Could Adelaide ever be the Berlin of the South?

Inspired by Berlin, Stephen Orr asks, who’s going to make Adelaide stand out?

We could do it. With a little bit of willpower, money, vision. There, of course, is the problem. One thing Adelaide’s been lacking for a generation. Someone to say, Hey, this is what we could be like, this will be the vibe, our values, different to other places, but unique. Once, we were the Athens of the South, whatever that meant. Now we’ve become a public service state where the big dream is to work your way up to ASO6, implement key strategies, cross-reference them against KPIs, collect your cash and head home to a big night of MasterChef. That is, assuming you’ve got a job.

I’ve visited a lot of cities that felt like I thought they would. London, enormous, breathtaking, intriguing. But still London. But the place I want to talk about felt different, magical, not like I thought it would, or should. More, could. The possibility of a place. Berlin is not Berlin. It’s an ongoing experiment forged from the collisions of history, different people with contradictory ideas, shitty architecture sitting next to rebuilt cathedrals, money, lots and lots of it, increasingly, nestled beside the artistic riff-raff that always has and will be Berlin, from Christopher Isherwood to the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe, Felix Mendelssohn to David Bowie, and a million in between.

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Frankly, this is a little embarrassing. Upon my arrival in Berlin I had a feeling I hadn’t experienced since I sat in school assembly admiring Mildred Wong. Within hours I had a crush on the place. I guess Berlin has affected plenty of people this way over the years. Not Hitler and Goebbels, or the early Nazis, who were more Munich, with its Bavarian propriety floating around the Nymphenburg Palace. More, the creators, the thinkers, the alternatives – all strangely at odds with National Socialist Berlin, as seen in Gӧring’s old Air Ministry a few blocks away from Berlin’s Rundle Mall, Unter den Linden. More, people like Christian Boros, who converted an old bomb shelter on Reinhardstraβe into a contemporary art gallery. In standard Berlin fashion, this stark, concrete bunker has had many lives since 1942: a banana storeroom, S&M fetish club. Now it’s open weekends, showcasing the work of artists such as Tracy Emin, and photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. A sort of blending of old and new architecture, people, purpose, all a few minutes’ walk from Bertolt Brecht’s old house on Chausseestraβe, itself only a few minutes’ walk from the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm (Brecht’s East German Berliner Ensemble, and the theatre that premiered The Threepenny Opera). All of this sitting a few hundred metres from the Spree, and the Weidendammer Bridge, where, on the night of May 1, 1945 (Hitler already dead), a Tiger tank spearheaded a breakout across this, one of the capital’s last intact crossings. The bridge is still there, close to coffee shops and the ever-present currywurst stands, barely mentioning its history.

We arrive in Berlin assuming it will be the sum of its history. The rebuilt Reichstag, with its controversial Red Army graffiti; the Berliner Dom, still one of the great climbs of Europe, although the view rewards you in spades; the Altes and Neues Museum; the Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels statues in the Marx-Engels Forum, where tourists stand harvesting a moment of kitsch from a bleak and barren history. No big deal, because this is everywhere in Berlin Mitte, and beyond. But this is the thing: Berlin refuses to be a function of its past. Every day it invents a future of tolerance, inclusiveness, creativity, free-thinking – a heritage stretching back to Weimar Berlin, with Einstein busy in his study, Fritz Lang filming Metropolis, cocaine, sly grog and Communists on every street corner, Ernst Doblin scribbling through the night, only a few years before his books were banned. And in a way, better banned than ignored. At least that way you’d know someone cared about what you were writing. Here in Oz we seem to have developed a culture characterised by its lightness, its pastel colours. Berlin, in contrast, is saying what people don’t want to hear. It’s aquamarine, ice-blue, turning grey in the early evenings as the rain drifts in.

It all began on the S45 to Südkreuz. Two small boys, trapped in a corner by my family, nattering in German, for some reason, until I said (with my best Adelaide rounded vowels), ‘Quite old, these carriages, aren’t they?’ The boys fell silent, giggled, wondering perhaps, who these sheep breeding colonials were. I felt I’d arrived on a different planet. Towards the city (or town, as we forever see our city), the snowy roads and low-rise apartments. Like most European capitals, the dream of land and lawn given up for high density living, but with this, cities that distil their essence, like a bottle of Bickford’s. Emerging into a sleety Berlin, the Brandenburg Gates proud and defiant, still, although now their greatest enemy is tourists, overrunning Alexanderplatz like Marshal Zhukov’s First Belorussian Front. Up and down Unter den Linden, the usual tourist shops, the Hotel Adlon still taking guests.

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So far so good. Our hotel, overlooking the Holocaust Memorial on Behrenstraβe, opening the window of the Soviet-era building to see a carpark, and a group of people reading a sign. The Führerbunker. Where Adolf and Eva ended it all, as the Russians approached. Strange, sleeping so close to history. And only a few metres from the new Berlin Mall, with its high end clothes and jewellery. Strudel. Around the corner from Potsdamer Platz, this little mini-Manhattan with its conquering towers and spy museum. And every morning, trying to get past the Homeland makeup vans and production trucks as primetime Berlin was prepared for middle-America.

It never seemed to be light. An eternal dusk that, perhaps, suited my mood. Maybe the Adelaide weather is too good for such navel gazing? This is a world of T-shirts avoided, fashionistas caught up in their Polaroid imaginations, or is this the Adelaide coming out in me? Maybe this is the problem? Our reluctance to re-imagine ourselves? The feeling you get when you see some poor teen-goth strutting through Tea Tree Plaza in full bootage, and pale makeup. Who on earth does she think she is? Are we, perhaps, scared of individuality? Straying too far from the flock? Is this what I saw in Berlin? The absence of flock?

The Berlin of the South? Mm. The next morning, the Reichstag, and although there was plenty of history on show (from the well-known dropped pavlova of 1945, to Norman Foster’s masterful reworking of the Nineties), the one thing I’ll always remember about this day (apart from the Statsi-esque vans with their blacked-out windows) was the tour guide, a woman of about fifty, becoming emotional when she talked about her city, like she was wearing it on her polyester sleeve, telling us about how it was a home to so many creative ‘types’, people who felt like they didn’t fit in elsewhere, Mr Norris catching the S Bahn, and David Bowie, recently dead, but still living. Like, in a way, Berlin is a state of mind. So that JFK, speaking in 1963, was right. He was a Berliner. Because he identified with what the city stood for. The importance of political ideas (read Berlin Wall, Freikorps, Red Front Fighters’ League, Hitler Youth), clashing cultures, history (walking around Charlottenburg palace). Bubble and squeak, where every carrot is important.

Of course. It had to go wrong. Checkpoint Charlie, the old crossing between East and West. A decent museum, but the currywurst count was way too high, and the actors in fake uniforms lent an air of uber-kitsch to the place. Thirty dollars to get your picture taken with an Ivan, then into a souvenir shop for a chunk of the Wall (yeah, right) in a bottle. Like, in a way, if a place tries to offer an official version of itself, it becomes a lie. Like all the shops at Glenelg selling cork hats to keep the flies away. All of this quickly fixed with a visit to the Topography of Terror, an exhibition on the former site of the Berlin Gestapo. Once you were brought here, it was all over. Sobering images, but as with everywhere in Germany, people aren’t afraid of their past. They don’t hide it. They’re happy to talk about it.

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The next day, the U2 to the 1936 Olympic Stadium. Only a few tourists wandering in the grey day. A hopeful cafeteria selling vegetable soup, and rolls, and the underground athletics areas full of German sportspeople who had given up their own stadia and gymnasia to create room for refugees. Perhaps I gush? Perhaps a week is never long enough? But sometimes, in March perhaps, Adelaide can feel like Berlin. When we let down our guard, stop bickering, realise the point of living is having fun, being with other people, inspiring our kids, growing our communities. So often, my Adelaide doesn’t feel like this. Everything has been reduced to numbers, kilowatt-hours, stories about ice, and tough times in the North. I, like many, thirst for vision. I don’t think we’ll get it from a public service government, or a few failed businessmen preaching to the disillusioned from their Norwood backyards. Either way, a good first step would be a government that doesn’t stifle free speech, covering up its own doggy-do in a welter of Newspeak press releases.

Perhaps this is why we remember Don Dunstan so fondly. He gave us a version of ourselves that we liked, and pursued, and then retired, leaving the job unfinished. So, who’s up to it? Who’s going to make it snow in Adelaide?

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