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summer 2006 / expatriates :: email this story to a friend

When "Crisis" Looks Civilized
By Warren Rosenblum

I'm not a real expat. I'm just spending a year in Berlin.

And I'm not sure if I'm a real St. Louisan, either. I grew up in Evanston, which is about 300 miles northeast of the Arch, i.e. in suburban Chicago. I have lived in St. Louis six years, got married there, and bought my first house in Skinker-DeBaliviere, but when Germans ask where I'm from, I usually say Chicago. I like my ravioli boiled, not fried, thank you, and I think federal law should forbid Imo's from using the word "pizza" to refer to the flat, homely, laminated things they serve in their cardboard boxes. I don't care where you went to high school. And no matter how many years I spend in St. Louis, I'm going to always be a Cubs fan, though I don't really pay attention to baseball anymore, going to the ballpark about as often as I go to the synagogue (which is rarely). Rooting for the Cardinals would be like converting to Christianity. It might get me into heaven faster, but wouldn't I lose the moral perspective that comes from so much accumulated suffering? And surely my ancestors would rise up from the grave and smite me.

Berlin at night Ok, but here I am in Berlin — this pulsating, cool, European metropolis — and almost every night I find myself reading the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the West End Word, and numerous blogs that discuss St. Louis, that shrinking little flounder of a city on the Mississippi. I don't know anything about business or real estate, but I follow St. Louis housing and construction news the way I devoured the box scores as a kid. Every announcement of a new project in the city feels like a victory for the home team. Another loft development downtown? Yes! Ballpark Village? Go at it, boys. A high-rise in the "Bottle District" by Daniel Liebeskind? A Loop trolley? Chouteau Lake? You dream it, I'll buy it. Hey, anyone got a bridge to sell me? (Yes, in fact, they do, and for just $910 million!)

My wife, the only qualified urban planner in the family, thinks I'm obsessed, and of course she is right. She gets annoyed to find me reading St. Louis websites when I said I am too busy to enjoy the Berlin nightlife. She wishes I would quit getting worked up about economic development issues I don't really understand. It's gotten to the point that when she comes into the study, I pretend to be looking at internet porn so she won't notice I am actually reading Martin Van Der Werf in the Post-Dispatch.

So what's this all about, anyway? It is 101 years since the closing of the St. Louis World's Fair. Who cares about St. Louis anymore? As Jimi Hendrix asked, "Is this love, baby, or is it just...confusion?"

A little of both, perhaps. The longer I live abroad, the more American I feel, and no place seems more American to me right now than St. Louis. This is partly about the failures of St. Louis: crushing poverty, class and racial prejudice, and the great middle class retreat from responsibility. But it is also about the city's quintessential optimism: the ubiquitous conviction that this big development, this master plan, this new guy in a natty suit or cool sports car will bring the long-promised salvation to the city. In this regard, I am so St. Louis, just so fucking American, it makes me wanna stand arm and arm with John Ashcroft and Phyllis Schlafly and sing a few bars about the eagle and its sores (or is it "the eagle snores"?) Everyone I know with a City of St. Louis address is an evangelical of some sort. You cannot choose to live east of Skinker and be a non-believer.

Berliners could not be more different. Pessimism, like a black turtleneck, is always in fashion here. Hand-wringing, accompanied if possible by collective self-flagellation, is a national sport. If Paris has race riots, the Germans argue, surely Berlin is about to get something worse. Good economic figures for 2005? "Well, it's probably a blip, and anyway none of this wealth will trickle down. Whatever you do, don't shop." (Does German even have a word for "consumer confidence"? I don't think so.) Avian flu virus? "But of course! Come pet my chicken. Might as well get the flu now while the virus is still relatively mild!"

Stop Oppressive Gardening Berliners will tell you this is a society in "crisis." They will tell you about high unemployment, rising crime, failing schools, even a shrinking urban population. For the visiting St. Louisian, as Yogi Berra might have said, "It's déją vu all over again." But what kind of crisis is this? They are choking on their bratwurst because German kids finished at the bottom of the pack in Europe-wide testing. The bottom of the pack in Europe is still somewhere in the dreamlife of Creg Williams. It means that the average Berlin 6th grader can only identify three of the four major rivers in Tadjikistan and has English-language skills only slightly better than Matt Blunt's. Berlin's crime stats are indeed rising, but the Germans' idea of a crime-wave is when a gang of roving youths vandalizes garden dwarves on three consecutive nights. I'm not saying that we shouldn't care about garden dwarves — I'm not heartless! — but I'm more impressed by the general sense of safety and well-being on Berlin streets. Women walk alone at night. Small children walk to and from school and take the subway unaccompanied by adults. Old people live in the city, ride the buses, and freely enjoy the parks and public squares. Yes, there is crime, but crime is still not a "problem" the way it is in American cities.

And the fear of a shrinking city may also be overblown. Thousands of Berliners moved to the 'burbs, new subdivisions, and quaint Brandenburg villages after the wall fell, and West Berlin was suddenly reunited with the surrounding region. No one I know, however, fled Berlin because there was too much crime, too many social problems, or too many Turks. For all of their belly-aching about the city, most Berliners think you are nuts if you ask them whether they would consider moving. "Why would I move just because there are problems?" one friend said to me. "We have to fix the problems." Well, yeah, but how come such a simple idea never occurred to the good citizens of Festus or Clayton?

There are moments when I think the Berliners today are just more decent than we are. Hardly anyone complains about paying huge taxes to support universal health care, generous welfare benefits, and good public transportation. Subsidized daycare and even access to theater, art, and music are considered part of the "social rights" awarded to all citizens (and resident foreigners as well). Periodically I have flashbacks to burned-out buildings in North St. Louis, junkies dancing along North Kingshighway on a Sunday morning, the faces of old people on sweltering days waiting for a bus near Tower Grove Park, a cashier at Lambert Airport telling a co-worker how she leaves her children home alone in East St. Louis in order to make it to her crappy, minimum-wage job. The Berliners I know would not tolerate such a state of affairs; not when their country still has the resources to make things right.

Certainly middle-class Berliners are far less freaked out by poor people than we are in St. Louis. Mixed-income buildings are the norm, with pricey apartments located on the street and affordable units often in the back, on the other side of a courtyard. Cafés and restaurants are more likely to serve a mixed clientele. In St. Louis, business owners refer ominously to "those elements" who will plague their business if they locate in the wrong neighborhood or put the wrong items on their menus. In Berlin, owners and customers alike are happy when there is a crowd. I have never seen any anxiety about the image of an establishment. And here every neighborhood has its corner market or fast-food stand where men gather for a cheap drink. Sometimes people get drunk. Sometimes an asshole pees on a tree. If they are really obnoxious, you tell them off or you call the police. I cannot imagine Berliners taking the St. Louis approach to public disorder in which a posse of concerned citizens chases out the corner market or removes public benches or even gets rid of basketball courts and chess tables because these MAY BE gathering places for "those elements."

Berlin could undoubtedly use a dose of all-American optimism, but maybe America could benefit from a bit of this crisis mentality. The great effect of America's current well-manicured and ever-polite system of apartheid is that most white folks do not see a crisis of any kind, or at least they do not think the existing crisis is "theirs": it is a crisis of those folks, again "those elements." More than fifty years ago, Americans proudly introduced democracy and civility to a Germany that had been mired in state of more or less collective barbarism. There are ways in which Germany today might return the favor.

Warren Rosenblum's been blogging his Berlin adventure, and will return to the States with his family later this summer.

© 2006 The Commonspace