can be pretty fragile, teetering as it does from neighborhood to neighborhood. But to get on with my job of being a snarky pseudonymous commenter: Does it seem rather 20th century to you, this kind of rebellion reflex? I wonder if it would be typical for a Generation Yer to approach their living space like this, as something to stand out against as a matter of course.

-Jace


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theartoflamb
theartoflamb
josewilliamvigers
Tue, Jul. 21st, 2009 07:10 pm (UTC)

for me, nkln is the equivalent of what you describe PZBG to be. If you really want battles to fight and poverty, live in wedding ;p

although this comes from a man about to make the exchange from wedding to nkln.

so there you go

†††


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wowmoney
wowmoney
Fri, Jul. 24th, 2009 03:09 am (UTC)
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