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Berghain in Berlin. Photo/Getty Images

Why Berlin's signature clubbing scene is fighting for survival

Rising rents and gentrification are putting the German city's famous nightlife spots at risk.

Berlin is world famous for its nightlife, with hundreds of bars that barely close and dozens of dance clubs described as the best on Earth. These lure about three million visitors to the city every year; they bring about €1.5 billion worth of business with them and keep more than 10,000 locals employed. And many of the guests will tell you that, in return, they get this uncanny sense of freedom on Berlin’s dance floors.

At Berghain – one of the world’s most famous techno clubs, in an old power plant – just about the only rule is “no cameras”. Anyone and everyone parties here, half-naked or drugged or drunk, or maybe just very high on life and music. Nobody cares. Be yourself. Be someone else. Do what you want. There are not many, if any, places as tolerant and open.

Berghain may be the best known, but it’s not the only such den of iniquity in the German capital. Yet, despite all the hype, many of these places are being forced to close. “Berlin clubs’ fight for survival,” one local newspaper proclaimed last month. “The mass extinction in the Berlin club scene continues,” another declared.

Potential closures this year include places such as the KitKatClub, a sex club where costumed swingers play with gay (and straight) abandon, and the canal-side, after-party Griessmuehle, which also hosts table tennis tournaments and flea markets.

Stattbad, a former municipal pool turned labyrinthine music venue and gallery, is already gone. But if your band ever played at the deep end of the swimming pool – as some New Zealand groups did – then you’ll never forget it.

Many of these places arrived after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when the city was littered with vacant buildings, formerly owned by the East German state. This decade, rising rents, gentrification that brings noise-hating neighbours and commercial tenancy rules are among the many reasons that some of the best-known clubs in the country are shutting.

Berlin’s nightlife is its own worst enemy, one local journalist has suggested – it’s so good, it entices young people from all over the world here, which is causing gentrification, which is pushing the clubs out.

The problems have been noted by the authorities. The city council has put €1 million aside to help soundproof clubs, and local politicians have offered to help negotiate with landlords and find new leases. “Club culture is worth protecting because these are meeting points with a sociocultural function,” one local council member explained.

The club managers and owners themselves have been wary of working with the latter – after all, that spoils the hedonistic, anti-establishment image that makes them so popular.

At the same time, they have no choice. The managers of a space called Holzmarkt described the quandary: “How does Berlin ‘grow up’ without losing the DNA that makes the city what it is? How do we fight against Berlin becoming as commercial and bland as New York, London, Paris?”

Perhaps the most important question is, why should anybody else, other than dedicated, disco-ball-toting ravers, really care? Maybe because a wildly liberal nightlife is part of what makes Berlin so wunderbar.

Since the 1920s, residents have prided themselves on a “live-and let-live” attitude. And there’s still nothing quite like seeing freshly scrubbed office workers sharing the early Monday morning commute with woozy clubbers covered in three nights’ worth of dance-floor grime and glitter, each cabal regarding the other with bemused sympathy. It feels like an odd sort of celebration of urban community. The city wouldn’t be the same without it.

This article was first published in the February 1, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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