Are the clubs finished?

CLUBSTERBEN! Covid-19 has locked down Berlin's clubs. But they were already in trouble. Take KitKat and Griessmuehle...

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Photo by Griessmuehle ‘Save Our Spaces’ campaign video. Even Berlin’s most iconic nightlife institutions are fighting for survival.

Techno helped put Berlin on the map, but now the scene is partly fall­ing victim to its own success. In the post-Wende years, ravers carved out dancefloors in the nooks and crannies of Berlin’s post-industrial urban fabric. Some of these places became crucial bastions of queer, alternative counterculture, offering emancipated spaces to marginalised identi­ties. Others became international brands, drawing in punters from across the globe. According to a study released by Berlin club lobbyists Club Commission, Berlin’s club culture adds €1.48 billion to the city’s economy each year.

But the Hauptstadt’s clubland is in an increasingly precarious position. As the population of the oh-so-cool metropolis soars and property investors ruthlessly add to their portfolios and as startups advertise jobs with the lure of Berlin’s cultural capital, the city’s clubs are losing out. Over the last 10 years, around 100 of them have closed their doors for good, including famous haunts like Stattbad Wedding, Horst Krzbg, Farbfernseher and Chalet. Admittedly, new locations have opened during this time – but it’s becoming harder and harder to find suitable spaces, resulting in a net loss. The phenomenon has been so stark that the Ger­mans even have a word for it: Clubsterben, or ‘club death’. According to Club Commission, 24 of Berlin’s approximately 280 clubs are in acute danger. But they certainly aren’t going down without a fight as the iconic institu­tions Griessmuehle and KitKatClub have proven most recently.

Griessmuehle: city to the rescue?

Located in a disused pasta factory behind Sonnenallee S-Bahn station, the recently evicted Griessmuehle was one of Berlin’s most cherished venues. It all started in 2011, when founder David Ciura spotted the site from the Ringbahn and got off to check it out. Sandwiched between a canal and train tracks, and far away from any residential neighbours, the area was perfect for an open-air party. Over the years, Ciura and his team expanded into the adjacent factory, quickly establishing Griessmuehle as one of Berlin’s top clubs. But more than just a party place, Griessmuehle also housed a record shop and canteen, hosted flea markets, ping pong events and cinema evenings, and even organised workshops for kids.

The club’s seemingly smooth expansion continued until 2016, when the property was bought by SIAG Property II GmbH, a subsidy of the Austrian Sparkasse Immobilien AG. Managing the property for them is the Vien­na-based S IMMO AG, which by the end of 2018 had a portfolio worth €2.2 billion. Soon after the purchase, management terminated Griessmuehle’s contract, replacing it with a new agreement that had to be renewed every six months. This precarious situation con­tinued until November 2019, when the city approved a building permit for the location, thus increasing its value 10-fold. S IMMO then started planning the sale of the land and declined to renew the contract, meaning that Griessmuehle had until January 31, 2020 to try and save their space.

Every attempt to contact the owners proved fruitless. The club’s management suggested two investors willing to buy the property and secure the existence of the club, both of which the new landlords refused to consider. Most of the ensuing negotiations – or lack thereof – were marred by a culture clash: there, the Austrian inves­tors; here the Neukölln club kids. “Robert Neumüller, the director of S IMMO, actually came to visit the club,” Michaela Krüger, a Griessmuehle clubber and – as of Novem­ber – its publicist, told us during a Saturday afternoon party at the club before its closure. “I don’t think he could understand why people would want to spend their free time in a disused factory.”

A petition to save the space quickly gained 50,000 signatures, as heartfelt messages from ravers, DJs, collectives and fellow clubs flooded social media. The topic quickly garnered the attention of Berlin’s politicians too, who passed a motion committing them to finding an alternative, city-owned location for the club. While the Senat is searching, Griessmuehle has gone into exile: its upcom­ing events will be housed in the Friedrichs­hain club Polygon (formerly Kosmonaut) and Alte Münze in Mitte. A sale of the Sonnenal­lee property in the immediate future seems to be off the table, as S IMMO appears to be planning to “develop” the land first. Despite being evicted, Griessmuehle is taking heart from its successes – and vows to fight on. “Our petition showed that we can make an impact. We’re going to continue campaigning for club culture,” Krüger says defiantly.

KitKat: the party isn’t over!

Meanwhile, another beloved Berlin institu­tion – KitKatClub – is also under threat. Named after the variety club in the 1972 film Cabaret starring Liza Minelli, the fetish club has been hosted at various locations since its inception in 1994. Since 2008, it’s been located in Sage Club on Köpenicker Straße, where it is a subtenant. The building itself was formerly part of the Heinrich-Heine-Straße U-Bahn station, which, due to its location on the border of East and West Berlin, was a ghost sta­tion during the city’s division. In 1990, the station reopened and in 1991, the leg­endary after-hour club Walfisch opened on the mezzanine level of the building. In 1997, Sage Club – a cavernous, psyche­delic adult playground, complete with a swimming pool – moved in, with KitKat joining a decade later. Once again, the arrangement seemed to be working for all involved. That is, until November 2019, when Sage boss Sascha Disselkamp, the main tenant of the property, received a termination notice from the owner – a property investor from Munich who owns the majority of the space. The club previ­ously had a 10-year contract that would renew automatically if neither party intervened. But instead of simply negoti­ating a new contract, as some expected, there was talk of developing and then selling the land. Disselkamp instantly suggested that he find investors to buy the property and secure the future of both clubs, however the owners wanted to sell it to someone who would do some­thing “sensible” with the plot. “I asked if he thought what we do isn’t sensible. He said he didn’t mean it like that, but he wants to sell it to someone who develops it in a way that corresponds to the poten­tial value of what one could build there,” Disselkamp says carefully. This echoes S IMMO’s reluctance to treat Griessmuehle as a genuine business partner. It also il­lustrates why those in the industry voice frustration with investors often failing to take club culture seriously, overlooking its integral artistic and economic value to the capital.

The news of the clubs’ apparent closure sent shockwaves through the interna­tional press. The support for KitKat and Sage was loud but there was also a lot of confusion over the exact circumstances. Disselkamp confirmed to Exberliner that a new contract between KitKat and the owner is currently under negotiation and both clubs will likely be able to stay. Since KitKat uses the space more often, it’s thought that the new contract will list KitKat as the main tenant – and prob­ably include a rent increase. Selling the property no longer seems to be on the cards. “Neither Sage nor KitKat are going down without making a lot of noise,” Disselkamp said. “It’s unrealistic to think that we’ll just vanish into thin air.”

To the Bundestag and back

Both Griessmuehle and KitKat are prime examples of how fragile Berlin’s world-re­nowned club cultural heritage is. Without decisive action, there are concerns we could sleepwalk into a situation where the forces of gentrification decimate the city’s nightlife. As the property situation becomes more tense, clubs are sitting ducks. Noise complaints, extortionate rents, flimsy subtenant contracts and a lack of legal tenancy protections all pose existential threats. So what would save Berlin’s nightlife?

In November, Die Linke’s Caren Lay introduced a motion to the Bundestag with several measures that would protect clubs. One proposal is to introduce Kul­turschutzgebiete – or cultural protection areas – into building law, which would protect existing venues and enable the establishment of new clubs in inner-city areas. “The R.A.W site would be a perfect candidate,” Lay suggests. The former railway repair site in Friedrichshain is one of the largest cultural spaces in Germany. For years, plans by investors to develop the land have been met with resistance by local residents and politicians alike.

Further measures in Lay’s motion include introducing a federal fund for noise protection measures and an “agent of change” principle, which would require investors to pay for sound-proofing themselves when buying or develop­ing property next to existing clubs. The proposal also seeks to limit rent increases, introduce regulations for minimum con­tract lengths and offer more protection against terminating contracts – policies that would help both Griessmuehle and KitKatClub. Meanwhile, the Green Party has introduced a largely similar proposal and the FDP has authored their own mo­tion which seeks to reduce the “bureau­cracy madness” and “tax burden” that it sees as responsible for the hardships clubs are facing.

These motions are now being discussed in the Bundestag’s building committee. A more radical measure would be to sub­sidise clubs with public money, already standard practice with other cultural institutions. As Pamela Schobeß, chair of the Club Commission and owner of the club Gretchen, said at a recent open hearing on the issue in the Bundestag: “We are no less valuable than theatres or opera houses.”