Music & clubs

Das Kapital and the clubs

Every summer, the clubs on the river drum up media fuss about their imminent demise. Each victim of the Mediaspree developers throws a ‘last closing forever’ party – only to cancel the closure their success.

Image for Das Kapital and the clubs
Photo by Christian Vagt

Every summer, the clubs on the river drum up media fuss about their imminent demise. Each fallen victim of the Mediaspree capitalist developers throws a ‘last closing forever’ party – only to cancel the closure after raking in the proceeds. Is all this gentrification talk just a PR stunt by a few savvy nightlife entrepreneurs?

At the end of May, Maria am Ostbahnhof, the legendary club on the north bank of the Spree, celebrated its final party. It was a spectacular closing, if a bittersweet one. The crowd in the cavernous, dirty bunker of a club went wild when T. Raumschmiere hit the turntables and Modeselektor maxed out the volume for what was supposedly the last time ever.

Ben de Biel, the man who has been running the club for nine years, didn’t shed a tear. Because he knew, right there and then, that the club would be around for another six months. Or a year. Or more. Under a different name, yes. But for sure, this night would not be the last time he would see people dance here.

“Strictly speaking, I don’t have any reason to complain,” says de Biel a couple of weeks after the closing party, sitting in the backstage office of the club, now re-christened An der Schillingbrücke (after the bridge it borders), or simply ADS.

De Biel is bald, with perpetual two-day stubble. He chuckles a lot while talking. Pale yellow light illuminates a kitschy mountain wallpaper tableau and a ceiling fan that looks like it would fall down if you switched it on. “I had nine years; that’s a long time,” he continues. But it’s not over yet. ADS will be open at least until New Year’s Eve – thanks to a new deal struck with the owner of the property.

On the other side of the river, Kiki Blofeld – with its signature East German army boat house, Teletubby-style landscaping and sand beach – announced it was closing last December… but, guess what? It’s also up and running. Yaam and Oststrand have been moaning about impending shutdown for years, but both keep on kicking.

It all brings back memories of the no-less-than- four annual closing-forever parties that Bar25 celebrated at the end of the summer year after year – until 2010, when the decadent circus shantytown so popular with the Easyjet-set did finally throw in the towel.

All of this leaves Berliners wondering: is Mediaspree – the scheme to develop riverside plots endorsed by property investors and the city – an evil capitalist bulldozer destroying underground fun in the city, or are the clubs just using anti-gentrification hype to their own advantage?

Mediaspree: Berlin’s coveted riverbanks

In 2002, when de Biel moved into the huge concrete box on the riverbank near Ostbahnhof, it would have seemed pretty unlikely that a club could survive there for such a long time. By the late 1990s, the first plans for Mediaspree had already been made. It wasn’t a consistent project, but rather a loose coalition of real estate companies, investors, lobby groups and the Berlin government. Originally, the plan was to develop the area along the Spree as a centre for media companies.

De Biel was one of the pioneers to open a club in this developer’s gold mine. Property owners began renting to people like him to bridge time until an investor would jump in and construction would start. Because Mediaspree was also this: wishful thinking, when in fact, few companies were eager to invest in a stagnant city economy.

Clubs like de Biel’s Maria wound up with Zwischennutzungsverträge – temporary use contracts. In 2004, the most famous one followed: Bar25. What started out as a wooden shack eventually became the hippest and most exclusive club in the city (largely thanks to its harsh door policy), complete with a high-end restaurant and a spa.

So how have the riverside clubs managed for as long as they have? One reason was Mediaspree’s missing master plan: investors bought areas for their prospective value and utility – but without clear agendas. The other was probably the financial crisis, which made those companies postpone construction plans again and again.

Whenever the threat of eviction arose, the clubs fought back: protest marches, heartbreaking press releases in which they portrayed Mediaspree as a monolithic capitalist supervillain, and, in  case of Bar25, dramatic week-long closing parties that became legendary, that is until the following spring, when a triumphant opening party would start the season once more.

Bar25: When clubs exploit their own demise

Bar25 received its first Kündigung (contract termination) from BSR, the city waste company that owns the area, in 2007. A clause in their lease, which said they could stay until BSR began utilizing the land, made negotiations possible and won them another year. I

n 2008, BSR again terminated the contract, and Bar25 decided to appeal. At that point, they didn’t think they could win, so they threw another closing party while at the same time seeking as much publicity as possible.It helped, and Bar25 opened again in 2009, just to face the same problem again. BSR now claimed that the soil under Bar25 was contaminated.

Meanwhile, Mediaspree had become a hot political topic. In a successful public referendum in Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain, 87 percent voted against it. Protest organisations like Mediaspree Versenken started cooperating with the clubs and united an unlikely coalition of citizens, anti-gentrification activists, Antifa and party people.

It was an alliance of convenience of course: only a few hours after a big demo, which Bar25 used as a platform to voice their cause, people who supported them on the march to Rotes Rathaus didn’t make it past the ‘face control’ door policy of the club that by now had become one of the most exclusive in the city. The opening-closing game went on for one more year until last fall, when the final curtain fell.

Kiki Blofeld: unwilling to compromise

What all these cases have in common is that their fate depends on one-on-one negotiations with the property owners. The club owners might be lucky, like de Biel, or they might find loopholes in their leases like at Bar25. Still, there is no reliable political solution at hand. Not even now, when more and more politicians seem to realize that the riverside clubs are a huge draw for tourists, who spend millions of euros here every year.

So it’s every club for itself, depending on their landlord’s willingness to negotiate. When Kiki Blofeld received its Kündigung shortly before last Christmas, they immediately sent the press an angry, desperate letter saying that they weren’t even allowed to do one last goodbye season. The Kündigung was real.

From owner Gerke Freyschmidt’s point of view, the option to run the club for one more summer might not have seemed realistic. But there was another option. The new owner of the land, Spreefeld Berlin GmbH, a company that claims it’s planning a sustainable, affordable housing project and at least 3500sqm of publicly accessible area, was looking for someone to run a beach bar.

They wanted to keep the famous boathouse. But they definitely wanted something smaller, a project that would be more socially engaged, and probably not as noisy, as Kiki. So they posted a request for proposals to bridge the time until the beginning of construction this winter. Freyschmidt could have applied. He didn’t want to. That seemed to be the end for Kiki Blofeld right there.

Maria’s forbearance

Ben de Biel’s lease for Maria was also terminated by the end of last year. But de Biel decided to negotiate with Ludger Inholte, the real estate company that owns the land. “Do you need it that early? Could we go for another season?” De Biel thinks in seasons. If Maria stood for anything, it was for ambitious booking. Clubs that want to be among the big players in a city with over 100 of them need the security of a proper rental contract.

De Biel employs 40 people; he has contracts with companies like Gema, Germany’s performance rights organisation, that he has to cancel in time. “I need at least six months of planning in advance,” de Biel says. He chuckles. “It’s not just about the money, but it’s business after all. I’m a capitalist, no question.”

Ultimately, de Biel got his extra season. Last June 18 was to be the final day. The closing party was planned and a press release was distributed, mainly he says, to nail down the artists he wanted to play. “Are you giving up?” journalists asked. Then in April, he read in the Berliner Zeitung that Ludger Inholte director Guido Wiese said construction wouldn’t start until the end of the year and that there would be no problem at all if Maria stayed.

What now? Cancel the closing party for which he had already booked pretty much all the artists? De Biel spreads his arms and shouts: “Look at this place! It’s a junkyard! Tear it down if you please!” De Biel decided to keep the venue, mainly in the fear that someone else would take over. “What I do is mine”, he says. But it was clear to him that Maria was already dead and buried. Now it is ADS. De Biel doesn’t go looking for new artists anymore, doesn’t try to think ahead, to sense trends.

New beginnings, other shores

“I wouldn’t do a smaller Kiki Blofeld, and certainly not one where someone else tells me what to do,” Kiki’s owner Freyschmidt says. There’s a certain tendency towards egocentrism on the side of the club owners – one that is arguably justified. These entrepreneurs built these places with their own sweat. Without any subsidies. Without any security. Sure, they all made money along the way.

It’s not so much the physical space the club owners are trying to defend – it’s their concept. De Biel says he could do Maria elsewhere. But feasible locations have become rare in Berlin. It’s not the 1990s anymore.

Bar25 has found one of the last available spaces in the area. Right next to Kiki Blofeld, they are opening up a new nightlife amusement park in an old soap factory, with club, beach bar, restaurant, theatre and cinema: Kater Holzig. They have a two-year lease. Construction is moved slowly. It was supposed to open in May; but it didn’t actually open until late July.

In Kiki’s case, it was Spreefeld who compromised in the end. They withdrew their Räumungsklage (eviction order) and sat down with Freyschmidt one last time. Because Spreefeld feared a long, tedious legal procedure and couldn’t identify with the evil role of an evictor, as spokesman Christian Schöningh states, they let Freyschmidt party on. But on September 30, it’s all going to be over. At least for Kiki. Rumour is that many players of the alternative cultural scene have been invited to place their stakes on the property: Experiment City, Radialsystem V, Bar25.

De Biel decided to wait and see what becomes of Ludger Inholte’s construction plans. Manager Guido Wiese did not answer email requests from Exberliner. His secretary finally told us over the phone that he did not want to make a statement regarding Maria.

De Biel lights a cigarette, blows out the smoke and chuckles one more time. “I don’t need to run a club to make a living,” he says. “I could do anything else. I’d love to work as a photographer.”