Alexis Waltz on the transformation of the city’s nightlife landscape in an increasingly challenging environment

©Gaurab Thakali
©Gaurab Thakali

Freedom, For One Summer Only

The man who appeared out of nowhere on the floor right in front of me didn’t fit in at this party. He looked tired and sad and he was not drunk, not even a little. Also, he was wearing a bathrobe. He had to get up and go to work in an hour, and he hadn’t slept yet. He said so without a trace of anger. It must’ve been 7 AM on November 1st, 1999. It was a Friday.

We used to open up our basement bar in a residential house on Torstraße 161 in Berlin-Mitte every Thursday – on the weekends, we wanted to go clubbing ourselves, at clubs like WMF or Ostgut. Our bar had grown out of a project undertaken as part of our degree in Cultural Studies, opening up a store that would change its identity, operating under different concepts. We had met with Jutta Weitz, who had been renting out lots of venues to bar, club and gallery owners at that time, at WBM, the Berlin-Mitte Housing Association, to help us find the right spot. She offered us a store that she had previously rented out for 600 Deutsche Mark. 555 DM would be a funny price, one member of our group mentioned, and Weitz agreed. And so we rented out the 56 square-meter store for this exact amount. Today, the rent would be ten times as high.

We experimented with varied concepts for our place, and then we discovered techno and opened up a real bar with DJs. It was simple: We sold beers for three DM and strong mai tais for six. Once the beverage dealer was paid, we still had 200 to 300 DM left. From what we earned, we acquired a small PA and invited folks like Rashad Becker and CGB-1 of Dubplates & Mastering, or Kotai & Mo of Elektro Music Department. Just as important as the music were the speed-induced discussions at the bar, ranging from music to a mix of theory, politics and art, all common themes in Berlin-Mitte venues like WMF or Panasonic.

We ran this location all summer long, until we started fighting among ourselves and cancelled our lease, without thinking too much about it. Equal parts naïve and arrogant, we simply did whatever we felt like, without realizing how unique our situation was. Few have described this experience, typical of Berlin in the 1990s, as accurately as Tresor creator Dimitri Hegemann: “The model is superb. Go in and try things out, and after one or two years you can still go: That’s not really my thing. It was new – it felt like a new dawn. Everything was swinging. We could experiment. It was a small rebellion, an attitude against the mainstream.”

“The people want to be where the fire is.
If you get rid of the arsonists, it gets boring.”

Dimitri Hegemann

Countless projects, locations, bars and clubs were created this way that did not necessarily have to define themselves as one thing or another. Some vanished quickly. Others, like Tresor, turned into actual clubs. Today, two decades later, the situation couldn’t be more different. If you want to rent a location or venue, you have to be financially well-off. Small venues get pushed off the market, with the music scene obviously affected, and the disappearance of clubs is a constant conversation topic.
             iIIn 2018 alone, Rosi’s, Bassy Club and Bar Babette had to shut down, while other spots fight for their existence. In no more than two years, Privatclub in Kreuzberg will close: After the club was purchased by entrepreneurial brothers Marc and Oliver Samwer, club manager Norbert Jackschenties was forced to radically limit his concert program – the music allegedly disturbs the adjacent start-up, apparently working around-the-clock. “He’ll be left with nothing but ruins,” says Hegemann. “This is bigotry. We helped Berlin become so successful. The people want to be where the fire is. If you get rid of the arsonists, it gets boring.”

Watergate: From the Basement into the Light

In May 2017, it was announced that the Watergate club’s rent was raised by 100 percent. I meet with Watergate co-creator Uli Wombacher at the club’s unassuming office space. Wombacher and his three partners have been running Watergate since 2001. He is 44 years old; he threw his first block parties in West Berlin at 16, and in the ’90s he was a drum & bass DJ. “When we set up shop, we wanted to offer everything from techno and reggae to hip-hop and house,” he says. “Depressingly, I had to realize that that’s not how it works. You have to provide a constant. But after all, it’s a good thing to stand for something.” 

Watergate’s Perlon label night Get Perlonized and New Kids on Acid by Ricardo Villalobos and Ata quickly became two of the city’s best-loved parties. The focus shifted from static, Detroit-centric ’90s techno to house. However, the classic house template from New York and Chicago was no longer leading the way. Instead, a minimal, psychedelic and humorous sound, represented by Perlon and Ata’s Playhouse label, took its place. The club’s “water floor,” overlooking the Spree, mirrors the pervasiveness and atmosphere of this music. In retrospect, Watergate symbolizes the escape from the basement clubs of the ’90s, into an airy, light-flooded party experience.

Asked about the increased rent, the words sputter out of Wombacher. A certain Gijora Padovicz bought the whole house in 2015. In the 1990s, Padovicz had begun to systematically buy squat houses in Berlin-Friedrichshain, and then got rid of the left-wing housing projects. This seemed to sit well with the city and borough council. In 2007, Taz reported that more than 200 houses in Friedrichshain belonged to Padovicz’s vast but tightly knit company network. Taz also reported on rumors of staged home invasions, sawed-off gas pipes and house fires in Padovicz’s holdings. Today, the dealings are more business-like.

“He does things with a persistence you can’t imagine,” says Wombacher. “You meet with this guy and you can’t help but be deeply impressed by how he goes for his goals without the slightest hint of emotion or empathy. A rent raise of 100% brings us into a position that we don’t want to be in. We told him that. ‘Open up an extra day then,’ was his response.”

Faced with this new situation, Watergate has reached the limits of what’s possible, Wombacher explains. “We have to cut back on the quality we really want to afford. We used to be able to say yes to charity events, book young artists, take no money from XJazz Festival, just because we thought it was a good thing. This is no longer possible; I have to take a day’s rent from everyone. And if I make a wrong move, I’m out. If we have three or four lousy months, it’s over. And the venue has to be packed all the time. The pressure is extreme.”

The value of the property lies in the concession for the club, not in the building per se, he says. This concession by the city, which grants the rights to the tenants to establish a nightclub venue in the building, would be impossible to get these days. “We have discovered the magic of this place, have filled this ugly house with meaning and life. It has a name now,” Wombacher says. Padovicz lets Watergate’s management pay for the fact that they transformed the building into a club of global renown. The four partners contemplated buying the house themselves, and with an extreme amount of effort, this would have been possible. But they had a suspicion that Padovicz would have beaten their offer anyway.

For a while now, Wombacher has tried to figure out how much the club would change if he balanced out the additional costs with higher entry fees of 18-20 euros. “I won’t take that step, due to an inner conviction,” he says. “At the end of the day, we would exclude a group of ravers, the ones who don’t make that kind of money. But the scene lives off of those that don’t have awesome start-up jobs. A club is fueled by creatives who work nightshifts at a bar, trying to make their own music during the day. If we become nothing but a space for consumption, and the people stop talking about the music at the DJ booth, I’m not even sure I’d want to continue.”   
The Easyjetset: A Curse and a Blessing

In 2004, Bar25 on Holzmarktstraße – famed predecessor of the venues Kater Holzig and Kater Blau – followed Watergate’s impetus to open up Berlin’s nightlife towards the Spree. Here, it became apparent that the MDMA and ketamine-induced minimal sound was especially effective at afterhour parties. The tracks express a feeling of timelessness, carrying you through the whole weekend. These ethereal grooves did not have to be bouncing back from the walls of a club. Their poetry came to life when vanishing into open air – just as in the wooden shack of Bar25. With its huge tree and the Spree as its backdrop, the bar felt idyllic, disconnected and somewhat lost, all at the same time.

Apart from the move towards a minimal sound and the focus on afterhours, the so-called Easyjetset marked the biggest change in Berlin’s nightlife during the 2000s. Until then, only a few thousand people went clubbing regularly in Berlin. Nowadays, young people from all over the globe come here, to celebrate the kinds of parties that are no longer taking place – or have never taken place – in London, Paris, Moscow and New York. “Berlin is iconic, a beacon for certain desires,” Hegemann explains. “Something’s happening here, everything is possible. You can legally do illegal things. That’s the rumor that drives people to this place.”

“We want to create a situation that
can be passed on.”

Tony Ettelt

This constant stream of party-ready people changed the scene profoundly. The feeling of community vanished, since one no longer dances weekend after weekend with a compact group of people. At the same time, clubs achieve financial security thanks to the party tourists. Most of these visitors have a ready cashflow, and are used to paying higher entry fees than bohemian Berliners, who don’t like to pay too much for entry and drinks as a point of principle, or as a badge of cool.

The cheap flights also caused international bookings to become more affordable, and more and more international DJs discovered Berlin wasn’t just a place that inspired them, but was also a viable place for them to live, too.

Salon zur wilden Renate: The Legacy of Temporary Use

The Salon zur wilden Renate is a club that international musicians like dOP from Paris or Soul Clap from New York fell in love with, simply because the rundown Berlin of the ’90s was still alive there. The Renate rose out of parties at the former “Senatsreservenspeicher” in Kreuzberg in 2007. (The name “Renate” is a play on the German word for the building’s former usage as municipal storage.) Tony Ettelt is one of the club’s managers. He used to work as a location scout for film sets when he noticed the abandoned rental house. “There were no tenants, no facility management. The owner was nowhere to be found; the surveyor’s office had no substantial information either. Back then, telephone book CD-ROMs were popular. You could get all the respective telephone numbers using the address entry field.” He phoned up all the numbers, hoping that one of the tenants had continued his landline number. He found a former tenant this way, who connected him with the owner. “If I hadn’t found the dusty CD-ROM, Renate probably wouldn’t exist,” says Ettelt, laughing. Apparently, the caretaker took a liking to the group and handed over the house to them. However, for the first six years, the lease only covered three months at a time.

Renate, too, was recently sold: to Gijora Padovicz. “That came out of nowhere,” Ettelt says. “First, our lease was cancelled, then the rent was doubled. Negotiations were one-sided. We were confronted with a lease we could sign or not. Padovicz squeezes every euro he can get out of us. He assumes that you can make a lot of money with clubs. And the building can stay unrenovated, just as it had been for many decades, and he can still increase the rent.”

The crew behind Renate has rented out the whole complex to strengthen their position in negotiations. The remaining spaces they rent out as studios and ateliers. Since it’s not yet decided whether an extension of the Stadtautobahn A100 will actually be built, Renate is one of the last temporary use clubs in Berlin. This concept was common practice for club owners in the ’90s and 2000s as the question of ownership wasn’t completely clarified for most buildings during that time. Therefore, empty buildings could easily be turned into temporary club spaces. But Ettelt detests this concept: “Every euro you put into something can be a lost euro. In a few years, it could be ‘Tschüssikowski’ (“bye-bye”). From our end, it’s no longer desirable to act on short notice. Medium-term, we need to find sustainable solutions. We want to create a situation that can be passed on.”

Queer Spaces: Re-politicizing the Dancefloor

In the 2000s, Berlin’s nightlife was full of innovative new places to party. “In the ’90s we went to the basements,” says Wombacher. “Then came the rooftops – even the Ku’damm has those now. We’re at the waterfront, we have an LED-roof; that’s our thing. You can find LED roofs in mainstream poser discos now. What am I supposed to do next, build a club underwater?”

The journey through the different spaces the city has to offer has nearly reached its limits, and a wholly new sound that demands a different kind of party is not in sight either. Thus, in the 2010s, the focus has shifted towards clubbers’ identities. The queer scene attracts plentiful positive attention and creates safe spaces in Berlin’s nightlife for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people and all other gender identities. This focus comes alongside a general re-politicization of the nightlife.

“Gegen is a party and not a physical structure.”
Boxikus and Warbear

In the 1990s, Berlin’s queer scene predominantly happened in academic or leftist-autonomous contexts. Via parties and clubs in squats, the queer discourse reached deep into the techno scene, but it hardly permeated the professional clubs. About:blank is the first club in Berlin that merges a queer, radically leftist approach with ambitious, international bookings.

In fact, the interface between gay nightlife and electronic music used to be surprisingly small in the ‘90s. One of the few gay nights at an electronic music club was GMF at WMF. This changed in 1998 with Ostgut, Berghain’s predecessor. It was here that the gay scene met with a predominantly heterosexual party crowd, which was searching for an alternative to the rundown club scene of Berlin-Mitte.

While Berghain in the 2000s preserved the polarity of Ostgut, driven by a new sound referred to as Berghain techno, notions of queer self-conception have become as important as the music itself in the 2010s. A string of collectives and groups helped develop this approach, but with different focuses. Homopatik, CockTail d’Amore, Gegen, Herrensauna, Buttons and Room 4 Resistance are all held in different clubs, and these collectives are much more exciting and identity-building than those that simply provide a location.

One reason for this is that they can invest less, and can therefore react faster to changes. “There is a big hiatus between promoters and clubs“, Gegen promoters Boxikus and Warbear write in an email. “The difference stands in the fact that Gegen is a party and not a physical structure. Of course the club KitKat is part of this success but there are a lot of intervening variables like the choice to do a queer event in which sexuality is openly played in a safe space, the choice to be integrative and to push the value of difference and multiplicity with our public and our artists as much as possible in an intersectional perspective (sexual orientation, gender, race, age, different abilities), the fact that we are not squeezing the orange and keep the event once every two months.“

Nostalgia and Future Sounds

Even as the club scene has become more inclusive, not every place is as welcoming as they might seem. The post-migrant Turkish and Arabic community is still the group most decidedly excluded from the nightlife of their city. Says Yusuf Esiyok of Loftus Hall: “I often encountered problems, trying to get in clubs.” He sees the reason for this in his Turkish descent, but he doesn’t want to call it blatant racism. Yet it was reason enough to start his own club. Esiyok, too, has to fight for his location: The landlord intended to knock down the building at Maybachufer in Neukölln to build apartments, even before the lease had expired. Now, Esiyok and his brother have successfully sued for their right of residency.

Most club owners now rely on established templates: Suicide Circus recalls the industrial aesthetics of the 1990s, while Kater Blau, Heideglühen, Ipse and Griessmühle evoke the wooden shack approach of the 2000s. There are new clubs popping up, too: 60Hz, Ost, Anomalie, Mensch Meier and Arkaoda to name a few. A real standout is Paloma Bar at Kottbusser Tor, which pursues a distinctive house sound without relying on star DJs. Equally exciting is Sameheads in Neukölln, which has developed a surprisingly noisy sound with disco-y undertones. Examples like these show how the Berlin club scene can still offer extraordinary freedoms in creative and social contexts.

And yet, Hegemann, Ettelt and Wombacher contemplate how the spaces they created can be preserved in economically difficult times. Hegemann would prefer to turn Tresor into a cooperative – the building should be owned by a foundation. “I told [Detroit techno activist] Mike Banks: ‘What happens if you drive your whip into a ditch tomorrow? Who’s going to be the new Dalai Lama of Detroit then?’ It would be great if we could leave something behind. He liked that idea – he’s thinking about it right now.” 

Translation by Julian Brimmers

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