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Club death and transfiguration

Cookies shuts its doors for the final time after July 19, but that's just the tip of the iceberg of Mitte's moribund nightlife scene. Is the party over for the formerly happening district and what does it spell for the rest of Berlin?

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Photo by Marc Brinkmeier

The spring saw a swathe of late-night institutions in Mitte closing or moving away from the centre. Is the party over for the formerly happening district and what does it spell for the rest of Berlin?

Serving frothy pils to the thirsty workers of Mitte since 1893, Bierstube Alt Berlin pulled down its shutters for the last time at the end of April. Old Berlin in name and nature, it sounded like a death rattle for the authentic Mitte nightlife of yesteryear. Said to have been frequented by Bertolt Brecht and Alfred Döblin, the pub was a legend in its own lifetime – a no-frills Raucherlokal where one could well imagine Franz Biberkopf in the corner, quietly serenading his three beers and Kümmelschnaps.

As the last traditional place on Münzstraße – awash in a sea of posh boutiques and flagships – the small 70sqm thorn in the side of Mitte’s gentrification remained, until the very end, as popular as ever. The sadly familiar story being that the whole building was sold to an investor from afar, Harm Müller-Spreer in Hamburg, who promptly demanded 10 times the rent as soon as the contract was up. Which would have meant a rent of around €800 per month jumping up to around €8000 – an unfathomable amount for any small Kneipe.

Although the Alt Berliners are searching for a new location to call home and refit with all the original fixtures, bar manager Dana Tucker is still grieving several weeks after the closure. “It used to be a city full of so many possibilities and such freedom… Now it’s getting more and more restricted.”

This is the case even for a nocturnal institution and tourist magnet like White Trash Fast Food. After 13 years on and around Torstraße, the burger-and-music joint has upped sticks for a larger and cheaper location down by the Arena complex in Treptow. Owner Wally Potts puts it simply: “There’s no future in having a club in Mitte-Prenzlauer Berg.” And after all, he should have a good feel for the district, having first moved to Mitte in the early 1990s, living in a squat on Auguststraße and learning to cook there in one of the soup kitchens. Explaining the move, he says: “I’m fighting for a space where I don’t get shut down by the neighbours… I started not feeling so comfortable. I just don’t think Mitte has a scene anymore.”

Aside from the changing atmosphere of the area, the rocketing rent was ultimately one of the deciding factors. Two years ago when White Trash’s contract was up, the owner wanted to increase his earnings overnight by 40 percent. Potts refused and continued to pay the old amount, around €7000 per month, until he was finally taken to court and ordered to pay it in full – a situation he had to stomach until a new venue was found. Recently his old property was put on the market again, this time marked up to €16,660 per month.

“I’m fighting for a space where I don’t get shut down by the neighbours… I just don’t think Mitte has a scene anymore.”

Being unable (or unwilling) to keep pace with the rent is one thing, but being kicked out on principle is something else. Baiz – everybody’s favourite leftie bar on Torstraße – suffered this fate earlier this year. Although they could still afford the rent, which had doubled in 10 years, in the end the new owners decided that the Baiz motto of “Kein Bex, kein Latte, kein Bullshit” simply wasn’t for Berlin-Mitte in 2014. According to the formal head of the Baiz collective Matthias Bogisch: “They told us that the place didn’t match [the character of the building], so there was no new contract.” 

After protesting in vain, they resolved to move and found new digs up in Prenzlauer Berg, a stone’s throw away from the bourgeois Kollwitzplatz. “They’re not just idiots around here,” quips Bogisch. Baiz belongs to the property-owning class too now, having bought their new 150sqm corner spot.

Asking around their circle of friends and supporters, they raised the funds in a mere four weeks, most of it given as an interest-free loan. Referring to the changes in Mitte, born-and-bred Berliner Bogisch says: “What I see is that a lot of what makes up Berlin’s special identity, whether it’s certain clubs or bars or alternative culture, is now being pushed out.”

And it seems to be happening faster these days. April also saw the end of King Kong Klub and Naherholung Sternchen. The former an old hand of the Mitte club scene, the other more of a newcomer; nevertheless, both stood out thanks to a lovable DIY approach and an eclectic programme of readings, concerts, comedy and parties.

Naherholung Sternchen even suffered the indignity of having to cancel their weekend-long ‘last hurrah’ event because of pressure from the nearby Amt.

Cookies, a Mitte nightlife epicentre in the 1990s, will throw its closing party on July 19. This year would have been its 20th birthday.

That is not to say that the party is completely over in Mitte. It has just mutated into something altogether more grownup, more monied and, one might say, more generic. Late cocktail bars where suits armed with clipboards and velvet ropes marshal the door; nightlife spots that wouldn’t look out of place in London or New York. The last couple years have thrown up the dress-to-impress likes of Trust, The Liberate and more recently the Chelsea Bar. However, it’s a corner just south of Rosenthaler Platz that is most indicative of the current changes…

Delicious Doughnuts, a late night (and often all day too) stalwart of the Mitte scene opened in 1993, launched the careers of bigshot Berlin DJs like Ben Klock and was a trusty reliable for nearly two decades – an unlikely place where you might end up should your birthday fall on a Tuesday with nowhere else open come 6am. Inhabited by a colourful assortment of ravers and reprobates, plus a few straggling tourists and birthday kids, it too had to permanently close in 2012. Reopening in its place last year was Dean – part of the proliferating Amano hotel group – and another golden-hued, swanky, dancey bar where the long drinks start at €10.

One of the only Mitte success stories in recent years is that of Schokoladen. The writing was on the wall for the squat-turned-living project and all-round cultural centre until the philanthropic Edith Maryon Foundation stepped in at the death in 2012 with a loan to buy the entire building. Schokoladen hopes that other alternative and traditional locations will return to Mitte (fingers crossed for Bierstube Alt Berlin), although even its members when pushed believe the neighbourhood is something of a lost cause.

“Realistically speaking, it’s going to get worse in the direction of London or Paris or somewhere,” says Chris Keller, who moved to Berlin in 1990 and has a Hinterhof studio in the charmingly dilapidated building just north of Torstraße.

A photographer and musician by trade, he is a veteran of the underground Mitte scene (Tacheles, IM Eimer, Synlabor) and believes that the struggles he has lived through in the centre are only a precursor to city-wide problems: “When capital is the main interest there is very little room for culture and art. You can clearly see what has gone wrong [in Mitte] but it can also happen in Kreuzberg, Neukölln, Wedding, Friedrichshain.”

The demise of any subculture or scene is often predicted almost from the outset. And Mitte after the Wall came down has been no different. Nevertheless, the recent spate of forced closures and relocations paints quite a grim picture for the area’s nightlife. Anchored by the garish opulence of members’ club Soho House at the eastern end of Torstraße, expect more exclusive bars to emerge in the Scheunenviertel – steamrolling all but a few tenements of local, loud, late-night charm.

The German media often refer to it as Clubsterben (club death) but another, less frequently used term, Clubkarussel, might be more accurate. Many of the old clubs and bars – like Baiz and White Trash – continue to flourish in their new locations. For further proof of this chopping and changing, just keep an eye on Kiki Blofeld, a Mitte club legend on par with Bar25 until its untimely, Mediaspree-induced closure in 2011. This May, it re-opened in Oberschöneweide: “just a 30-minute tram ride from Friedrichshain,” as its owner, Gerke Freyschmidt, pleaded in Tagesspiegel. With none other than Bryan Adams set to open an artists’ complex in the desolate neighbourhood, will the far East pick up where Mitte left off?

According to Potts from White Trash, “There is no conspiracy theory. Berlin is becoming what it is. The nightlife will find its space and people will always be moving to the next free zone.” The battle for alternative spaces in Mitte has been largely lost, but if Berlin isn’t to become just another homogeneous metropolis, the fight for the rest of city must rage on.

Originally published in issue #129, July/August 2014.