Thursday, 8 September 2011

The style is not free, the style is expensive.

R.I.P. Revaler Strasse 99.

I visited Revaler Strasse 99 last week and found that it has now become home to a jaw-droppingly tacky chain of fast food joints. For those of you who have not been there before, Revaler Strasse 99 is a slice of old school Friedrichshain counterculture; a street that is home to musicians studios, art projects, underground clubs, at least one theatre and more graffiti than you can shake a stick at. Most of the street is (or used to be) independently run on a non-profit basis.

Recent years have seen the introduction of increasingly featureless and profit-oriented ventures in the street, such as the Revalution Bar and Astra Kulturhaus. And it seems that the agenda to turn Revaler Strasse into the next Simon Dach has taken several strides forward in the past few weeks. Overlit new doner joints drew an over-dressed, overintoxicated crowd to its once-blissful dark last Saturday night, when I visited the area. Meanwhile, the RAW Tempel café (once home to the super-friendly Berlin Free City open mic night) also seemed to be closed. Not permanently, I hope...

For all their ghetto-chic stylings, new venues like Astra Kulture Haus, Revalution Bar and Spindler & Klatt across the river, are part of the current trend of de-Berlinizing Berlin. Looking as if they have been airlifted in from New York or London, they are clearly designed to appeal to a wealthy foreigner's idea of underground.

Part of the problem is that few guidebooks and review sites mention the types of venues which, in my opinion, define Berlin. Underground venues - or whatever you want to call them - are the ones which epitomize the city's fresh and fearless energy. Like the artists that frequent them, they are fed by an abundance of free space and cheap materials. Hidden away behind a post-industrial facade, the best hang-outs provide a haven for imagination in the city, allowing it to blossom. So why do so many city guides neglect them?

Guardian's Berlin City Guide, for instance, lists its top three clubs as Berghain, Watergate and Weekend. I agree that they are popular but then again, so is MacDonalds and it's far from being the number one restaurant in Berlin. Time Out's Critic's Choice lists Berghain - again - as its top choice. And while Time Out's Guide to Alternative Berlin Nightlife does cover some of the city's best spots, it makes the mistake of marginalizing them with the 'alternative' label. Many visitors to the city make the same mistake and it is their misconception about what Berlin is - or what it should be - that is slowly eroding the city's character.

Berlin is the alternative. If you're mainstream in this city then you are out of the loop, not the other way around. Yet mainstream tourists who come here without first educating themselves are reversing Berlin's dynamic, re-shaping it to fit the expectations that they bring with them. Meanwhile, places like Spindler & Klatt, places which sanitize the underground experience by placing it in comfy surroundings and offering posh service, continue to multiply. Thus, the tourist fantasy of what Berlin is crowding out the reality which inspired it in the first place.

It’s true that the new, unknown spots are not always easy to find, nor are they reliably full of people. You also have to know which are the right nights to go to them, which is a bit of a dark art. But then, Berghain and Watergate aren’t a surefire bet either. The cab driver may know the address and the club may be full of people but the bouncer still decides whether you get in or not. And nobody, but nobody, knows what those dudes' criteria are. Berlin simply doesn’t do guarantees, just like it doesn’t do VIP lounges or bottle service.
I am sure that some locals do go to the new and famous night spots, and even enjoy them. But the vast majority of punters in the queue are newbies who are too unadventurous or uninformed to dive into uncharted nightlife territory. They choose a guaranteed ‘big night out’ over something new… something unknown to outsiders… something really 'Berlin style'. Am I the only one to see the irony in that?

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