Photo by Maria Runarsdottir
Ben Knight takes a trip to the seedy wonderland on top of Kotti.
My builder – better just call him Tony – warned me about this place. "It's not a drug cafe, but it's not a place I'd recommend," he texted me when I asked him about it. Then by way of explanation he added: "If I invited an attractive woman somewhere, then no way would it be there. And if the woman knows that place then she is no longer attractive to me. We can meet there if you like, but it'll be your idea."
Tony has been fitting my kitchen for eight months, so long that our relationship has become social. It's got to the stage where it feels rude to bring up his progress with the tiling. But as a former drug delivery man, he is also an ideal companion for a visit to Xara Beach, the murky neon and shisha cocktail bar that squats big and aloof in the middle of Kottbusser Tor. Tony is the only person I know with any connection at all to the criminal world of southeastern Berlin. He knows especially about what he calls the "Arab families", for whom he has moved from drug delivery to renovation, though possibly with a bit more urgency than he does it for me. In fact, he said one reason he knows that Xara Beach is not Arab owned is that he hasn't been asked to renovate it.
So now we're here, on one of the white basket sofas in the Xara Beach, drinking some sticky drinks, breathing apple-mint smoke. Tony glances around. "I take that back about it not being a drug cafe," he says. "This place was definitely financed with hard drugs. It belongs to Turks or Albanians who have earned their money with cocaine."
I look, trying to see how he can tell. What are the clues for a drug-money-laundering front? Too many oversized cushions? A white wall that looks like it has been upholstered like a sofa? A giant incongruous face of Marlene Dietrich painted on one wall with a big spotlight on it that slowly changes her massive iconic face from red to green? A big screen showing "Power Turk TV" with Turkish pop videos, but with the sound turned down so we can hear completely different Turkish pop playing in the background? A redundant red rope that cordons off the zero number of people trying to get in? Oh yeah, I guess that would be a good sign – the fact that this place is vast and empty on a Friday night, peopled only by small clusters of teenagers scattered in distant corners. Subtract the staff and food/drinks costs, and what's the margin? Definitely a front.
Still, all I know for sure is that this lounge's name is probably the biggest ever stretch of the word "beach" in Berlin's long history of bars pretending to be beaches. This idyllic expanse of concrete sits marooned right in the middle of Kotti, spreading itself out like a satrap on top of a Rossmann, the Tadim döner stand, an Asienimbiss, and a phone shop. I suppose the new proprietors thought of the junkies and police and the alcoholics outside Kaiser's as a human sea breaking on the great beach on this beautiful island of Xara. And that's how they thought of the name.
The bar uses its elevation to create exclusiveness. It makes you feel special, because you have to get past some doormen at the end of a grimy concrete passage (a big man who makes a show of checking IDs and then lets every teenager in) and then climb three stories through a dim stairwell that smells of wee. "Have fun, boys," the doormen says to me and Tony, though not really in a way that suggests they want you to have fun. Then Xara Beach opens up for you, a wide high vista with a terrace and metal outside heaters.
Kottbusser Tor has made the news a lot recently. Last month, as part of its ongoing mission to spread panic and misery in Germany's middle classes, Die Welt called it Germany's latest "no-go area", in a feature that was headlined "If you get off the U-bahn here it's your own fault." "How can you tell when a society has turned?" the article asked rhetorically, implying that when the end of the world begins, you'll notice it at Kotti first. If that's true, then the world has been on the edge of the apocalypse for a long time. Tony says he can remember a time when the kids round here curb-stomped each other.
We ask the waiter how much it would cost to rent the place out, and he brings over the boss, (or the "puppet" as Tony says knowingly), a wiry man in a tight jumper and greasy hair who becomes edgy when we suggest we'd like to have a birthday party here. He won't be drawn on a price. When I ask, "a few thousand?" he just says, "a bit more."
"Did you notice he didn't blink?" Tony muttered to me afterwards. "He was on cocaine."
For a lot more Kottbusser Tor, get our April issue in print or PDF here.