The low-lit bar in Kreuzberg, referred to as “No Name Bar” because it lacks a sign on the door, was packed on a recent Sunday evening for a poetry slam. The event was organized by Gangway, Germany’s biggest charity that helps disadvantaged young people.
Victoria Franco was one of the 12 young performers from Berlin and New York who took to the stage, to recite, speak and perform.
With her long, purple-dyed curls and resonating voice, the 24-year-old student from New York held the attention of the room as she read her poem about rejecting the corporate path her father planned for her and finding her own way.
As she closed with the words, “I can, I will, I will,” the crowd erupted with applause.
The evening was part of a Gangway exchange program called “Global Ambassadors.” It brings young New Yorkers and Berliners together during week-long stays in each city. The participants may live in exciting cities, but they generally come from less advantaged socio-economic groups and may never have had the opportunity to travel out of these cities never mind overseas.
The exchange program gives them the chance to meet other young people, explore a new culture and experience a city that they may only have read about or seen in films.
Gangway, founded in 1990, plays an important role in Berlin, a city where many districts are filled with concrete apartment blocks, known as Plattenbauten, housing thousands of people, a high proportion of whom are welfare recipients.
The organization reaches out to young people, many of whom have had a difficult upbringing, criminal records or did not finish school. The Global Ambassadors project is just one of many projects that engages young people in educational activities and aims to expand their cultural horizons.
There are tours of Berlin, and evenings at Berlin’s hip-hop joints, including a session at the Turntable Tutorial, an opportunity to hear and see some of Berlin’s most artful scratching techniques.
Eddie, a 25-year-old academic advisor to the Guttman College group, said he was surprised to see an underground hip-hop scene in Berlin which has died out in New York. “This doesn’t exist there anymore.”
The same goes for the dissolution of graffiti in America’s capital city.
While graffiti has largely disappeared from New York’s subways, Berlin is still plastered with tags, not just on the trains and trams, but on every conceivable urban surface.
“What I appreciate the most in Berlin is the street art - in New York they try to hide the street art,” Eddie said.
In Berlin people are more attuned to what life really is about. This city isn’t just about work. Nico, A German member of the exchange
The interactions are a reminder that in some ways the Berlin of today resembles how New York used to be: graffitied, poor, radical.
The young people from New York generally experience Berlin as more free with much less regulations and laws. Ramon Mendez, who moved to New York from Ecuador, said the city is, "more liberal, regardless of what Germans might believe. New York is a place where you have to be careful so you won't get stopped by a cop.”
They also experience Berlin as a city that is far more laid back. Nico, one of the German students, summed up the city's energy.
“In Berlin, people are more attuned to what life really is about. This city isn’t just about work. In New York, I guess that is pretty different. I think that maybe people forget how to live there.”
Victoria Franco reads her poem "Stagnant."
Sarah Mewes is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition and is originally from Berlin. To contact her: [email protected].