Rubble Love

Boulder-raised but dreaming of sausage, Schnitzel, and Alexanderplatz

 LOCATION: Williamsburg
RENT: $750 [market]
SQUARE FEET: 96 [one room plus use of living room and kitchen in apartment over a store, shared with graphic designer and music producer]
OCCUPANT: Jesse Shapins [urban dramaturge, The Ride New York]

You look so familiar, though maybe it's because you have the same eyeglasses as all these people I've interviewed. Most were in Williamsburg, one was in Astoria. So when you go to the kitchen or bathroom, you have to walk through the landing. It must get a little nippy. You moved here March 1. We didn't interview your roommates because you don't really know them. I'm not at home very much.

I've always been dying to discuss New York and Berlin in the same breath. This interview was inspired by "The Colors of Berlin" exhibit that you and your Stadtblind colleagues—a Berlin-New York artist collective—curated at the Van Alen Institute here, showing the unobserved part of everyday Berlin. There was sausage at the opening. The walls are covered with three-by-eight-inch cards, small, silent images—not that paper would be noisy—of a yellow garden hose, a bench, a washing machine—all the small images that are exactly what a place is, and not necessarily the public monuments or places of big trade. One of the problems in Berlin is that following '89 [fall of the Wall], people were focused on construction and the historic landscape. They ignored everyday life.

Jesse Shapins in Williamsburg
photo: Shiho Fukada
Jesse Shapins in Williamsburg

Doesn't every city celebrate its statues of generals on horses, the big things? Here—the Statue of Liberty, for which, by the way, you said your landscape architect parents are doing the master plan. Yes, but one of our interests was to awaken a greater pride in the city, and love. Love is a term we use more often than not in speaking of Berlin. Our project is a critique of the policies following '89. The future that Berlin tried to imagine—as the new center of Europe—was completely out of touch with its resources. There was an unbelievable prediction of growth. This had no basis, seeing that West Berlin had been completely subsidized without any free market. Everything was financed by the British, French, Americans.

I remember Berlin in the mid '80s. The train station in the zoo, the hotel with the kaiser roll, and then the room in a high-ceilinged pension where, when I went to sleep at night, I realized the landlords were young adults in the late 1930s but they said nothing when we had jam in the morning. But anyway, there is something unreal about subsidized entities, like an artificial diorama where someone is always making sure the lake is filled. Berlin right now is in severe economic crisis, debt larger than the whole country of Argentina. Though the debt is to the federal government, so it's a different situation. Unemployment is 18.5 percent. The population is slowly shrinking and aging, and a lot of these problems could have been anticipated in '89.

In recent years so many New York artists, especially Williamsburgers, seem to have residencies in Berlin. You sound like you have an accent when you talk, but you're from Boulder and you were only in Berlin for two years after you went to Columbia. I tend to pick up accents quite quickly in whatever language I'm speaking. Art subsidies are not as much now because the government has no money. Only 40 percent of Berliners pay for their own existence. I know very few who genuinely finance their own lives. There I paid $350 for a whole apartment. There's not a large demand on the rental market. There are over 100,000 empty apartments. They're tearing down buildings. The mistake is they should try to support young people. A professional elite hasn't really formed.

No yuppies. Far fewer than in New York. Living in a place without any yuppies at all makes you realize they have some function.

To keep the economy healthy. Why did you—you from Boulder where everyone has pink cheeks and your mother goes hiking every morning—want to live in Williamsburg? Because it's as bleak as Berlin? There are certain similarities.

 
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