Washington’s Berlin Moment

The American artist Pae White has designed a giant flying carpet for the new international airport in Berlin. It will billow above the check-in counters and put the travelers in the mood for adventures in foreign lands. Just like the magic carpet that brought me to Washington, DC more than four years ago – a place that seemed to be the opposite of Berlin, until I took a closer look.

Photo: Berlin Brandenburg Airport

Back in 2007, I had no plans to leave my favorite city Berlin. But as the American saying goes: Life is what happens while you make other plans. By Thanksgiving I found myself in Washington, which everyone assured me would be the exact opposite of laid-back, artsy Berlin: a city of movers and shakers, filled with people with high ambitions, thick pocket books and mainstream tastes.

Note to snotty Berliners: There is nothing wrong with that. I spent my first three years in the “global triangle” between Dupont Circle, Logan Circle and Adams Morgan. Other than Berlin, which can be rather provincial, Washington attracts a fascinating international crowd. Kennedy Center and Smithsonian present the world’s most famous artists, and the city has great restaurants at the top end of the scale. But if you are looking for subcultures – good luck to you.

At least that’s what I thought until I found out that there is more than one Washington. Apart from the official Washington, there is another city, a city full of African-American history and recent waves of immigrants from Ethiopia to El Salvador. A city that changes its shape before your eyes. A city that can remarkably similar to Berlin.

Just like Berlin, Washington is a divided city – black versus white, the rich North West versus the crime-ridden East. And just like in Berlin after the reunification, the boundaries are shifting. In my first year in Washington, I was told never to venture East of Logan Circle. Today I live way East in the Eckington/Bloomingdale neighborhood where I have witnessed the arrival of the first cafés and a bike path. Taxi drivers no longer ask whether it is safe to go there.

The North East of DC reminds me of Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood in the early 2000s. It is full of unused spaces that are being put to creative use. Open-air movies are being shown in an empty lot. Last year, a theater company conjured up the ghosts of the former Irish “Swampoodle” neighborhood inside the ruin of the Uline Arena, the stadium where the Beatles played their first concert in the U.S.

The sad part is: None of this will last. A year ago, I could see the Capitol from my office window. This view is now blocked by a hastily erected condo building. Similar structures will soon swallow the remaining empty lots and many current residents will be driven away. I saw this in Berlin where old East German ladies and students disappeared from my street and young professionals (like me!) moved into the newly renovated houses.

But Berlin is a slow place, and its transformation took more than 15 years. Its officials (the mayor’s motto being “We are poor but sexy”) are just not that ambitious. As as it turns out, I will not get to see Pae White’s flying carpet at the new airport this June. “Berlin doesn’t get it up”, wrote the snarky daily “tageszeitung” after the city announced that the opening will be delayed by eight months.

Eight months will go by fast in DC. When the Berlin airport opens, my neighborhood will have completed its transformation from no-go-area to yuppie central. By then it will be known under its new brand name Noma, North of Massachusetts Avenue. The city is growing and there is money to be made. Washington’s Berlin moment may not last long.

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