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Letters From Berlin

America on the Spree

Inspired by the local architecture and the beer-swilling, chain-smoking new parents, our man in Berlin discovers equal parts Chicago and New York in Germany’s largest city.

Poster part of the Anton Stankowski Grand Retrospective

Berlin may combine the political power of Washington and the cultural prowess of New York, but it feels closest in spirit to America’s Second City. Both are cities of neighborhoods, where people speak first of living in Lincoln Park or Prenzlauer Berg, and often a distant second as Berliners or Chicagoans. Both cities exploded in size during the second half of the 19th century. And both are cities of immigrants; after the Thirty Years’ War killed off a third of Berlin’s population, Frederick William I invited Dutch, Jews, and French Huguenots to town, many of whom eventually became leading cultural figures. Theodor Fontane, meet Saul Bellow.

Both cities reached their cultural apogee in the early 20th century, when they embraced the new in art and architecture to become international cultural centers. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe may have moved to Chicago for a job, but he stayed because, like in Berlin, he could build whatever he wanted. Around the world, 1920s Berlin and Chicago stood for the furious highs and lows of modern life, the clash of Taylorist order and anarchic street life. Cops and robbers, gangsters and molls, strivers and con artists, dirt and poverty and industry—Augie March and Berlin Alexanderplatz could switch settings with minimal editing. “Away with Athens on the Spree, now we have Chicago on the Spree,” said Prussian industrialist and politician Walther Rathenau, not long before his 1922 assassination.

I’ve never gotten used to drinking around young children; it’s a distinctly puritan, and certainly American, aversion.

One could just as easily call Chicago a Berlin on Lake Michigan. So many Germans moved there during the Great Migration that it once had more newspapers in German than English. They didn’t leave much behind them in Europe, even their prejudices. During World War II, my grandfather, an FBI agent, kept tabs on accused immigrant subversives out of the Chicago field office. More than once, he went to check out a rumor about a supposed Nazi sympathizer; the accused would invariably charge the snitch, a Pole (or Czech or Serb or what you), with communist ties. From a neighbor across the street he’d learn that the two men had been fighting for years about an overgrown hedgerow.

Having lived in both cities, though, what strikes me most is the rush to enjoy the ever-fleeting summer before a long, brutal winter arrives; already, in early September, the leaves in Berlin are beginning to turn. In many cities, the seasons are an inconvenience; in Chicago and Berlin, they shape every part of daily life. In the summer Chicago turns its shoreline into a beachfront to rival Santa Monica; in Berlin every empty patch of land along the Spree, the city’s main river, is filled with sand, lounge chairs, and margarita-bearing waiters. Every imaginable space turns into a bar; a hair salon on our block puts out a few tables and chairs and sells beer and coffee to waiting customers. In the winter, Chicagoans and Berliners pick a local saloon and hibernate over drinks for an evening; bar hopping is inadvisable in -10 degree weather.


A few weeks ago, Bild, the city’s leading tabloid, reported the results of a study naming Berlin the most stressful city in Germany. I don’t know who participated in the study, but this must be news to most people here. If I didn’t actually work with Berliners, I’d swear no Berliner actually works. Smoking over a cup of coffee or a glass of beer is a sacred right in Berlin, to be practiced whenever and for however long the urge strikes. Month-long August vacations begin in mid-July and stretch into early September. The country has its national elections on Sept. 27, but until last week campaign signs were nowhere to be seen. When I asked a local politico where they were, he said not to worry, that campaigns never get started until after everyone, including the candidates, get back from August vacation.

If slow-sipping a beer is a sacrament, then beer gardens are temples. I live a few blocks from one of the city’s largest and oldest, the Prater. Between a small restaurant and an outdoor bar sprawl hundreds of long tables, filled at all hours with smokers and drinkers; it’s like Octoberfest, but with fewer Americans. I know, because despite the cheap beer, no one at the Prater—or most anywhere else in Berlin—drinks to get drunk, hammered, wasted, with all the crude evidence on the floor next to them. Berliners can drink at 16, and by 18 they’re so over boozing. Berlin beer is to be enjoyed, not chugged.

Kids come to the Prater and play on the jungle gym, and no one thinks to worry because, the Berliners say, “Someone will watch out for them.”

Across a dusty plaza from the tables sits a stage and, next to it, a playground. I’ve never gotten used to drinking around young children; it’s a distinctly puritan, and certainly American, aversion. It’s definitely not one Berliners share—the city is awash in toddlers, and their parents take them everywhere. In the States, parenthood drastically shortens a couple’s social life; in Berlin, the kids simply join the party. I’ve heard unconfirmed but wholly believable reports of an afterparty dance club with a special room for strollers, outfitted with a nanny and an intercom.

Almost as much as beer and cigarettes, Berlin parents love strollers. Park Slopers have nothing on typical Prenzlauerberg mutters, who push garbage-scow sized prams along the sidewalk. And like parents everywhere, they demand everyone else adapt to their newfound need for Lebensraum. A few nights ago I was out with friends at a beer garden when a flash thunderstorm struck. We tried to fit under an awning next to a long table, but someone had parked their tank of a stroller there. As we huddled close for dryness, apparently my shoulder bag impinged on a baby’s personal space. I felt a tap on my shoulder. “For God’s sake,” its mother cried, “I have a small child here!” For God’s sake, she was drinking beer and smoking. You can easily find people doing exactly the same in the States. It’s just that at home we call them white trash. Here they’re called yuppies.

All that said, and self-righteous moms aside, it all, somehow, amazingly, works. Kids come to the Prater and play on the jungle gym, and no one thinks to worry because, the Berliners say, “Someone will watch out for them.” The first time I heard that I thought it was callous. Then I realized it was true. Despite the beer drinking and constant smoking and general shabbiness of the city, much of Berlin embodies the best of Jane Jacobs’s urbanism: Implicit pacts—neighbors, or just neighborly drinkers—watch over children, deter crime, and keep the streets (or bars) relatively clean. Maybe Berlin isn’t all that different from New York, after all. Call it Greenwich Village on the Spree.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen