Ku’damm death watch

Ku'damm's 125th birthday kicks off six months of festivities and we’re all invited. But like greedy heirs around a deathbed, the bankers and developers are itching to sell off the family jewels to the highest bidder.

Photo by Dan Borden

Ku’damm is old. Berlin’s Champs-Elysées admits to being 125, but like most aging divas I think she’s fiddling with dates. May 5, her official birthday, kicks off six months of festivities and we’re all invited. Why throw a party for a street? Kufürstendamm’s coterie of bankers and developers are pushing her into the limelight to cash in on her caché. Like greedy heirs around a deathbed, they’re itching to sell off the family jewels to the highest bidder. Why should we care? Because the death of Old Ku’damm and her promised resurrection could help save the rest of Berlin from gentrification hell.

Mention Kufürstendamm to Berlin’s recent arrivals and reactions range from “huh?” to “so what?” But in her heyday, Ku’damm was Broadway, Times Square and Fifth Avenue all rolled into one. Famous for her cinemas and theaters, she survived the Depression and the Nazi purge of Jewish businesses. During the Cold War, Ku’damm was West Berlin’s refuge of glamorous capitalism and entertainment.

Then came 1989, her annus horribilis. German reunification was the party of the century, and poor old Kufürstendamm wasn’t invited. The spotlight shifted east. Friedrichstraße was anointed the new chic shopping street. Potsdamer Platz stole the movie theaters and the Berlinale. Trains sped past Zoo Station to the shiny new Hauptbahnhof. Today Ku’damm is a haven for crotchety West Berliners and gawking tourists.

Ku’damm’s business leaders are hungry to change all that. They look eastwards with envy. A billboard at the site of (another!) new hotel wishfully proclaims “Welcome to the new Mitte.” Why not? Ku’damm’s got tree-lined streets, huge Altbau apartments, marble foyers. Want a piece of the gentrification action? New luxury condos? Skyrocketing rents?

If the Ku’damm Kiez wants to suck off some of the yuppie/rich-daddy cash fuelling gentrification in the old East Berlin, be my guest! What Ku’damm lacks is coolness. Berlin’s rich newcomers enjoy rubbing shoulders with the city’s edgy, creative culture. At the same time they’re killing it.

In 2011, Ku’damm is resolutely uncool, practically wallowing in her dowdiness. Gucci, Prada and Chanel are still around, but they’re outnumbered by mass market clothiers, drug stores and currywurst stands. The great movie houses – Marmorhaus, Gloria Palast, Kino Astor – have been gutted and turned into Zara, Benneton and Tommy Hilfiger. The last vestige of youth culture died when legendary 1980s disco Big Eden shut its doors in 2008 – because hotels complained about the noise. Two of the last legit theaters, the Kömodie and Theater am Ku’damm will soon be bulldozed to expand a shopping mall. So how are business leaders celebrating 125 years of Ku’damm? By tying yellow ribbons on the lamp posts and hosting an antique car parade (May 28-29).

Any big ideas? That giant Ferris wheel next to Zoo Station never got off the ground. Why not offer some of the vacant office space as a home to Berlin’s young, nomadic galleries? Sponsor a Sex in the City-style TV series that takes place in the Ku’damm Kiez, a guaranteed magnet for the baby carriage set. For nostalgists, stage a re-enactment of the 1968 shooting of left-wing icon Rudi Dutschke at Ku’damm 140. Or give tourists what they want and import some of Oranienburger Straße’s prostitutes to an official Ku’Damm red light district – it worked for Mitte.

Okay, so you might alienate some long-term residents, but they’re not going to be around much longer anyway – and just think of the rent hikes when they go!

A new cool Ku’damm? Don’t hold your breath. The once-glamorous boulevard is throwing away its past only to embrace its hum drum status quo. Case in point: the demolition of those two historic theaters. They were designed in the 1920s by architect Oskar Kaufmann and should have landmark protection, but in the 1990s the owners made a deal with the city to keep them off the list. Now they’re in the way of a Scottish developer’s plans to expand the Ku’damm Karree, a dismal 1980s shopping mall. A citizen’s initiative failed to get enough votes to save the theaters, and local politicians sided with the developers. Starchitect David Chipperfield is replacing the Karree’s bland 1980s façade with a slick 2010s version rendered in his trademark neutered classicism. Inside we’re promised a mix of upscale retail, office space and, of course, a hotel – in other words, more of the same.

For more information on the Ku’Damm 125 events, see