When I first got to Berlin, a wide-eyed college kid drinking in the vibrant metropolis, one of the first things my program showed us was a film called “Berlin Calling.” Hell of an introduction. There he was, lead actor and real-life DJ Paul Kalkbrenner, laying down a techno beat from the DJ pult in the club Maria am Ostbahnhof. I saw frenetic wildness, crackling danger and infinite possibility in the raw energy of the beat, the wholehearted abandon with which the dancing revelers surrendered to it. I was fascinated by the thing whose shape I could only dimly comprehend. The boundless hunger in the wandering, sparse melodies, the rumblings of bass in the depths of the cortex, more felt than heard, half threat, half promise.
Then I went out and experienced it for myself. The club scene in all its rushing tumult and hedonistic splendor lives in Berlin like perhaps nowhere else. Maria am Ostbahnhof, after closing in an earlier tug-of-war with circling investors and developers, was reborn again as Magdalena, preserving the spirit of the techno temple while evolving forward. Until now.
In an emotionally charged appeal for support to its fan community, the club announced on Tuesday, Nov. 5 via Facebook that Magdalena is “on its deathbed.” Not through lack of love or money – the long lines of visitors who continue to stream to the club’s door demonstrate the demand for Magdalena’s particular niche in the nightlife market. Rather, the club is threatened by a complex deal arranged between political factions and another “cultural institution,” which requires the impending evacuation of the Magdalena team from their premises.
Nomad News couldn’t ignore this latest skirmish in the ongoing battles surrounding Berlin’s world-famous nightlife landscape. I headed over to the club to get some answers.
Details of the deal: Clubs must stand together
Outside the office walls, partygoers danced and the bass thundered away, but at Marco’s desk, the mood was somber. Marco spearheads public relations for Magdalena as part of a team of close friends running the club, and illuminated the situation in an exclusive interview for Nomad News.
While the background machinations of the deal remain nebulous even to the affected parties, Magdalena’s management knows that its eviction came out of a process in which the nearby reggae club YAAM worked with politicians to select a potential replacement location for its own operation. In principle, YAAM faces the same history of exodus and existential pressures as the rest of the club scene, but their loss of their old venue, and gain of Magdalena’s location, became a loss in turn for the techno club. The land under Magdalena belongs to the city, making rental contracts a question of politics. YAAM is being driven off its current premises by the property owner, Spanish real estate concern Urnova, which wants to develop.
Marco speculated that the YAAM operators hoped the close location would help them retain their high incidence of wander-in guests, largely tourists visiting the East Side Gallery. “As much as I wish for them that it will happen, I don’t believe it,” he said. While YAAM’s current graffiti-covered walls, conveniently fused with the end of the Berlin Wall, are an easy lure for tourists, Magdalena is tucked away from the street. “To find us, you have to know what you’re looking for.”
Despite these developments, Marco emphasized that the inner nature of the current crisis is not club against club, but rather common pressures facing the nightlife community, stemming from the shrinking availability of cheap, open cultural spaces in the heart of the city. “We’re trying to work hand in hand,” he said of the respective teams of YAAM and Magdalena. “The interests are the same, and we have to be like a union. It’s not us against us, but us against the destruction of culture which has been built up over the last twenty-five years.”
History of the Berlin club scene
To understand the current domino sequence of club closures and relocations, it’s necessary to brush up on the historical factors which made Berlin’s particular brand of nightlife possible in the first place. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, long-vacant areas along the former division and other abandoned buildings, a lack of local industry and the general challenges of integrating the economically depressed East combined to create a unique bubble, a suspension from the normal pace of investment in a world city.
Real estate values stayed low, keeping rents down and investors away for a good part of the next two decades. The owners slumbered, allowing the wild party scene of the 90s to first illegally occupy, then legally rent central spaces and grow them into world-famous institutions of electronic music. A high incidence of empty-standing buildings among the state-owned properties managed by companies like the Liegenschaftsfonds Berlin GmbH enabled club owners to rent optimally located real estate for low prices on time usage schemes, because nobody else was around trying to build the typical high-rises and luxury apartments of a major metropolis. The scene stayed cheap and kept its underground feel. But eventually, the market changed and the investors descended.
These hated heralds of gentrification have been steering the city in a new direction, and Berliners are fighting back every step of the way. The closing of Tacheles was contested for years. The plans of an ambitious builder of luxury condos to move a segment of the East Side Gallery out of the way of his wealthy residents aroused outrage and protests. But the result is almost always the same: The culture creators resist with whatever means they have, the masses gather and protest, the media covers it all for a few days, then the dust settles and the process of demolition and construction continues. Building cranes are springing up all over the city, a strange new army of invading aliens.
Nightlife is catalyst for cultural tourism, social activism
So what will it all mean for the German capital, if the bastions of cheap Berlin “coolness” lose their foothold? “Berlin is the only city in Germany which has the club culture so near to the center of the city,” Marco explained. “It makes it totally special. If you look around, you’ve got Berghain, you’ve got Tresor, you’ve got Kater, years ago the Bar 25, all these different places where you can go from one to the other. In Vienna, in Munich, it’s not the same.”
That unique cachet doesn’t just carry value in terms of scene credibility, but also in cold hard euros. Marco warned of potential lost revenues for the city’s massive cultural tourism industry. “In the end, if they lose this and we come to the point where the clubs are away from the inner part of the city, they will lose the coolness, they will lose tourists, because who will come? If they break down the [Berlin] Wall, one big point is gone,” he pointed out, referencing the pitched battle earlier in 2013 over planned demolitions to a segment of the East Side Gallery. “You’ve got Checkpoint Charlie and the Brandenburger Tor, but for young people, what attracts you to come to a city? Creativity, being the person you want to be. I see us as a catalyst for all of that. People can come here and express themselves.”
As for Magdalena itself, Marco elaborated on the club’s standing as a cultural institution and force for social engagement in the city. “We took the heritage of Maria and rebuilt it. Year after year, it’s an ongoing cultural highlight. We’re one of the three biggest electronic music clubs in the city, and it’s been running for sixteen years. It’s just too sad to stop something like that,” he said.
For young, unknown DJs, the club offers a platform for building their careers, Marco explained. “We’ve got a party every week called ‘Junge Wilden.’ We’ve got new DJs from Berlin who can play for the first time in front of a huge crowd. After that, we have the monthly finale, we pick one, and they get onto our payroll, maybe become residents. We help them. We’ve got producers, we’ve got a studio, where we work with children as well,” he said. Revenue earned on Wednesdays goes to a variety of social causes. “This month, we’re helping the homeless shelter around the corner. Next month we’ll give the money to Sage Club; they’ve got a hospital in Africa.”
In a city with more bars and clubs than the average resident could visit in a year, Marco sees Magdalena as a place which distinguishes itself not only through top-caliber DJs and authentic Berlin feeling, but also through a strong ethic of openness. “We give a place to everybody. You can come here and feel comfortable. We are not like Berghain – we don’t say, ‘You shall not pass. And you shall not pass.’ You want to have a good time and you’re friendly? Come in our club, enjoy yourself and go home with some good memories in your bag. That’s Magdalena, and that’s the way we want to keep the club.”
Bars and clubs are job creators
If Magdalena closes its doors, its staff will join the unemployed seeking help at the Arbeitsamt. “We are open five days a week. People who are working at the bar – they’re affected by this, because they’ll lose their job. They have children, they have families to support. [Politicians] just create this situation, with senseless decisions,” Marco criticized. Against the seemingly inexorable trend of club closure, an array of citizen groups and organizations has arisen to take a stand – for culture, but also for economic reasons, Marco explained. “There are well-founded studies which say that electronic music creates 13,000 jobs in Berlin.”
Political factions at cross-purposes
Despite the economic weight of the intertwined electronic music and nightlife industries, Marco experiences continuing political trivializations of the club scene stemming from its roots as a subculture. “At this very moment, we are not a subculture anymore,” he contested. “Like classical music three hundred years ago – electronic music is in the charts, electronic music is everywhere. Top ten hits all over the fucking world. We are not something you can put in the corner and just try to forget about.”
Marco identified one of the biggest problems facing the clubs as the lack of solidarity. “There is the ‘Clubcommission,’ but everybody bakes their own bread, everybody just looks at his thing. You have a business, you have to run a business. But this is more than a business – it’s an art of thinking and it’s a unique culture which is in danger of being raped and thrown away.” The Magdalena team is endeavoring to work with YAAM and other members of the Clubcommission to establish a common solution. “It’s difficult because we’re on different levels now,” said Marco. “They think they’ve got all the backing they need from the politicians, and this deal is passing, 100 percent.”
However, with the arrival of a new district mayor, the political support for YAAM’s relocation stands on fractured ground, Marco explained. “The guy who started this thing, the old Bezirksbürgermeister, Franz Schulz (Die Grünen), just quit his job, and now they’ve got a new one. And now they see, [the move] costs a lot of money.” Among other costs of rebuilding, the developer would have to shoulder significant costs relating to required mitigation of the property’s environmental impact, stemming from its origins as a gas tank cleaning station in the 1800s. The federal and city-state governments are deadlocked in court over the issue of funding for the clean-up. “There have been people who nearly bought it in the past, but they didn’t,” Marco said. Instead, would-be investors generally settled for buying smaller options in the property and reselling for a profit, dodging the burden of responsibility.
While the politicians wheel and deal over the future of the land, the club sitting on top of the property is faced with a veritable snake’s nest of convoluted interests, with the city senate, the district politicians and the city-state government all exercising various influences. “In the end, it’s hard to find out who is really responsible,” Marco said. “Everybody has his own interests, and it’s just, ‘I don’t like this guy, so I don’t support this thing,’ blah blah blah. It’s all messed up. Even within their own parties. It’s not like all of the Green Party are on the same level. It’s ridiculous. But we are trying to get everybody around a table with all the politicians, to tell them what we want.” At this moment, unity on the part of the clubs is key, Marco reiterated. “For one fucking point in time, just let us all stay together and build a force which they cannot resist. If we put all our contacts together, we have a really huge base.”
Fighting for survival
For the time being, Magdalena may be on her deathbed, but the team is battling on all fronts to bring her through the crisis. At a general press conference scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 3, the club will aim to reach out to a broader audience, while rallying supporters and raising awareness. Another central development is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 14, when the Liegenschaftsfonds will decide whether to return formal control of the property to the district government. The eviction could be halted at this phase, if the real estate trust demurs to hand over the land. In any case, Magdalena’s team has already experienced a massive outpouring of support.
“One of us wrote something emotional on Facebook. We said, ‘Alright, we’re trapped, we have to write something official and tell the people that we are near to death,’” Marco recalled. The subsequent Facebook post garnered hundreds of reactions and shares within hours. “I posted my email address and got thousands of emails from all over the world. Clubs from Switzerland, clubs from Barcelona – it was crazy. And people started calling,” he said. One of the incensed supporters was none other than Paul Kalkbrenner, whose original set-up for filming scenes in “Berlin Calling” is still intact in the smaller part of the club, known today as “Lena.”
Other artists reaching out to the club included Love Parade founder Dr. Motte, techno DJ Marusha and the rock band Sunrise Avenue. Various loyal backers are currently sending in photographs bearing statements in support of Magdalena, which will be displayed on a wall at the press conference. With a strong and unified voice, Marco hopes that the club will win back its future. “You need the crowd, you need a fanbase to build up a mass of people which can just slap politicians in the face and say, ‘We want to survive, we want to stay.’”