Any newbie in SLO town is guaranteed to be recommended a trip to Kreuzberg. This coffee-slurping, grub-eating, lounge-listening joint seems to have effortlessly placed itself at the core of San Luis Obispo culture and has become a staple of many locals and Cal Poly students. The foundation of its appeal relies on its distinct, nonchalant coolness that has continued to draw people to come in and stay in since its start in 2010. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine a time when the Kreuzberg sign didn’t proudly proclaim its presence among the hot spots on Higuera street.

The Other Kreuzberg

Far away from SLO and the only Kreuzberg I had ever known, I was in Europe for the majority of this past summer studying abroad in London. When my courses ended, I continued my travels, which included a spontaneous four day stop in Berlin. Exploring a German city miles away from home, I wasn’t expecting much familiarity. Then, I saw this:

Ashley Ladin

And this.

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An immediate jaw drop was deployed. Realization kicked in. Kreuzberg wasn’t just a rad, mishmosh of letters bestowed upon a cafe--it was an actual place. A Berlin neighborhood, which I quickly discovered has a miraculously similar spirit as the cafe which shares its name.

Poor but Sexy

How did SLO get hold of its own mini version of Kreuzberg, Berlin? Cal Poly graduates, James Whitaker and Chris Tarcon, who spent some of their time after college living in Berlin, are the ones to thank for that.

“[I] fell in love with Berlin, the whole city, but really enjoyed Kreuzberg, which has always been very gritty, but very unique,” said Whitaker.

Ah, yes. Gritty was an ideal word for the Kreuzberg that I was walking around. Yet, it was grit presented in the most favorable way. The walls were covered in an ongoing battle of thoughtless tags against detailed street art, and the people claimed the streets with an assured spunkiness. My tour guide for the day described it perfectly, and deemed the whole of Berlin “poor, but sexy.”

As a frequent of the Kreuzberg in SLO, this phrase immediately rang a bell.

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This slogan is used all throughout the Kreuzberg coffee shop, found on various merchandise and is even used as the name of their signature coffee blend. I was always fond of the saying, just assuming the cafe was relating to the college plight. However, here I was in Berlin, and my tour guide was uttering the same exact phrase.

“Poor, but sexy” was first used to describe Berlin by Klaus Wowereit, who served as the mayor of Berlin from 2001 to 2014. While Berlin is one of the poorest cities in Germany, it is also the creative center of the country, and thus carries a certain appeal. The motto immediately gained a following, and continues to be used in advertisements and by local citizens since its debut during a television interview in 2004.

Familiar Art

As the tour came to a conclusion, I ventured off on my own and entered a shop with all sorts of books and trinkets, when yet another unexpected connection hit home.                               

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A nearly identical mural holds center stage in San Luis Obispo's Kreuzberg.

Ashley Ladin

The original piece was done by street artist Blu, who became quite popular in Berlin after creating multiple murals in Kreuzberg. The figures are holding up "east side" and "west side" gang signs, which came into use once the city was divided by the Berlin wall. This particular piece was one that Whitaker knew he wanted to recreate and feature in his own cafe in SLO.

“When it went up, it was iconic in Kreuzberg, and I was living there when it was installed. I went to the opening party and I always loved it… perfect to fill a whole wall,” said Whitaker.

The authentic mural of the two masked men that inspired Whitaker has since been painted over, but luckily, I was able to find another famous Blu mural that is still standing in Berlin.

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Incorporating German Culture 

While Kreuzberg in SLO is able to bring an iconic Berlin slogan and mural to Higuera Street, it also accomplishes a more ambitious task, and provides the experience of a European cafe in our small, American town:

“In Europe, cafes all serve beer and booze, so I feel in love with the lifestyle of getting coffee, lunch and then cocktails or beer all in the same place. It was this collection of coffee, food, alcohol and art that I wanted to bring back to SLO,” said Whitaker. 

Kreuzberg is the romanticized version of what a cafe should be; whacky art playfully clutters the walls, lamps hang gleefully upside down from the ceiling in opposition to standard protocol and patrons appear wondrously present in the space. While we all enjoy the magic of the cafe in San Luis Obispo, the inspiration for this Higuera street favorite lies 5,768 miles away, in a neighborhood of a city that still remains damaged by a war and wall long gone. Yet, Kreuzberg is able to turn its hardships into its ever-expanding, unique beauty: 

"Undesirable and cheap became cool and hip and gritty," said Whitaker. 

This is the spell that Kreuzberg has managed to cast on SLO. It provides style and authenticity in the most unexpected and delightful ways. Whether stopping by Kreuzberg, CA, thanks to a recommendation, or stumbling across Kreuzberg, Berlin, by accident, nothing there will be exactly how you anticipate it to be. That's the Kreuzberg way.