If all the hype is to be believed, Belgrade is the new Berlin. But is it?Belgrade’s alleged “hipness” has been a subject of fascination for the international media for about 12 years now, creating an often cringeworthy genre. Articles with headlines like “Bloc Party: Post-War Belgrade is Radically Reinventing Itself” (The New York Post, September 20, 2016) have been springing up with alarming frequency. I decided to clear things up by describing what it’s really like.
Tables with politically well-connected criminals spill out of cafes playing bossa nova covers of Nirvana onto sidewalks of broken cement. Roaming Roma street children ply tourists for cash to give to their abusive bosses against the backdrop of an H&M billboard. Across town, the thump of techno beats, the insufflation of stimulants, and the inhalation of alkyl nitrites keep people of all ages up dancing for 48 hours straight in a futile attempt to have sex with attractive strangers.
It’s not Barcelona or even Berlin. It’s not Brussels or even Budapest. It’s not Bavaria or even Baden-Württemberg (nor any other Bundesländer for that matter, however much the current Serbian government may crave increased credibility on the international stage through the mimicry of Mitteleuropean discipline). It’s not even some decadent, confectionary Vienna. “It’s Belgrade, baby.”
The city is gritty and still “dirt cheap” for (relatively well off) visitors, but homogenizing hipster culture – indistinct from that of any other place described as a “new Berlin” anywhere in the world, as well as the actual Berlin – may very well change that soon. The fast future will likely arrive in the form of alienating art spaces for confusingly bad artists from Antwerp, bland bicycle kitchens and community herb gardens, luxury condominiums for sheiks from the UAE, and finally, the complete colonization of “gritty” neighborhoods (e.g. the edgy nightlife district of Savamala), leading to the permanent displacement of long-time residents and the poor. “First we take Berlin and then we take Belgrade,” goes Leonard Cohen’s famous lyric about gentrification.
NATO bombed Belgrade for 78 days in 1999, leaving iconic buildings in the center of the city hollowed out and partially reduced to rubble. “To the jaded palates of today’s jet-setters, being in a recent war zone adds a distinct frisson to any city’s appeal,” reads a 2005 article in the Observer about Belgrade titled “How it Got Hip”. “There’s a vicarious shiver of danger, even if the reality is completely safe.” Nearly 18 years after the bombing began, tourists can still get that “vicarious shiver of danger” by visiting the hollowed-out remains of the General Staff Headquarters in central Belgrade. But scholar Filip Ejdus argues that the bombed out site remains not because “it’s hip” but because it’s “become a repository of Serbia’s memories of defiance in the face of foreign aggression.”
This capital “at the cutting edge of cool” is still something of a “hidden gem”. Some have suggested that the wreckage of one of the city’s bombed out buildings be transformed into another Berghain, another cathedral for kinetic music, and forward-facing oblivion.
Belgrade is a city built atop the graveyard of empires, of superiority complexes and inferiority complexes. It hates the world but is also desperate for the world’s approval. Some say Belgrade is “like Budapest 10 years ago with its ruin bars or Prague in the 1990s with its beer halls”. If that’s true, Belgrade stays out later and has considerably less hope.
Belgrade is full of life, death, bureaucratic incompetence, trauma, suicidal graffiti, rampant benzodiazepine abuse, mass graves, Tito’s dead body.
It’s a beautiful city, and its streets of claustrophobic concrete are capable of inducing both exhilaration and chest-clutching paranoia. It may not be a Salzburg or a Venice, but viewed from the right angle on a rooftop for a few brief seconds at sunrise, through an Instagram filter and the fog of ozone and nitrogen dioxide, the sheer visual brutality of Belgrade can make it appear like the very best city in the world.
List of cities that have been referred to as “the new Berlin”:
Leipzig (“Germany: Is Leipzig the new Berlin?” The Guardian, September 11th, 2014)
Brussels (“Why Brussels is the New Berlin” The New York Times, December 11, 2015)
Vienna (“Could Vienna be the New Berlin, City of Dreams for International Investors?” The Telegraph, September 23, 2016)
Budapest (“7 Facts That Undoubtedly Prove Budapest is the New Berlin”, Oyster.com, March 25, 2016)
Madrid (“Madrid is the New Berlin!” esmadrid.com, June 20, 2016)
Kiev (“Is Post-Maidan Kiev the New Berlin or a City Making its Own Way?” Calvert Journal, January 15, 2015)
Bucharest (“48 Hours in Bucharest: from Little Paris to the New Berlin” Lonely Planet)
Lisbon (“Is Lisbon the Next Berlin?” The Spaces)
Detroit (“Detroit is the New Berlin”, Deutsche Welle, November 21, 2013)
All photos courtesy of the author