Fighting for the Right to Party

In September 2016, the global music scene was galvanized when London clubbing institution fabric was closed by the Islington council. While the move was decried as an unjust attack on nightlife culture, many in the capital wondered whether this was the death knell for a scene that had lost 50% of its clubs in a decade.

After impassioned and widespread outcry, and a petition that amassed over 100,000 signatures, fabric reopened, and kickstarted a public conversation about what nightlife means to the city of London. Newly appointed mayor Sadiq Khan declared himself an ally of the night, and swiftly appointed writer, DJ, and performer Amy Lamé as London’s Night Tzar.

But the blueprint for governmental representatives for nightlife has been ongoing in Europe for several years. In Amsterdam, Night Mayor Mirik Milan has been doing exemplary work developing the Dutch capital into a 24-hour city, while in Berlin, the Clubcommission has emerged as a successful lobby to battle the sterilizing encroach of gentrification.

Founded by nightclub pioneers Sascha Disselkamp, Marc Wohlrabe and Falk Walter in 2002, the Clubcommission represents the interests of over 120 nightclubs, and ensures that they continue to make a major economic contribution to the city. In the late ‘90s, the affable and uniquely charming Disselkamp invited the then-finance minister to visit him at his club to discuss the unworkable incongruity between the local government’s hostility and the tourist board’s dependence on club culture.

"At that time it would have been impossible to speak to the culture minister because the idea that clubbing is culture was unthinkable,” he explained from his distressed bunker club Fiese Remise on the banks of the Spree. 

"So I said to the finance minister, ‘Around the world, Berlin is advertising our exciting nightlife. We make this nightlife! Are we important to the city?' And he said, 'Yes Sascha you are!'. I said ‘Okay, you need to help us, because some people in your offices think we need to be shut down."

That conversation would set in motion a dialogue between the clubs, the government and the police, and through open discourse and compromise on both sides, changes were made to protect the nightlife scene and allow its unique culture of squatting empty space to continue.

Today, the Clubcommission provides legal representation, and offers consulting on elements like soundproofing and fire safety for its members. But most importantly, it creates security for otherwise vulnerable businesses which are often the first casualties when big money rolls into cool neighborhoods.

Many outsiders seem to believe that for as long as Berghain has a thousand-person line outside its door every Saturday night, the scene is thriving. But that is not the case. The Berlin scene’s fierce adversary in commercial gentrification is unrelenting, particularly since a dominant industry—besides techno, of course—has been slow to emerge. The conversation about how to best safeguard this truly unique scene has been ongoing for over twenty years.

“We had this chance and we jumped through the wall to the east and started finding spaces. These subcultural people were really responsible for the direction that Berlin took." - Dimitri Hegemann

After the Wall fell in 1989, Berlin’s dance floors became a place of unity for alternative young people, much as they had before in Chicago, New York, and London. Techno—this aggressive, largely instrumental sound of a rusting Detroit—resonated with east and west Berliners, and forged a new cultural bridge rundown factories, basements and U-Bahn stations. The free and largely unpoliced period from '89 to '92 set in motion a citywide movement of squat culture, which had been bubbling under the surface in West Berlin prior to unification.

“Suddenly, the people in West Berlin realized that they didn’t have ask anymore, they just did it,” explains Dimitri Hegemann, founder of seminal club Tresor and the man widely credited with bringing techno to Berlin. “We had this chance and we jumped through the wall to the east and started finding spaces. These subcultural people were really responsible for the direction that Berlin took."

These days there is a unanimous feeling that the fast-disappearing free space is the biggest problem facing the scene. The heyday of the city’s pirate party culture is long gone, and while much of the spirit has been retained, it’s being channeled into buildings with precariously high rent prices. The drawbacks of this shift in dynamic are widespread, and it’s a conversation that is being had, not only within the club scene, but also with the government.

“I was very happy to hear that the government understands that they must do something about the problem [of disappearing space] and that they have started purchasing buildings in order to keep the rent low,” said Falk Walter, founder of Club der Visionäre, Arena, Ipse, and the Father of Kreuzberg nightlife. 

“This, I believe, is the right direction, and if we want to keep Berlin this way in the future, we need to keep some cheap space."

After lamenting how cheap things were when he first arrived in Berlin in 1982, Watergate founder Steffen Hack explained that high rent compromises experimental programming in favor of safer, commercial content. “I would say that this is the biggest change of the last twenty years. I think it’s very important that you have cheap places to rent so that you are free to start developing new ideas."

In March, myself and a group of zealous Brazilian clubheads explored the darkest, dingiest spaces in Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, and Mitte, interviewing scene elders and the next generation of promoters that are continuing the tradition of sourcing and seizing free space.

Dimitri Hegemann invited us to the control room of his monolith steam factory-turned-art space Kraftwerk and divulged his philosophy on the necessary commodity of free space. Pamela Schobeß and Lars Döring, each twenty-odd year veterans of the scene, detailed the hardship and eventual success of battling big money developments to keep their experimental Kreuzberg club Gretchen alive. Lawrence and Jacob, the spokesmen for young art collective Jonny Knüppel, invited us into their deranged junk yard club and mused on whether their novel underground operation was part of the past or the future.

The Creative Footprint aims to give a global platform to these voices in order to share knowledge, experience and best practices to enrich, nurture and protect creative communities around the world. There are crucial lessons to be learned from Berlin’s past and present, and it is our sincere hope that by gathering the data and sharing the stories, we will help to preserve the crucial elements that make Berlin arguably the best music city in the world.

But it’s clear to us that the larger responsibility lies with the Berlin government. With one of the strongest tourist economies in the world, this city is financially obligated to preserve its club culture. Too often, the lure of luxury real estate development and bland shopping districts are replacing free space with unaffordable space. This is destroying the city for tourists and Berliners, many of whom chose to be here for its art and culture, not its malls and fast food chains.

Perhaps they would do well to view artists like endangered species. If you destroy their homes to maximize profits, they will go extinct, and all that will be left is an another tragic example of the malignant influence of unbridled capitalism on the livelihoods of working creatives.