• Berlin
  • Save Berlin: A snowball in hell


Save Berlin: A snowball in hell

City West is one part of town that gentrification can forget... or so one would think. As the more-than-100-year-old Hotel Bogota shuts its doors, it’s clear that even here, the phenomenon can do lots of damage. Dan Borden mourns the hotel's demise.

Image for Save Berlin: A snowball in hell
Photo by Charlotte Eberwein

Dan Borden on the ominous demise of the Hotel Bogota.

First Berlin’s leaders swore gentrification didn’t exist. Now they admit it’s here but swear it’s moving at a glacial pace. Problem is, global warming has given ‘glacial pace’ a whole new meaning, and like those swiftly melting ice sheets, Berlin’s low rents are vanishing fast. 2013 was the year the ominous dripping burst into a flood, but instead of surveying 12 months of ugly defeats, let’s mourn one sad passing.

Berlin’s fabled Kurfürstendamm today bears little resemblance to the raucous neon-lit boulevard where Cold War West Berliners packed cabarets and theatres. It’s aged into a ho-hum strip mall of high-end corporate monotony. A stone’s throw from Apple’s digital wonders and Cartier’s diamonds sits a little-known gem, a throwback to the old Ku’damm. In the war between Old Berlin and New, the family-owned, two-star Hotel Bogota didn’t stand a chance. On December 1, when it said goodbye to its last guests, Berlin lost a piece of its soul. The Hotel Bogota was a microcosm of Berlin, and its loss mirrors all that’s disappearing in our city.

Cheap, stylish digs: Bogota was an anomaly, a low-priced hotel on Ku’damm with real style. It was housed in a former apartment building barely changed since it opened in 1911. Guests slept on creaky period furniture. Toilets were down the hall. Its eccentric charm inspired an army of fiercely loyal guests. On any given morning, you might spot Rupert Everett or Keira Knightly scampering across the corridor to take a shower.

Dark history: The building at Schlüterstraße 45 had a first-row seat to Berlin’s darkest days. The hotel is named after Colombia’s capital because its owners had fled there to escape the Nazis. In 1934, the apartments were converted into the Reich Chamber of Culture, the Nazi office charged with rooting out “degenerate art”. After the war, a horde of confiscated paintings was found in the basement. The wood-paneled office of top Nazi Hans Hinkel became the Bogota’s communal TV lounge.

Culture: The hotel was a veritable museum, its spaces decorated with art by residents and fans. A fourth-floor gallery displayed black-and-white works by fashion photographer Else Neuländer-Simon, aka YVA, who had a flat and studio in the building in the 1930s. Her protégé, the young Berlin-born Helmut Newton, learned his craft shooting models in and on the building. In 1942, the Jewish Neuländer-Simon was murdered by the Nazis, but Newton’s career exploded. He repaid his hometown in 2004 by founding the Museum for Photography a few blocks away. In a neighbourhood famed for its grand cinemas, Hotel Bogota boasted one of its own. The ground-floor dining hall was the former screening room where the Nazis’ Chamber of Culture decided whether films adhered to Hitler’s code of decency.

Architecture: From its dark paneling and parquet floors to its winding stairs and creaking metal-cage elevator, the hotel is an unsullied piece of pre-war Berlin. As Bogota owner Joachim Rissman noted, “Poverty is the best conservator.” The building’s new owner Thomas Bscher plans to convert it to offices and promises a top-to-bottom renovation sure to strip away the building’s irreplaceable quirk and patina of age. For a preview, check out the numbingly tasteful faux-Weimar trappings of the just-renovated Haus Cumberland around the corner.

Goodbye Mom and Pop: Gentrification is defined as the displacement of native residents by rising rents. What could be more native to Berlin than the Hotel Bogota? Rising rents along Ku’damm are shutting down dozens of family-operated hotels, restaurants and shops as deep-pocketed chains jockey for prime locations. These high-end outsiders – Hyatt to Sheraton, Gucci to Starbucks – create lower-paying, less-secure jobs while often contributing nothing in taxes. Starbucks’ shady tax dealings are well documented: despite earning €125 million in 2012, their German branches paid their Amsterdam headquarters exorbitant ‘licensing fees’ that wiped out taxable profits. By letting corporate bullies kill homegrown businesses, Berlin is yielding to bland homogenisation while sacrificing character, history and economic stability. The death of the Hotel Bogota is only the tip of the iceberg.

Fans can still buy a piece of Hotel Bogota’s history. For information about the auction of its furnishings, check out their website: www.bogota.de.

Originally published in issue #122, December 2013.