Spreepark goes dark

Out of the GDR came Berlin's one and only theme park. Back in June, we looked into 10 years of the Spreepark closure and revisited the aging fairground's story.

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Photo by Astrid Warberg

It’s been 10 years since Berlin’s one and only amusement park closed its doors to generations of eager fair-goers.

Once it was Kulturpark, pride of the GDR, attracting families and punk rockers alike with its carnival games, log flume and towering ferris wheel. Now, it’s in shambles. A strong wind will cause the wheel to turn on its own, slowly and creakily. Fallen, headless dinosaurs lie between rusted roller coasters. Walking through the ruins, it’s easy to overlook a set of child-sized footprints in the concrete path. “That was me, when I was 11!” Sabrina Witte exclaims. “My parents told me not to walk there, so of course I did.”

Sabrina is the daughter of Norbert Witte, the descendent of a line of German carnival performers and operators. He and his wife Pia bought the grounds in 1990 after the fall of the Wall forced Kulturpark to shut down. It was in the newly christened Spreepark that Sabrina spent her childhood. “Everyone says, you’re so lucky, growing up in an amusement park. But I’m from a Schaustelle (show business) family – for me it was normal.”

Initially, the park was a success… until the city unilaterally decided to eliminate 3000 parking spaces – officially to conserve the surrounding Plänterwald forest. As a consequence, attendance dropped sharply. Despite the Wittes’ best efforts, Spreepark had to close in January 2002.

Bankrupt but still a Schausteller at heart, Norbert took his family to Peru, where he attempted to set up a ‘Lunapark’ in Lima. Sensing that this venture would be short-lived, his wife Pia Witte moved back to Germany with their daughters in mid-2002, leaving behind her dogged husband and 21-year-old son Marcel.

Nearly a year later, Sabrina heard the shocking news: her dad and brother had smuggled drugs! Desperate to recoup his finances, Norbert had agreed to ‘help’ transport some 76kg of cocaine from Peru to Berlin inside a ride – the “Flying Carpet”.

Both were arrested right away. Norbert Witte served four years in a low-security prison in Germany, but Marcel, who had little involvement in the fiasco, was caught and imprisoned in Lima, where he has remained in dire conditions to this day despite his family’s best efforts to rescue him (or at least to get him transferred to a jail in Germany).

The German media seized upon the scandal. The Wittes made national headlines. A high school student at the time, Sabrina was unprepared for her family’s sudden notoriety. She received dirty looks at restaurants and felt ostracised from her classmates: “You think you have friends, but then…” The family moved to Hanover, and then to the outskirts of Brandenburg. Sabrina began a new career as a chef, “far away from all that”.

Meanwhile, Spreepark remained shuttered, and its many rides and attractions fell into disrepair. The flimsy fence was easy to jump over or crawl under, and the park became a target for vandals, bored teenagers and thrill-seeking tourists. Though the land technically belonged to the city of Berlin, outstanding debts of over €11 million meant the government took no interest in cleaning up the site. In 2009, ownership of the park reverted to Pia Witte.

When Sabrina returned to her old stomping grounds shortly afterward, she was devastated. Norbert, now living in a trailer in the Plänterwald, refused to involve himself in park matters, so Sabrina and her mother hatched a plan with Gerd Emge, the premises’ head of security. Though his company is paid by the city, Emge – who also oversees security at Teufelsberg, and seems to have a soft spot for unique, abandoned places – bonded with the struggling family.

In 2011, Sabrina and Pia opened a small café, Mythos, near Spreepark’s entrance and began conducting €15 tours of the grounds on weekends. That same year, they were able to re-open the Parkbahn, a festive mini-train that chugs along the park’s perimeter, charging €2 a ride. Emge took charge of events, negotiating with film producers and the occasional promoter to rent the park out for a few thousand euros a day. Witte hopes that slowly, through these revenues, she can breathe new life into the decaying complex. “I work hard for this place because my heart is here,” she says.

It’s an uphill battle. The whole park is a massive liability: rusted control panels and exposed wires poke out from the disused rides, and ticket booths and concession stands appear on the verge of total collapse. For that reason, outside visitors cannot legally enter the park unless accompanied by a security guard, as on the tours. During weekdays, about 20 of Emge’s guards keep the park secured. Additionally, seven dogs patrol the grounds. But sneaking in is a fairly risk-free endeavour – the dogs don’t bite, and the guards don’t make arrests – and tips and tricks are available online.

If Sabrina had the money, she’d satiate the public’s curiosity safely and legally. But she estimates that it will take upwards of a million euros to bring everything up to code. “And a cup of coffee costs €1.50. So I’d need to sell a lot of coffee!” A few interested parties have considered buying the park, including the owners of former nightlife institution Bar25. But all potential investors eventually back out, fearing the same financial and bureaucratic quagmires that plagued the former owners.

Gradually, though, Spreepark is showing signs of renewal. Events like the techno party Berliner Luft & Liebe and last year’s Lunapark project, put on by HAU, have drawn thousands of visitors.

Last June brought Kulturpark, a combination festival and urban planning conference. American organizers George Scheer and Stephanie Sherman united architects, academics, and Treptow residents through a series of talks and dinner exchanges.

Meanwhile, a team of local and international artists spent that same month transforming the grounds. The group lacked the money to permanently alter the park, but their goal was to open a dialogue, or as Scheer calls it, a “sensitive intervention,” about its future.

Like all attempts to revitalise decaying parts of Berlin, Spreepark’s revival is a delicate matter.

Turning the city’s most famous abandoned place into yet another gallery/venue will certainly kill some of its fairytale mystique. “My temptation is to allow it to safely exist as it is, but with greater access,” says Scheer. “But how do you do that without destroying that sense of danger and the feeling you’ve discovered this magical thing that only you know exists?”

Sabrina shares some of those concerns, but she also envisions concerts, people relaxing in the sun, maybe a re-opened ride or two. Ultimately, she aims to turn the park’s – and the Wittes’ – reputation around. “We have two possibilities: stay in the house with Angst, or go out and say, ‘We are here! Come and see!’”