Berlin’s Openly Gay Mayor Steps Down. The Airport’s a Disaster, but the City Is Cool.

Mayor Klaus Wowereit, Berlin’s openly gay king of cool. 

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit—the first high-profile openly gay German politician—has announced that he will end his 13 years in office this December. His popularity in Berlin and beyond has been compromised in recent years by construction delays and cost overruns for the Berlin Brandenburg Airport, which is now expected to be completed in 2016, years overdue and billions of euros over budget. Wowereit has declared it his “greatest defeat,” and he will step down to cries of economic incompetence. But he will do so in a city that he made cool.

“I’m gay, and that’s OK,” Wowereit said before his election in 2001. In fact, for Berlin, it was more than OK. Since Wowereit first took office, Berlin, “poor but sexy” (his 2003 quip and the city’s unofficial slogan), has transformed. In 2006, it was likened by the New York Times to “New York City in the 1980s,” in that “[r]ents are cheap, graffiti is everywhere and the city crackles with a creativity that comes only from a city in transformation.” More than 150,000 jobs have been created since 2005, with start-up firms being drawn to the city like tourists to—well, to Berlin since Wowereit took office. (This past year, Berlin broke tourism records for the 10th time in a row.) As Berlin International Film Festival boss Dieter Kosslick put it, Wowereit’s Berlin “has made culture its primary industry.”

Gay culture in particular was no small part of that. According to Gay Travel, 1 in 10 of the city’s residents are gay or bisexual, and under the leadership of the openly gay mayor, Berlin has consistently ranked as one of the top gay cities. Gay clubs are a key part of the nightlife culture that made Berlin arguably the coolest place in the world.

Still, no city can stay poor but sexy forever, and the increase of tourism and wealth inevitably led some to decry the death of hip Berlin. But it was Wowereit who reigned over the city’s decade as the world’s capital of cool. It is ironic, in a way, that an airport forced him down, because he took Berlin to new heights.