A New Williamsburg! Berlin’s Expats Go Bezirk

Robert Elmes spent the month of August in Berlin. He borrowed a spare bike from a friend, one of those antique-looking, function-over-form contraptions that many Berliners ride, so he could cruise the bezirken, the boroughs.

Mr. Elmes owns Galapagos, the long-standing performance-art space in Williamsburg, and he is looking either to open an outpost in Berlin, or to entirely relocate the operation to the German capital.

He’s already scouted out an abandoned high school, which looks promising, and a round building once used to store natural gas. “Next we’re going to be taken around by some cultural-ministry people to look at spaces that are sitting on the shelves of the Berlin government,” Mr. Elmes said the other week. He was planted outdoors at a café called Godot, on Kastanienalle, a street dubbed “Casting Alley” due to the constant parade of native and expat hipsters up and down its boutique-and-café-lined sidewalks.

Back in Williamsburg, Galapagos is housed in a former mayonnaise factory, which Mr. Elmes, 39, claimed in 1990. That was before the Brooklyn land grab went full throttle. Recently, the rent went up again.

Hence, Berlin. “This is Williamsburg in the early 90’s, writ large citywide,” Mr. Elmes said. His hair, grown to a bohemian shoulder length, is brown, while his sideburns are gray. “It’s a fascinating, inclusive, tolerant environment with a very low cost of entry. And that spells magic for the arts, frankly. Berlin is going to be the New York City of the United States of Europe inside of 10 years.”

It’s well on its way. Whatever happened to D.J. Dmitri, of Deee-Lite fame? The Kiev-born New York adopter ditched his loft at Houston and Broadway and made his home base Berlin. Last year, Adrian Piper—one of the biggest names in contemporary art—took off from Wellesley for a research fellowship at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. According to Exberliner, the English-language magazine of Berlin, even KRS-One is in town.

As the East Village and Williamsburg dull down and age up, what’s not to love about Berlin? The population is significantly atheist. The mayor is a fun-loving gay dude. In Berlin, the mullet is more lifestyle than haircut.

And as of the end of last year, Berlin has more resident Americans than expats from nearby France.

The writing on the wall about Berlin’s future as a cultural capital—one especially attractive to New Yorkers—has been interpreted in many ways since the late 90’s, when the incursion of former New York residents suddenly went from a trickle to a gush. Some describe it as a sea change, the beginning of long-reaching transformations for the city. Others are less convinced, claiming that Berlin, for New York expatriates, is simply another Prague: an exoticized pit stop offering low-cost living and cultural experimentation only until either the rents in New York go down or the expats’ income goes up.

Some even scoff that Berlin is already past its prime. Leipzig, just two hours south of Berlin, is, for artsy Germans, the new hotness. Williamsburg’s Pierogi Gallery opened a branch in Leipzig a few months ago. “When you have no money, then you go to Leipzig; then you have a better life,” said the effervescent art dealer Judy Lybke, of his hometown. “Big flats, three girls, three men, every day. It’s good. When you have more money, you can do it here.”

Still, you can find the New York expats in Prenzlauer Berg, a neighborhood in the former east part of Berlin, slamming back cocktails at White Trash, the nightspot whose former location is where Peaches got her start. Spy them at the teenybopper queer-boy night, called “Berlin Hilton.” There they are in Kreuzberg, a lefty enclave that many expats insist on likening to the East Village of yore, where punks with green Mohawks talk on mobile phones and second-generation Turkish kids spout hip-hop rhymes in German. They ride through Mitte, the city center, on their way home to their dirt-cheap, beautifully renovated apartments, which would cost them an arm and leg at the near end of the L train. Each bezirk has its own character and flavor of resident, so much so that Berliners complain that the city is a bit like a conglomeration of towns.

“In Berlin, we’re looking at Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain—those two areas, maybe Neuköln,” Mr. Elmes said. That last district, David Bowie named a song after. “And then we’re looking really farther east, because we want a clear 10 years before anything really changes around us. We had that in Williamsburg, and that was a blessing. We want to go to a quiet little corner of Berlin and begin our experimental project all over again.

“We are an interesting group, the emerging arts, because in a way, we’re the canaries in the cultural goldmine,” Mr. Elmes said, then cleared his throat and self-edited. “In the real-estate goldmine, excuse me,” he said.

Jean-Ulrick Désert used to command a six-figure salary in New York. “I was always an artist making artworks, but I needed a ‘job.’ Like many New Yorkers, that job ended up overwhelming my art production,” he said. He worked as an exhibition designer for the firm Appelbaum, leading such efforts as the Jackie O. and Duke and Duchess of Windsor exhibitions at Sotheby’s. Mr. Désert never got credit for his work from his employers. “You know how key that is in New York,” he said.

An arts residency took him first to Paris, and that was good, but stuff happened and he ended up in Berlin, where studios run as low as a couple hundred euros a month. He has lived here for three years.

“This is still a renters’ town,” said Mr. Désert, who sometimes wears skirts with battered Doc Martens, a downtown New York punk look of the 80’s that is now very Berlin. At least the boots are. “Berlin hasn’t gone the way of Paris, London and specifically New York,” he said. “From a New York perspective, $2,000 could easily pay one full year of rent here!”

Mr. Désert’s present apartment, which also serves as his studio, has a coal-burning oven as its main source of heating. “Many people have this in the neighborhood,” Mr. Désert said. “I figure, you know what? If a bunch of people, after this town was bombed left and right, could survive this shit, why couldn’t I? I am not 80 years old, I am not 60, I’m not even 50. So, just do it for now. I used to live on Chrystie Street in a big loft.”

One of Mr. Désert’s art projects involved dressing up in traditional Bavarian lederhosen and walking or standing around in various public locations, an act which drew quite a bit of attention, since Mr. Désert is black.

In Berlin, unemployment is as high as joie de vivre. Drinks are cheap and with no clocks to punch in the morning, people go out late and keep late hours. Many bars do not close.

“I don’t think that people think of Berlin as a romantic destination, like France,” said Loren Marsh, 36, a filmmaker who came to Berlin from Chicago, via grad school at Stanford and a few years working in Manhattan. “It still has these World War II overtones here, and that history is still very present in people’s minds and sometimes in the landscape. Like here.” He gestured toward a crumbling building. Its ground floor housed a bar where funky types sat drinking beer to the sounds of trance music. “It’s a part of life here. And I don’t think Americans are, like, romanticizing it.”

Mr. Marsh’s move to Berlin was a return, in a way. His family has roots in the city. They fled Nazi Germany for the Midwest. Mr. Marsh’s communist intellectual great-aunt’s writings can still be found in bookstores; she was one of the last people to see Walter Benjamin alive. A cousin who is a native Berliner was Mr. Marsh’s guide and constant companion during his first months in the city, almost three years ago. Before he left New York, he was making a fine living and had even completed a film starring Amanda Peet. “I had a lot of knowledge about Berlin before I came here. But I also didn’t really know what I would find there, because I knew it changed completely since my relatives had really been there.”

Others come for an all-alien cityscape.

“My introduction to Berlin was in the late 80’s,” said the visual artist D-L Alvarez. “I’d lived first in Paris, then moved to Berlin for a little while.” The Wall hadn’t even fallen yet. He wanted to stay on longer, but was concerned that his parents would be distraught by the distance. This was before the Internet, German reunification, the European Union and discount airlines.

Mr. Alvarez, now 41, spent nearly a decade residing in Park Slope and Williamsburg, but Berlin was never far from his mind. In 1999, both his parents died within a week of each other. “I spent New Year’s Eve here, the big millennium,” he said. “That year turned into six.”

While London might be more comfortable in terms of communication, English—or half a dozen other languages—go a long way in Berlin. “The lingua franca of the art community is basically English at this point,” said Mr. Elmes.

“After six years, my German is still pretty horrible,” said Mr. Alvarez. “I can’t remember the gender of any of my words. Just so many people speak English here—and don’t mind speaking English—that it’s not really a problem.” For him, the bigger challenge (and any foreign worker in the United States who’s had to deal with U.S. labor regulations can sympathize) was “the paperwork—getting the visa, getting the artist’s insurance.” The German government is not as tight-fisted when it comes to issuing working papers to Americans; it’s just a hassle. “I recently had my visa renewed, and I’m looking to invest in a studio space—I found a really good deal,” Mr. Alvarez said.

On a recent Sunday night, Mr. Elmes met a group of friends at a bar in the Friedrichshain district. The bar itself looked like someone’s converted apartment. There was a kitchen in the back. Beer was selling at two euros a bottle. Mr. Elmes got into an involved conversation with a young German woman, a radio journalist, who had lived in New York, uptown on 145th Street, near City College. They talked about Günter Grass, the German writer, and whether he ought to have recently come out about his past as a teenage member of the Waffen-SS. They touched on media, German identity, Americana. The word “monoculture” was debated. It started to rain. The bar shut off its lights, and the guy who’d been tending it came to give Mr. Elmes and his companion a last call. “No, grazie,” Mr. Elmes said. He melded his English and Italian. He doesn’t speak German yet.