Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Fight Gentrification! (Welcome to Berlin)

It has been a long time since Vivienne published a blog entry. In the meantime, she has moved to Berlin. She has been extraordinarily busy with this transition until now and may continue to be. As a reult she cannot promise that this won't be her first and last entry but she hopes that you will get some enjoyment from it while it lasts.


During the first few weeks that I stayed in Berlin, I was a guest of the city's couchsurfing community. You may not realize it, but Berlin has a lot of places to couchsurf. In fact, it may well have one of the biggest couchsurfing scenes in the world. The way that couchsurfing works is that you create a profile on the couchsurfing.com website, register your address/ID and then begin collecting references from other people on the site whom you have stayed with or hosted. That way, others can decide whether they want to stay with or host you.

Participation in the site is entirely free and voluntary, and it operates on a trust system. It is also quite safe for single female travelers to use, as I have found from first-hand experience. As always, one must take basic safety precautions: check references, stay with verified users and above all, listen to your gut instincts - but the couchsurfing project has a very good track record, thanks to the pride it takes in its tight-knit-yet-global community. Couchsurfing.com also features community forums where you can find support while searching for jobs and flatshares in the city or participate in meet-ups. These include anything from pub crawls, to sightseeing tours, to cinema nights, to bike rides. Basically, being a couchsurfer means you never have to be alone when you're abroad. And thus concludes my free advertising for the couchsurfing website!

When I arrived in Berlin, the city was sweltering under a heatwave with temperatures averaging about 35 degrees celsius during the day. The relative cool of the night facilitated my switch to a nocturnal rhythm as I slept through the day and partied through night. For me, the highlights of early summer were the weekly couchsurfing meets at Plotzensee and an open air party in a beautiful Neukolln park, where I saw A Guy Called Gerald playing.

Then suddenly, the weather turned to rain. I've noticed that Germans seem to have a much lower resistance to wet stuff than the English. On one night, for instance, about half the clubs and festivals listed on Resident Advisor (the city's main website for party listings) were cancelled due to the mere threat of rain. Fair enough - they were all outdoor events - but I couldn't help wondering where England's music scene would be festivals like Glastonbury were cancelled due to poor weather! It's good to be reminded that in some respects, the English are not as lily-livered as they sometimes believe themselves to be.

The Eternal Weekend.

Berlin eats and breathes electronic music but it doesn't sleep to it. Its clubbing cycle stretches well beyond the weekend, officially kicking off on Wednesday with regular events at Tresor, Magnet and Watergate - just to name the big ones. With a name like Bonito House Club, one would probably imagine that Tresor's Wednesday night party would be a stylishly vacuous affair. A single glance at the club's tasteful bar area would appear to back this assumption up. There is a touch of James Bond about the sleekly renovated factory chamber, artfully lit and fitted with banquettes and fogged glass dividers. Gauzy drapes separate it from the dancefloor which is, itself, an exhibit in which the dancers are on display. I wanderd to the smoker's area out back which had been remade in the image of Ibiza for the 'Easyjet-set', with bamboo and flaring torches sticking out of the sand. The people were friendly enough and English-speaking so I settled into a deck chair. A more laid-back night than the one I had been planning but enjoyable, all the same.

The call of nature eventually kicked in and I headed to basement where the toilets are. At the bottom of the stairs I passed a hallway which stuck off to the right like an afterthought. I wandered down it out of sheer curiosity, first startled and then drawn forward by coloured lights shooting across my path. As an industrial throbbing sound grew louder at the end of the passage and I was overcome with the impression that I was crossing the divide between two eras. I walked out theother end of the hall and straight into a scene from 1990's Berlin: a strobe-filled techno bunker, its music biting, people stripped-down, concrete rubbing all their senses raw. It was a place where all things giddy and superficial came to die.

It may not be an illegal party anymore but Tresor is keeping a little piece of Berlin history alive within the old power station's manicured and stylish depths. It's a place of sensory contrast, like the city itself. I am impressed with its commitment to its origins and its bouncers and door prices seem reasonable enough. If only I could say the same thing about the bar prices it would be one of the better bargains in Berlin. Twenty euros for three drinks is too much!!

Last weekend, we went to the Krake festival at Suicide Circus in Friedrichshain. I think that Suicide Circus has one of the best-sounding rigs for the price. The entry policy is also quite relaxed and the queue is fast moving, compared to the endurance test of getting into nearby Berghain. And then there's the quality of the music: I saw two excellent acts at Krake - Radioactive Man, Christian Vogel and Fresh Meat (I think).

That's another great thing about Berlin: the relative cheapness of its party scene means that people who have an ear for new music can experiment with scenes and styles that they haven't tried before. In fact, there is no reason to miss out on any of the wonderful things on offer in Berlin. All of it is affordable, even to a wage slave like me! I've asked myself many, many times since arriving, "Why isn't every city like this?" And the rest of Berlin's well-educated, well-travelled population seems to be asking itself the same thing as it attempts to maintain long standing traditions of activism and art, in the face of capitalism.

Fight Gentrification!

Since arriving in Berlin, I have picked up on a catchphrase that seems to sum up the city's mentality: 'fight gentrification!'. As a city that relies on 'underground' tourism, Berlin has much to fear from gentrification, which has already had a devastating effect on the city's squat scene. The radical decline in active squats here comes as a surprise to the many underground tourists, who come here hoping to find a stronghold of street culture. What came as a major surprise to me was the recent announcement that Tacheles, the city's oldest existing squat, will soon be turned into an hotel. Edit: I have since learned that this threat was just the latest in a series of 'end is nigh' announcements made by Tacheles over the years. There is still no move to shut it as of January 2011 and I suspect it will remain indefinitely.

There are other signs of gentrification. I last visited Berlin in 2004 and in six years it has become a much more commercial city, even if it is light years away from becoming a tourist trap. One of the most obvious symbols of Berlin's changing face is the new 02 centre at Ostbanhof. It's an airy, shiny monument to the moment which blots out unresolved questions of the past, in the form of nearby East Side Gallery. On the upside, Berliners seem to be more conscious of gentrification than Londoners and are less fatalistically accepting of it, if only because it hasn't yet reached the religious proportions here that it has in the UK. I hope that their resistance will grow beyond Mayday and street parties (like the one organized by Megaspree) to become a defining movement.

Megaspree is the main voice of resistance to the proposed Mediaspree development, which threatens many of the run-down yet much-beloved music venues which line the river Spree. If the plan ever goes ahead, those venues will be replaced with shiny new media offices. The resulting increase in prices and security would likely render the areas around Kopernickerstrasse and Ostbanhof off-limits to thousands of clubbers, graffitti artists, squatters and locals who currently hang out there. On the face, the plan seems like cultural suicide, since the venues which would be shut down include some of the best known party spots in Berlin (Bar 25, Cassiopeia, Yaam, Kiki Blofeld, Badeschiff and more). And then there is Berlin's international reputation as an inexpensive party town to consider. It's not hard to imagine what would happen to the tourist trade if all these cheap party places suddenly ceased to exist.

Can the German government really be so short-sighted as to allow that to happen? Watch this space and find out!

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