Freedom and Creativity Reign

by Kevin Cottrell


We arrived in Berlin as a larger group of fellows. In fact, many of us connected in Vienna after our journeys through Eastern Europe. It was great to reconnect with our colleagues, some of whom we had not seen since Brussels. I was still in a warm Montenegro-induced aura. I was pleased with myself that I had a wonderful experience in the former Yugoslavia.We set out to our hotel in Berlin, and almost immediately I recognized that the Adriatic way of life had been left behind and replaced with something less exotic, but none-the-less charged with creative energy. I had been excited to visit Berlin. Since reunification, so much media attention has focused on Berlin as a global capital of creativity where low rents, new-found freedoms, and dynamic municipal leadership had converged to unleash a new creative economy. The mayor of Berlin has been quoted as saying that “Berlin is poor, but it is sexy.” Now born from a modern bohemian movement, Berlin is seen as an underground cultural Mecca- a place where you can find neighborhood theaters, live music clubs, and art studios amidst cafes and bars that sell beer and coffee for two euros. This is almost unheard of in most major European capitals these days. The net result is Berlin is attracting young creative capitalists from all over the world.

Our first day was spent in a short briefing on the German political system, and then free time for dinner to reconnect with our colleagues. Our hotel was located in the Mitte area, or the middle or center of Berlin. This area was part of the former East Berlin, yet the energy and excitement of the area is now both creative and capitalistic. The shops in the area carry cutting-edge design and fashion, many that trend toward street fashion. It seemed that every other store is a cutting-edge sneaker store. It made me think I would have 100 pairs of funky sneakers if I lived in Berlin.

I had an opportunity for an individual appointment with Alexander Koplin who heads the media and creative industries business unit for Berlin Partner– Berlin’s most significant public/private partnership focused on economic development. In addition to my discovering that Los Angeles and Berlin are sister cities, I spent time learning how Berlin has invested in building its creative industries- particularly in the areas of fashion, IT, communications, film and television, and music. Berlin Partner has already added 1,000 new creative industry jobs with employers like Pfizer, Universal, MTV Networks, SONY, Newscorp and AEG. They are projecting to add 4,000 more jobs within the next year. When asked about how they have made economic development hip, Koplin joked that it helped that few members of the team were older than their 40s and could be spotted taking in Berlin club life from time to time. He was serious. In fact, it would seem that their breakthrough has been to create a network of traditional and new or creative industry leaders into a cohesive strategy. I sensed that there is a very strong lesson here for Berlin’s sister city of Los Angeles. What if L.A. could build this same sort of cohesive strategy to improve upon our natural assets.

As part of the visit, a colleague and I had the opportunity to have dinner with Stephan Eisel, a member of the German Bundestag and the Christian Democrat Party. It was a wonderful opportunity to hear first-hand about the changes in Germany since reunification, as well as the range of social and economic issues that are dominating the political agenda. Our visit included this member-only tour of the Reichstag (pictured right), which is one of the most impressive pieces of architecture I witnessed on the trip. The building has been completely renovated with a design by Sir Norman Foster, which includes a glass dome that opens to the sky and provides visitors with a direct view into the inner workings of German democracy. It is stunning.

While the fall of the Berlin wall has now led to the unleashed creativity and significant public investment in infrastructure and reunification, the East/West history is still poignant in Berlin. We had an opportunity to explore the former East German Ministry for Sate Security (MfS), or Stazi (pictured below), that was a center piece of the East German oppression and brutality. Today, the jail is a symbol perhaps most importantly of the treatment of political prisoners. Although, to me, it also stands out as part of the larger story about the remnants of war and persecution, political ideology gone awry, and the extraordinary amount of time it takes to heal from these man-made afflictions. One cannot look at modern Germany without thinking about the fragility of democracy. It makes us all pause and remember, and perhaps to be prepared to respond should our society ever be shaken to its core. Germany is not the only country, nor will it be the last, to suffer from economic depression, dictatorship, nationalism, and war that dramatically transforms its society. This was a powerful lesson that concluded our fellowship.

We ended our travels together as a group in Berlin. Over three weeks we had become closer than we ever expected. I stayed on a few days in Berlin to explore the city, spending time in both the former East and West sides. Of course, I bought a new pair of sneakers, too.

Kevin Cottrell is Executive Director of the Southern California Leadership Network, blogging from his fellowship with the German Marshall Fund in Europe.