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Hipster Village: Berlin Nightlife Grows Up

By Philipp Oehmke

Photo Gallery: Berlin's Underdog Coup Photos
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For a decade, Bar 25 was one of Berlin's wildest clubs. Now, its founders want to create a new development on the site. It is to cater to former clubbers and preserve an element of 1990s Berlin. But the hurdles are high.

It is the 56th visit he has made to some kind of local authority, Juval Dieziger says after a bit of arithmetic. It's not, he notes, the kind of life he had envisioned for himself.

Dieziger is a club owner. He used to run Bar 25, a nightclub that helped ensure that Berlin became known around the world for over-the-top nights on the town -- nights that often went from Friday to Monday. He's wears a shaggy black and gray beard that reaches almost to his chest; locks of his dark hair stick out from beneath his cap. His t-shirt has holes in it and he looks a bit like the captain of a stranded pirate ship.

A taxi is standing by and Dieziger is waiting for business partner Christoph Klenzendorf, with whom he opened Bar 25 some 10 years ago and, later, the almost equally legendary club KaterHolzig. Together, they are visiting the building permits office in Berlin's Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district. The issues to be discussed are technical in nature -- minimum distances allowed between buildings, a bothersome noise study and construction permits.

Lifting the Underground into the Mainstream

As tedious as they are, the appointments with bureaucracy are necessary. Now in their forties, Dieziger and Klenzendorf are no longer intent on just running their own club. They want to build an urban district in central Berlin, along the banks of the Spree River at a location known as Holzmarkt. The quarter will provide a new home for a lifestyle that has thus far existed only in the underground world of the clubs, at night and in exclusive places that aren't accessible to all. After 25 years of club culture in Berlin, this underground culture is now being given a place in the world above -- and in a prime location, too.

The property is the size of two-and-a-half football fields. In early 2012, Klenzendorf and Dieziger founded the Holzmarkt Cooperative Society, landed an investor in the form of a Swiss pension fund and purchased the property. The price tag was well above €10 million.

The site they acquired was one of the most sought-after open spaces in the city, miraculously beating out investors and hedge funds that had likewise shown interest. Since their coup, they have been known as the "business hippies."

But now comes the hard part -- actually building the development. The plans foresee a technology center for start-ups, a student dormitory, a shopping village, a market, a trail along the river bank, warehouse space for music studios and workshops, a restaurant, a nightclub, a hotel, a fish farm, a gardening area and, given that everyone is getting a little older, a daycare center.

Klenzendorf finally arrives. For his meeting with the planning office, he wears jogging shorts and hiking boots. In the taxi, Dieziger tries to explain the issues to be addressed at the permits office, but with Klenzendorf's mobile phone ringing non-stop, it's an impossible task. Things from the night before need to be discussed and he's having trouble concentrating, he says.

Up front in the passenger seat, Mario Husten is speaking urgently on his mobile phone with the group's lawyer. There's been water damage in their new nightclub and the insurance company is refusing to pay.

In an earlier life, Husten was an executive at a major newspaper publishing house, where he was responsible for operations in Eastern Europe. Klenzendorf and Dieziger brought him on board two years ago because he's a fast thinker, persuasive and knows what the term "controlling" actually means.

The Roots of Berlin's Non-Stop Party Culture

"Shit, things are jinxed right now," Husten says as he ends the call. Dieziger looks out the open taxi window. Have they bit off more than they can chew? Starting Bar 25 was a lot easier. All they had to do was secure an interim use lease, drive a motor home onto the property for the stereo system and drink sales, build a few wooden huts and a dance floor. Then you had to put the right people in place as doorkeepers and let in the right kinds of drug dealers. The two proved highly adept and the result was one of Berlin's most spectacular clubs.

A new party culture sprouted -- one in which excess was no longer the exception, but the rule. Guests at Bar 25 didn't just lose a few hours on a Saturday. They went to the club for the entire weekend, often staying until Monday afternoon. Those who went in, people said, didn't come out.

Originally, they rented the property relatively cheaply from the city's refuse disposal company, which hadn't been using the land. It had always been clear to Bar 25's owners that the city would eventually sell the property to investors for the development of high-end apartments or office towers, as happened with other empty lots along the river. When the sale process began at the end of 2010, Bar 25 had to move out after a long back-and-forth. Dieziger and Klenzendorf moved directly across the river to an abandoned factory where they ran the new KaterHolzig nightclub and restaurant for two-and-a-half years.

The Bet

The whole time, though, they wanted to get their old property back and they began wondering if they might be able to buy it themselves. Maybe the city would sell it to them cheaply? They knew how important the kind of clubs they run are for the city's reputation, especially under Mayor Klaus Wowereit, who likes to promote Berlin's party culture. They started working on a development concept.

The concept quickly began to focus on how one could age within the club culture. Christoph Klenzendorf recently returned from a vacation in Mallorca with his girlfriend and his 15-year-old daughter. His girlfriend goes by the name Steffi-Lotta, and she worked the door at Bar 25. Her attire is almost circus-like in its outlandishness and she has a raspy voice. Her appearance is the opposite of Sven Marquardt, the tattooed and pierced doorman at the famous Berghain nightclub, a man who is notorious for his strict door policy. But getting past Steffi-Lotta wasn't particularly easy either.

Now 40, Klenzendorf has been at this for 20 years -- the partying, the staying awake for several days at a time, the drugs. Drugs were an integral part of the Bar 25 lifestyle -- mostly ecstasy, but also LSD and cocaine. Without them, it wouldn't be possible to party through an entire weekend. And in no other place in Berlin could you see as many people high at one time as you could at Bar 25.

The End of an Era?

Klenzendorf says he feels this era may be ending and that it will soon be replaced by a new, different generation. Recently, they celebrated the 10-year-anniversary of Bar 25 and, concurrently, the opening of the new club at Holzmarkt. Again the party lasted for days and Klenzendorf says it took him a long time to recover, but he was also blissful. The feeling of being among family had returned. They are many of them working together -- indeed, that is why Klenzendorf believes the Herculean project they have set out for themselves may actually succeed. Some 10 corporations have been formed under the collective, all led by friends and companions.

In August, they set up a temporary Bar 25-like establishment in a forest on a lake in Gabicz, a Polish village just across the border. About an hour's drive from Berlin, it was a music and performance festival for 3,000 people. "At the end of the day, this kind of partying is the foundation for everything we do. We have to keep that in mind, even if we're doing something different now," he says.

The different thing they are now doing explains why they are now on the eighth floor of the planning office. They intend to explain to the district councilor for building and planning, Hans Panhoff, that the bureaucracy is killing them. They say it's simply too stressful and inefficient to have to keep traveling from one agency to the next -- to the building inspection department, to city planning, to the environmental office, underground engineering and the office for the protection of historical monuments. They require an individual appointment for each agency, and often, the different agencies have no idea what the others are doing. The people behind the cooperative have analyzed the agency procedures and would like to help optimize them.

Dieziger and Klenzendorf both address the city councilor at the same time. In response, Panhoff puts his hands up, explaining that last night was the first he had spent at home again since being placed under police protection after he called the police when the situation threatened to escalate in a Kreuzberg school that was occupied by refugees. Now left-wing extremists are threatening him.

As such, he says, his appointment with the urban hippies is among the more pleasant duties his job entails. He likes their courage, he says, and the fact that they repeatedly ask questions when they don't understand something. And there are many things that are difficult to understand: fine print, regulations and a tangle of abbreviations.

In 1980, Panhoff himself occupied a house in Kreuzberg, a phenomenon common during the 1970s, '80s and, after reunification, in the early '90s. Today he's a member of the district council representing the Green Party. In these young men standing in his office, he sees something of a weapon against what he calls the city's investor-friendly policies -- namely the sell-out of the best pieces of property to developers who then build glass offices and river-view penthouses.

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1. Growing up!
aviator9152 09/04/2014
Interesting article. I recall a young British Paratrooper posted to Berlin in the mid 1970s. Oh my! you didn't tell me about these particular "birds and Bees" dad. Loved every minute of my 2 years in the city and it was the only time that I came close to leaving the army to settle. Eventually did 32 years later.
2.
nsmith 09/05/2014
Good Luck! They've got about as much a chance of making this happen, as re-building the Wall. Anybody who lived in Berlin before the Wende (like myself), will tell you in a heartbeat -- there ain't no goin' back! -- The city has been over-marketed, over-built, and over-done to the point where you have to look really hard to find it. That said, "Berlin bleibt Berlin"...und ick hab' noch eene koffa da.
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