More than two decades ago, Berlin’s alternative club culture flourished in Mitte in abandoned buildings. Today, Mitte’s skyline twinkles with luxury new high rise buildings, while the party scene was forced to move to the new “Club Mile” — A five kilometre stretch between Alexanderplatz and Oberbaumbrücke. Now, people in the club scene worry that Club Mile will face the same fate as Mitte. Gentrification, skyrocketing rents and tourism are threatening club culture. This brings to question, where will Berlin’s parties take place in the future?
It’s 5:30 on a Sunday morning in one of Berlin’s illegal clubs, and people are still dancing like there’s no tomorrow to 4/4 techno beats. You have to know how to find your way to this hidden, nowhere-else-but-Berlin style of a club, built from planks and old shipping containers. The club is in Berlin’s busiest clubbing area in Kreuzberg, situated between a construction site and a cross-fit gym.
The first sun rays of the day hit the yard where people chill on old couches, smoking cigarettes and catching a breath before continuing their dancing. A pile of car wheels, televisions, radios and other junk form a kind of a totem in the centre of the yard, as a tribute to informality and freedom.
But still, even in Kreuzberg, the relaxed and ragged home of alternative culture, the future of the clubs isn’t guaranteed. The city is changing. At the end of April, Resident Advisor, an online music magazine and community platform dedicated to showcasing electronic music, artists and events, wrote that Watergate’s landlord had doubled the rent. The owners of the club renting the place say that the only way to counter the spike in costs is to “expand conceptually as well as in terms of content.”
Lutz Leichsenring, the press officer for Clubcommission Berlin, a lobbying organization for the city’s nightlife, sees that cost pressure affects clubs’ programmes and thus reputation.
”Most of the venues finance their more experimental programmes by renting out their facilities for companies and brands to organize events.,” says Leichsenring. “Maybe [they] open the venue also other days to do other kinds of music events, not electronic music. Then you lose the profile of the club and eventually you have to reach out for a more mainsream crowd.”
He explains that the most ambitious clubs which don’t want to settle in their music style and DJ bookings are situated there where the rents are not so high.
”The less ambitious venues are in the city centre where the rents are really high already. They just try to attract the mainstream crowd to get income.”
Gentrification threatening the clubs
The reason why a part of a city becomes more expensive is gentrification. This means a phenomenon where a rough, working class neighbourhood gets a facelift and starts to attract the middle class. As wealthier people move in the neighborhood, it becomes more expensive to live in.
As ironic as it is, the clubs are actually also one of the reasons for gentrification. As Watergate’s spokesperson describes to Resident Advisor, the club is falling for its own success, for it has ”inadvertently contributed to gentrification” in the area.
Walking the busy streets of Wrangelkiez, the eastern end of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district where Watergate is also located, it’s hard to imagine that just 15 years ago the area or Kiez (a German word that refers to relatively small community within a big town) wasn’t this hip at all. It was a poor and quiet area. Now the lights and music of the kebab shops, pizzerias, convenience stores and bars seem to keep the area alive 24 hours a day.
Eric Eitel, a curator and consultant for art, culture and tech projects, who moved to Berlin in 2002, has seen the change in the area. He was one of the first ones to open an underground culture spot where they organized also club nights and concerts in Wrangelkiez.
“In this poor working class area there was a massive district management program in 2002, that helped the area to liven up again from the economic point of view,” Eitel says, referring to Berlin’s Neighbourhood Management program, that was funding Wrangelkiez from 1999 until the end of 2015.
”We couldn’t pay the rent of our culture spot so we got money from the Neighborhood Management program to open and run the place. At the same time we were fuelling gentrification because people started to see this neighborhood differently for we had this hip little place there. Expats started to visit the area and also new bars started to pop up that time.”
Eitel explains that after some bars, cafes and shops move into an area the story of gentrification continues somewhat like this:
”New families move to the area because it is cool, then they start to have kids, and then these clubs are too loud and everything is too nasty in their opinion. So they will try to get them out of their way.”
When clubs get into conflicts with the residents of the area, they may ask Clubcommission to help negotiate with the authorities. Leichsenring sees that gentrification and increase in complaints against clubs used to go very much hand in hand.
”Now I guess the complaining is not so common. But it doesn’t matter, cause if you have this one person living near the club and he is calling the police then you already have a problem.”
90s club mile in mitte
The club scene has moved once before. Back in the 90s alternative clubs took place in Mitte on a one kilometre long stretch of Leipziger Straße between Potzdamer Platz and Friedrichstraße. Now most of them are located in a five-kilometer stretch between Alexanderplatz and the Oberbaumbrücke bridge, that goes over the river Spree separating Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain.
After the reunification of Berlin in 1989 there were many abandoned, ownerless buildings – for example a bank vault, former electrical substation and an old air-raid shelter – that were turned into clubs. These clubs were the legendary Tresor, E-Werk and Der Bunker, that were named after the old purpose of the buildings.
A music journalist Tobias Rapp describes the former club mile in his book Lost and Sound: Berlin, Techno and the Easyjet Set (2008) like this:
”In the early nineties you would see more people here at night time, around clubs such as Tresor, E-Werk, WMF and others, than you would during the day. It was an urban no-man’s land which was soon to be developed by investors, and one where a formidable pop-cultural dynamic developed for a period of a few years.”
Now these old clubs are turned into office buildings and multi-purpose event locations when investors bought them and ended the rental contracts in the late 90s and early millennium.
Passing by the old address of Tresor in Leipziger Straße 126-128 in Mitte, there is no sign of the premises old life. A fancy office building doesn’t host sweaty, drugged clubbers but nicely dressed up office workers in their suits and pencil skirts.
This is a trend that alternative culture doesn’t want to follow. In Kreuzberg there is a constant battle between the investors and clubs. In the metro station of Heinrich Heine Straße, next to the Sage Club, there are bill boards saying:
”To the investors of Ohmstraße. The club culture of Berlin has existed here for decades. We would like to ask you to re-concider building here.”
This message is signed by Clubcommission and the nearby clubs Tresor, Sage Club and KitKat Club.
There are also logos of initiatives like Spreeufer für alle! and Megaspree that operate against Media Spree, one of the largest property investment projects in Berlin. It aims to establish telecommunication and media companies along a section of the banks of the river Spree as well as to carry out an urban renewal in the area.
Mediaspree has already wiped clubs like Ostgut (the predecessor of Berghain), Club Maria, Casino and Bar25 out of its way. Now the premises are occupied for example by MTV’s German headquarters and the huge Mercedes-Benz Arena.
The thing is, these plots of land were purchased already after the fall of the wall when the banks of Spree were nothing but a big wasteland. In 2001 an association called Mediaspree e. V. was founded to bring together the landowners and investors.
”First there was nothing there and no one wanted to move there. After politicians and city developers made a plan, companies could buy property, but there was no money to build because there were no investments coming in. Then suddenly clubs started popping up and the whole area got very very attractive. Then the owners said ’Ok, now we can build’ ”, Leichsenring sums up.
“Berghain is over, it’s just too touristic”
Back in the illegal club the party shows no signs of ending, though the sun keeps on rising higher, like reminding the party people that the weekend is getting closer to its end. The hip looking 20- or 30-something Berliners chilling on the rugged couches have just finished their cigarettes and are ready to go inside for another round. For them the weekend is far from being over, for in Berlin Sunday is as valuable clubbing day as Friday or Saturday.
When asking these people why they are partying here and not for example in Berghain, that has been rated as the best club in the world by everyone from New York Times to DJ Mag, you get a dry answer:
”Berghain is over. It was good ten years ago.”
Her friends nod their heads in agreement.
”It is not the real Berlin.” the woman continues, ”It’s just too touristic.”
And that’s no wonder. Everybody wants to have a piece of Berlin’s famous nightlife and especially the famously secretive Berghain. According to a study by Berlin tourism organization visitBerlin, one-third of visitors to Berlin are drawn by the city’s nightlife. And that’s a big slice, for a record 12,7 million tourists visited Berlin in 2016.
According to the author Tobias Rapp, low-cost airlines have revolutionized clubbing. He sees airplanes as taxis, bringing clubbers to the city just for the weekend. The statistics back his theory up, for in 2016 the average stay in Berlin was 2.4 days.
”You can talk to any Berlin club promoter — all of them admit, whether openly or with some reserve, that around one in three clubs would have to close if you were to take away the Easy jet ravers”, Rapp writes.
Leichsenring reminds that when people say a famous club like Berghain has become too touristic, the actual problem isn’t people from elsewhere but people going to the clubs for wrong reasons.
”If clubs like Berghain are losing their credibility it’s not for the tourists but for the wrong crowd. This means people who are not really into the music, who just want to have a good night out and hook up with girls or whatever.”
How do you then know it you are ’the right crowd’?
”Clubbing means to meet people who have the same vibe. If you get the drug culture, the music culture or the LGBT community and don’t get offended or offend anyone”, Leichsenring says.
clubs spreading around the city
The Sunday morning ravers have one more advice to give before they disappear in the shed-like dance floor filled with artificial smoke from the fog machines.
”You should try Heideglühen in Wedding.”
Heideglühen is a DIY style of a club (just like this one) in the opposite direction of the club mile, in north-west of the city, in Wedding. It is an old working class area that has been touted as the next up-and-coming borough for years. At the moment it’s popular amongst students who move there due to comparably low rents.
This sounds exactly like Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg’s past. Is it really a considerable option that clubs will have to find their ”new Kreuzberg” in the future?
”Absolutely. I am convinced that it [club mile] won’t stay here. For example Wrangelkiez has become so expensive that all alternative culture has to go. High entrance fees don’t go together with alternative culture”, Eitel says.
”If you see a place like Watergate closing, also the other clubs won’t be there in a couple of years. Places like Watergate are losers in this game.”
According to Leichsenring it’s not the end of the world (or clubbing) if the clubs need to move.
”Club culture will find somewhere else to go. The clubs just need a plan where to go.”
Dr. Luis-Manuel Garcia, lecturer in ethnomusicology and popular music at the University of Birmingham, who is probably most known in the music scene for his article An alternative history of sexuality in club culture in Resident Advisor, sees that there is a possibility of club mile splitting up and spreading around the city.
”Newer venues seem to be scattered all over Berlin: in Neukölln, Lichtenberg, Wedding, Moabit and so on. The electronic music scene seems to be less and less geographically concentrated; and I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing”, Garcia says.
He sees that Berlin’s status as a club capital of Europe is not to take for granted.
”Considering that property values in Berlin are rising as gentrification accelerates, the city’s future as Europe’s techno capital is far from certain. Underground dance music scenes often flourish in cities that are experiencing economic decline and urban decay (for example downtown Manhattan in the 70s, Detroit in the 80s and 90s, Berlin in the 90s and early 2000s). When a city becomes economically strong and the cost of living goes up, these scenes struggle to survive.”
For now, you can still count on Berlin when it comes to clubbing. One good indicator according to Leichsenring is that most venues are still promoting the nights by music and not by cheap vodka shots.
Another good indicator are these secretive places that you find by an accident in Berlin’s night. Trying to find the illegal club the next day is really hard. It’s as if it disappeared or was demolished and became a part of the construction site next to it.
Suddenly a door made of planks appears and opens, and a classic hippie-style of a guy with a long beard and bare feet steps out of a yard. He closes the door quickly as if hiding something, but there is just enough time to see a glimpse of those couches and that junk art.
”There is no club”, the man says. And winks.
This gives you hope of that the best part of Berlin’s night life is still hidden and safe.