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Save Berlin: CBGB Syndrome

The Berlin club scene is suffering a virulent beating from the dastardly dull. Much like CBGB's in New York, clubs made the town and now some of its residents are shocked by the noise. Dan Borden voices the anger from one casualty of such behaviour.

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Berlin’s clubs are dying. Knaack, Big Eden, Icon, Klub der Republik – our dance and concert venues are dropping like flies. I know, clubs come and go, but this is an epidemic. The death rate has shot up so fast that locals bemoan a plague of “Clubsterben”, or ‘club death.’ Berlin’s government has created a million-euro emergency fund to help struggling clubs stay on their feet. At stake: nothing less than Berlin’s reputation as the party capital of the world.

The cause? Call it CBGB Syndrome. The landmark punk club helped put New York’s Lower East Side on the map, then fell victim to a deadly combination of rising rents and the city’s policy of zero tolerance toward “nuisance complaints” – a few whiny phone calls could sink a thriving business. East Berlin’s own CBGB’s, the Knaack Club, survived the darkest days of the GDR but was done in by its cranky new Prenzlauer Berg neighbours.

Real estate values are one thing, but who are these Berliners whose mission in life is enforcing city noise regulations? Horrified to discover they’re in a vibrant, rowdy metropolis like Berlin, they feel compelled to make it over in the image of the quiet, sleepy town from which they came – like Stuttgart, Düsseldorf or Munich.

The latest victim of noise complaints doesn’t even have neighbours – it’s on an island. Two years ago, a plucky non-profit called Kulturalarm beat out high-profile developers to operate Treptow’s Insel der Jugend, or Island of Youth. They reinvented this green oasis in the Spree as Insel Berlin, a haven for people of all ages and, crucially, all incomes. Their inaugural concert, part of the Fête de la Musique on June 21, 2010, was followed by puppet shows, outdoor films and even jousting matches, all free or at affordable prices. Support came from a small bar/café and canoe rental. Last year 60,000 guests crossed the historic 1915 footbridge to take part.

On the other side of the Spree, a very different community was taking shape. Stralau was once a sleepy fishing village, but now acres of blandly generic row houses are transforming this isolated peninsula into the kind of exclusive, car-friendly residential zone you might find on the outskirts of Miami – or Munich.

Last year, one or more Stralau residents caught wind of the live music drifting a half kilometre from the Insel and made a formal complaint. Treptow’s noise control police came down like a sledgehammer, imposing a maximum noise limit between 55 and 70 decibels (for reference, a normal conversation is around 60 dB). Then, in a strange move, they relocated the noise monitoring device from the Stralau shore to the island itself, making compliance with the rules nearly impossible.

André Szatkowski, head of Kulturalarm, feels betrayed. He’s had to cancel all events that require amplified music – no concert promoter will risk getting shut down. Those Treptow officials who supported his bid and signed a 15-year contract now side with the noise police. Other nearby noise makers – a Vattenfall power station, the Zenner Biergarten, barges and party boats – aren’t held to the same strict rules. Szatkowski says Kulturalarm fought hard to win control of the island and has sunk €120,000 into improvements. With 15 employees waiting to get paid and no help from the city, he’s at wit’s end and fears this may be Insel Berlin’s last summer.

Why pick on poor Insel Berlin? Szatkowski theorises those rich Stralauers just have more political clout. Or maybe the city is grandstanding, taking a symbolic hard line on noise here to counterbalance the PR disaster around its new airport.

Berlin’s government has to make a choice – either side with those whiny complainers or the small music venues critical to the city’s economy and character. That million euros set aside to help ailing clubs is nothing compared to the 160 million the city spent on opera and classical music last year, and it’s earmarked only to help clubs relocate or sponsor fundraisers. Wouldn’t it be better spent relocating those crabby noisehaters to a quiet Brandenburg asparagus field?