By Renard Teipelke
The expert seemed quite outraged hearing my question about Frankfurt am Main’s reputation as an economically strong capital of finance that lacks the alternative style and subcultural creativity of Berlin. I moved from Germany’s capital city to Frankfurt last year and have since then engaged various people in discussions about the cities’ different image and ‘urban atmosphere’. This time, we talked to an expert who works for the business incubator and creativity center of Frankfurt, MAINRAUM, and thus must have a biased take on the issue. Nevertheless, she brought up various aspects that I would like to share with you, because I think that her arguments (even though not totally new) are a fine example for understanding a city government’s perspective on the “creative city” debate. They might also convince some of the readers to readjust their picture of Frankfurt and Berlin (as well as similar cities).
1) Richard Florida, the creative class, and creativity
The praised and cursed “creative city” guru, Richard Florida, explains how cities have to attract creative workers who will ensure the socioeconomic vitality of urban centers in the age of information and communication technologies and mobility networks. The creative class is an economically strong, merely undefined mass of global nomads that are moving from one city to another, seeking an atmosphere of openness to diversity of all kinds. With regard to German cities, the above mentioned expert claimed that this is true – if at all – only in the case of Berlin. Frankfurt, as other big cities, is not attracting global nomads but primarily creative workers and culturepreneurs from the Frankfurt-Rhine-Main Metropolitan Region (which includes more than five million inhabitants and has the sixth-largest GDP of all EU metropolitan regions). With respect to marketing and public relations, gaming and software, Frankfurt has a vital creative industry. In other interviews we had in the past month, various creative workers have confirmed that the informal local buzz in the Frankfurt-Rhine-Main Metropolitan Region is a key component of their economically successful and ideas-rich work.
2) Frankfurt’s reputation in Germany and abroad
The expert underscored that the negative image of Frankfurt I was referring to is a genuine German thing. She acknowledged that efforts in the past to change this image have not been very fruitful. Germans see Frankfurt as a boring city of banks that is definitely not cool, worth living in, culturally rich or alternative in any kind. In great contrast, the expert could tell from her experience during meetings with international delegations that the city’s global reputation is close to being perfect: Frankfurt is perceived as the city of international finance, a center of world trade, and a hub for transnational transportation. International guests in Frankfurt praise it for offering one of the most heterogeneous cultural scenes in Europe – with the highlight of the Museums Riverbank and its adjacent world class museums such as Städel and Schirn. Furthermore, ranked among the most livable cities in the world (as Berlin, Global Cities Survey 2011), Frankfurt officials are presumably satisfied with the city’s international reputation, accepting the ‘misconception’ by Germans.
3) The blindfold Berlin hype and Frankfurt’s evil banks
Even though Lonely Planet or weblog appraisals of Berlin tend to neglect some important facts, the expert pointed out that not one of her colleagues from other German cities and states (Länder), not even the ones from Berlin, see Germany’s capital city as a best case example for how to run or develop a city. High unemployment, hardly any industrial base, and desperately debt-ridden – Berlin is not the only case that proves how insufficient creativity alone is for a city’s vitality, livability, and socioeconomic functionality. The expert, then, drew a highly relevant connection: Berlin has many creative workers, but they are not able to find a sufficient market with solvent customers in the city. In Frankfurt, the creative sector might be comparatively smaller, but with the financial sector and other industries providing well-paying jobs, ‘creativity sells’ (compare it with other finance cities such as New York, London, San Francisco, or Shanghai). Eventually, the expert is happy to have those ‘evil banks’ in town, because they are providing (indirectly through employees, their spouses, foundations, and clubs) the funding for a vital cultural scene.
Since the expert’s argumentation is primarily based on many years of experience, it is not really applicable to unmask her points as being incorrect. It is rather the case that her arguments put certain factors to the fore, while leaving other important aspects out. One example would be the differentiation between culture and subculture. Though definitions are highly difficult, one could think about culture in Germany (e.g. opera) as being (insufficiently) subsidized or funded by the state and/or private actors and playing at the ‘center stage’, while subculture (e.g. non-profit music clubs) has to fight for its spaces and constantly needs to reinvent itself for catering to narrow niches. The expert critically assessed the challenge (a.k.a. problem) of extremely high rents in Frankfurt, though she did not explicitly differentiate culture and subculture, thus lacking a sufficient understanding of subcultures’ needs – not only for affordable places, but also for opposing a convenience marriage with ‘evil finance’ which subcultural creative people particularly detest. On the other hand, the expert influenced my thinking about Berlin, Frankfurt, and ‘creative’ cities. I will keep my love for Berlin as a city that offers places for diversity of all kinds in a rich subcultural (or maybe: alternative) atmosphere. However, I will have to reconsider how vital cities can work by supporting links between economy and culture and by developing a co-existence of mainstream and the alternative. Neither Berlin nor Frankfurt have reached this ideal – it seems to be a difficult task.