Given that I live in both cities, a lot of people have been asking me this weekend about Friday's New York Times article, 'Why Brussels is the New Berlin'. My first reaction after seeing the headline was to scoff. The article itself left me rather perplexed and annoyed.
These "________ is the new Berlin" articles are becoming a bad cliche. As Jon Worth pointed out in his blog today, this has been written about Warsaw, Leipzig, Zagreb, Krakow, Vilnius - the list goes on and on. The only prerequisite for the comparison seems to be that the city is cheap and has at least some artists in it. The Brussels-Berlin comparison is not itself new. Deutsche Welle did a similar article in August, although their piece had a more sensible focus on artists.
As Jon points out, the basis for the article seems to be entirely relegated to night life and the arts scene - as if that's all that Berlin is about. It then lists a series of retail establishments, and I was struggling to see any relation to Berlin for any of them.
Look, Brussels is a much cooler place than people give it credit for. Its reputation as stodgy, buttoned-up and boring is inaccurate, as the article points out. But, it is nothing like Berlin. In fact it is the extreme difference between the two cities that makes me enjoy so much splitting my time between them.
Given that the article seems to be focusing on people who have moved to the city from outside, let's focus on that aspect. I'm an expat in both cities, so this is the perspective from which I can make observations.
People move to Berlin because they want to. People move to Brussels because they have to. This, to me, has been the biggest difference I've encountered living in Berlin the past six months. People are moving to Berlin from all over, often without a job, with a dream of being around like-minded, creative people. The result is a very dynamic city which, while it may not be very productive, is very stimulating. There's not a lot of jobs, but there's a lot of ideas.
By contrast, expats move to Brussels because of work. Brussels has tons of jobs, in and around the EU institutions and in multinational companies. In six years of living in Brussels, I think I've only met three or four people who moved here simply because they wanted to live in Brussels. I moved to Brussels not because I liked the city (I didn't), but because I wanted to cover the EU.
Most expats end up here in Brussels by accident, and many then grow to like it over time (or learn to adjust to its idiosyncrasies). This alone creates a very different atmosphere than in Berlin. In Brussels, when I ask someone how long they've lived here, they seem more embarrassed the longer it has been. "Ten years..." they might say, head hung down to the floor in shame. In Berlin, the answer is more proud the longer one has been there. "Ten years!" they answer with a beaming smile.
That creates a very different vibe in the two cities. People in Brussels are doing interesting things, mostly in the EU sphere. But it's just not a very creative environment. In Berlin, most people don't seem to be doing much of anything work-wise. But they have tons of really interesting ideas and stimulating conversation.
You can throw a couple of hipster boutiques in the Marolles, but that doesn't change the overall ethos of Brussels. It's still a small place, dominated by the EU institutions. If anything, it is really the "new Washington DC" - and I don't mean that as a compliment.
So I agree with Jon on this. Brussels is a fascinating place and punches above its weight for nightlife and arts. But it's no Berlin.
Describing cities as the 'new Berlin' seems to imply Berlin is somehow over. It is not. And even if it were, a city like Brussels has no hope of taking over its mantle.