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The New Prague: Bohemian Rhapsody

A young generation of artists (and would-be artists), lured by rock-bottom rents, edgy nightlife, and an "up for it," liberal culture, are singing Berlin's praises.

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Darius James is busy. Not the New York busy of constantly ringing cell phones or Palm pilots impossibly filled with appointments, but Berlin busy, which is something else entirely. "There's my book proposal about voodoo," the slim African-American writer explains while sipping coffee with a group of fellow expats in a Berlin bookstore called Another Country. "Then there's a film project I'm collaborating on with Philip Virus, which is based on Nation of Islam theology about the creation of the white race. Oh, and I've got an interview with Bootsy Collins tomorrow for a German techno magazine."

Talk to anyone in Berlin's mushrooming expat scene, and you'll hear a similar tale of novels, record labels, art galleries, fashion lines, clothing stores -- often all from the same person. This burst of creative activity is being underwritten by some of the cheapest rents in Europe ($200 to $400 a month gets you a one-bedroom), a tortoiselike economy that has kept gentrification at bay, and the growing presence of artists, writers, and directors like Terrence Malick, Hungarian writer and recent Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertesz, and Jeffrey Eugenides, who finished both his long-awaited novel Middlesex and a travelogue about the city for Bloomsbury's "Writer and the City" series while living here. Most important, Berlin's bohemia has received a big boost from the arrival of an international cast of expats hell-bent on experiencing something that's become all but obsolete in expensive cities like New York and London: a true bohemia.

"I'm doing things in Berlin now that I did in New York in the eighties but couldn't do in the nineties," James continues. "I didn't realize how depressed and demoralized I was in New York until I moved here four years ago." James, author of a book about blaxploitation films and a novel called Negrophobia, does miss a few things about America, namely "Puerto Ricans, pastrami, fried chicken." But he says the lack of ethnic diversity in Berlin -- the city is still very white, save for its growing population of Turkish immigrants -- is insignificant compared with the kind of creative freedom he enjoys. "There's always a lot of discussing, arguing going on in Berlin," he says. "I'm never bored, and it's always interesting listening."

Sherry Vine, a drag artist and former co-host of legendary downtown party "Squeezebox," moved to Berlin for more practical reasons. "Career-wise, everything was happening here," he says of his full schedule of shows from Germany to Switzerland. But like James, he's come to savor Berlin's decidedly outré vibe -- think Prague on acid. "Berlin reminds me of the New York of ten to twelve years ago," Vine says. "There's a real artist's energy here, and the gay scene isn't ghettoized." Indeed, Berlin's gay scene runs the gamut from hard-core sex clubs to parties where dressed-down men dance to D.J.'s spinning No Doubt.

The presence of former downtown regulars who've moved to Berlin -- including Paisley from the House of Field and a drag artist named Krylon -- has also kept Vine from getting homesick. "I came back to New York this summer, and I expected to be like, 'I really miss the city,' " he says. "But I realized that I don't miss it at all!"

Like Sherry Vine, electro artist Snax came to Berlin for largely unsentimental reasons. "I'd played shows at clubs like Luxx, but I wasn't making nearly enough money to live, even with roommates," Snax says. "I started feeling really depressed, and one day I just realized that I was never going to make money doing what I want to do." This is not to imply that Snax's brand of electro -- equal parts synth-driven sleaziness of late-seventies Prince and the outsize eighties rock of bands like Foreigner -- is the stuff of platinum records in Germany. But his minuscule rent -- for an apartment shared with techno producer Khan in the hip Prenzlauer Berg district -- means that a night or two of performances can pay his entire nut for the month. "The crowds are really up for it here," Snax says. "In New York, when I'd come onstage after a D.J., people would just stand and stare. Here, they just pick up where they left off and start dancing. Berlin rocks."

More on Berlin

  • The New City: Berlin Calling
  • Berlin Guide: Inside Itinerary


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