Bicultural Urbanite Luke Gentri-fried: Berlin Neighbourhood Taxonomies

The lovely location of my first-ever temp room in Mitte.
The lovely location of my first-ever temp room in Mitte. | © Luke Troynar

Throughout the Berlin phase of my life, I’ve always thought of myself as a Mitte/Prenzlauer Berg boy. But what does subscribing to this pretension mean exactly? While I’ve never really had a clear concept in my mind, it somehow always felt integral to my so-called Berlin identity. Recently, however, things have become more confused.

You see in Germany’s capital, each of the popular central districts has its own distinct character. There’s Neukölln, by now an insular hipster village of English-speaking expats ensconced within a vibrant Turkish community—a rough-cum-industrial-chic neighbourhood teeming with fresh-faced, club-stamped arrivals and tattooed German creatives. There’s Kreuzberg, a similar locale of earlier expat settlers with a scruffier hippy-artsy vibe and extra lashings of graffiti. There’s Friedrichshain, home to the kitschy East German hairdo—a spiky purple and/or blue aberration—but less cohesive in its scattered pockets of contrasting cliques including a peculiar brand of German steampunk dog-walkers on Frankfurter Allee.           

Endearing middle ground between the extremes                                                                    

And then there’s Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, two neighbouring districts that are arguably different from one another but which, in my mind at least, share a great deal of overlap. Still undeniably trendy but less painfully hip than Neukölln, one noticeable difference about Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg is that the streets are much cleaner and wider. Detractors of this area might call it a little bit snobbish, but I see it more as an endearing middle ground between the extremes of some of Berlin’s hammier stereotypes. It’s also made up of an agreeable mix of expats of all origins and cultures, genuine Berlin originals with their genuine Berlin-original teenage spawn, and younger German couples from all over the country with their Berlin-original dogs.

The lovely location of my first-ever temp room in Mitte (2). The lovely location of my first-ever temp room in Mitte (2). | © Luke Troynar My fondness for this serene area may also have something to do with the several memorable weeks I spent in an especially charming nook of Mitte when I first arrived. The location was to die for. Positioned right on the corner of Weinmeisterstrasse and Alte-Schönhauserstrasse, I’d wake up each day and walk out into one of the most aesthetically pleasing backdrops of Berlin: gorgeously ornate facades, quintessentially European cobblestone streets, an endless supply of cafes, art galleries, and elegant boutiques.

An emotional transition

These days I wake up and walk out into a different kind of lovely—the winding canal that officially separates Neukölln (my side) from Kreuzberg. As of several months, this is my new hood. And I really shouldn’t complain, right? Considering the flat crisis culminating around me as I write this, I really, really shouldn’t; many people would kill to have my lease. But extracting myself from my comfortable, cosy Prenzlauer Berg existence to embrace a new Neukölln adventure has been an emotional transition of pros and cons.

Right on the corner of my new hood in Nekölln. Right on the corner of my new hood in Nekölln. | © Luke Troynar The biggest advantage of suddenly finding myself inside this strange late-capitalist compound amongst an army of Millennial clones who all look disturbingly just like me is that spontaneous socialising has become ridiculously easy. Since the vast majority of my friends now live just around the corner, gone are the days of stubbornly stewing alone at home in Prenzlauer Berg, waiting in vain for the People of the Republic of Neukölln to stray beyond the borders of their grounds and magnanimously grace me with their presence.

A typical Neukölln hipster coffee hangout. A typical Neukölln hipster coffee hangout. | © Luke Troynar But there’s a certain sting to finally ending up in Expat Republic, and it has something to do with the unnerving number of fellow Aussies I’m now faced with on a daily basis. To give you an idea of how extreme this situation has become, it’s not uncommon for me to wander several blocks of carefully curated Neukölln coffee houses and craft brewery bars and hear nothing but the unmistakable twang of Australians conversationally fawning over one another. On some days I might as well be back in North Fitzroy.

One of those Australians

Of course, I am one of those Australians. And obviously I was once a Berlin noob too, over-excitedly twanging away about hitting the clubs and necking Club Mate. But therein lies the salt in the wound, for there’s nothing like coming face to face with a new batch of your own in Berlin to trigger a bout of national self-loathing, especially when the controversy over the expat infiltration has reached the boiling point of today. It’s all I can do to restrain myself from becoming the very thing I once despised—the crabby seasoned expat with a dubious sense of entitlement, forever grumbling about the newcomers ruining the way things ‘used to be’.
 
In all fairness, things have changed a lot over the years. For one thing, I came here as a type of Aussie expat that has all but become extinct. I harboured zero preconceptions of the ‘Berlin experience’ and it was entirely by accident I ended up living here at all and not in London as planned. These days, coming over from Melbourne for the much-touted ‘experience’ has become such a Millennial cliché that I avoid mentioning my living here at all during visits home.
 
I seem to have reached the bittersweet feeling of belonging in my home away from home. And the perturbing clash of sentiments is all mixed up with the thorny issue of how Berlin is changing because of people just like me—more rapidly by the year, if rent prices are anything to go by. During the fleeting moments I allow myself to revel in my new Neukölln life and give a nod of recognition to my fellow track pants-wearing Melbournians out on Weserstrasse, it’s painfully clear that gentrification has gentri-fried me proper. Far from rare but certainly well done, I can only hope I’m still palatable.