New York is commonly revered as an incomparable city, active and jubilant, an apex of cultural spirit. It’s the city I grew up with, visiting from my small upstate town on weekends until my family made the big move south to the island. But a pipeline seems to exist between another city and New York, perhaps less popular than its counterparts, London, Los Angeles, or Tokyo. I always dreamt of living in this second city someday, the city of Berlin, eager to test the reverberation of another energetic living environment. I’m not sure if I compare the two cities so easily because I know them both well, some form of confirmation bias not dissimilar to associating your personality to your horoscope because you want it to be true and it’s there in front of you. Or perhaps I felt the pull to Berlin because it sang a song like the one I grew up listening to, the connection between the two cities so true it rings loud enough to feel it from afar.
When comparing Berlin and New York, a most obvious note to make is how easy public transportation is in the two cities (though locals from either will complain to you about how the trains are always running late). While cars run through both, there is an attitude of walking to one’s destination. People allow the journey to be integrated into the experience itself of going out, an expected extension of any planned digression. Because of this habitude, residents spend an abundance of their time outside. This produces a collective apathy towards the cold, which both northern cities host for many months of the year. A local will begrudgingly remind you how grey and miserable it will be in a few months while you’re enjoying their city’s summer peak. This distaste for the winter months, however, brews a marvelous joy during the sunny seasons. Documentary photographers such as Weegee and Martha Cooper made New York’s fire hydrants famous as sprinklers for kids to run through in muggy August heat; trucks selling ice cream and fresh mango with Tajin line the streets in midtown, and people flock to Rockaway and Long Island to bask in a shared sun and salt. Berlin carries a similar energy during the summer; the park culture is feverous. There are 2,500 within the city limits, ranging from small plots of grass nudged between street corners, and entire forests with waterfalls and beaches and wildlife. Because of a European tendency to respect work-life balance, Berliners will clock out at six and spend the rest of their evenings in the green, pulling out portable grills and brightly colored kites to waft through the air, the evening wind carrying smells of sizzling meat and streaks of the rainbow.
This ease in public life extends to the overall interpersonal atmosphere of the cities. New York and Berlin both hold a feeling of community, a comforting sense that your peers are watching out for you. This is perhaps bred by the reliance on public transportation; if someone unsafe gets into your train car, exchanged glances remind you that you aren’t alone. But more deeply ingrained in these societies is a carelessness, a non-judgement, an expectation for the abnormal. Both cities welcomed the queer community earlier than many counterparts, both cities are made up of robust immigrant populations, and both cities are known for their eldritch contemporary art scenes. If someone walked down the street in New York or Berlin wearing nothing but seaweed, they would be accepted. So, there is a trust that you can truly be yourself in these environments, and therefore a trust that everyone else is being themselves too.
Fashion plays a major role in New York and Berlin. While other cities encourage their population to dress in their font (think Paris and expensive basics and Los Angeles and aestheticized cowboys), New York and Berlin hold a preference for standing out. Their start-ups and art scenes beg for innovation, thus there is a hyper-individualization that states being unique is the key to fitting in. Assimilation is dissimilation. Because of this, these cities have some of the most creative contemporary fashion scenes. Ironically, of course, both New York and Berlin are known for wearing the color black. Individuality must end at the opportunity of looking effortless.
Perhaps this paradox of both striving for aesthetic ideals and having a careless attitude in New York and Berlin is a reaction to the cities’ traumas. Berlin has a long history of tragedies, its most recent wound being the separation of East and West Berlin. The wall came down in ’89, meaning every adult remembers a time when half the city lived without freedom, and every adolescent is raised being reminded of this past. New York coped with 9/11 in 2001, an event that again, every adult remembers, and every adolescent is continuously conscious of. Maybe these ever-present memories remind locals how fragile life is, how lucky they are to be where they are, and how little judgment matters. And maybe this ability to let go of society’s perfect ideals turns the cities’ collective consciousness to the arts, to be reminded of the beauty and the feeling in life, and this appreciation of aesthetics then loops back into caring about perceptions, only instead of typical societal expectations, residents of these cities care about creative prospects.
Naturally exciting, is how I would summarize both cities. New York and Berlin organically create opportunities for their residents, professionally, socially, and personally. They inspire creativity and community, two of humanity’s most baseline needs, producing a living environment that is both fulfilling and rewarding. You can’t love one without the other.
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I am Multimedia Journalism student at Skidmore College. In my free time, I make a lot of art and go on as many adventures as I can with my friends!