|Showdown in Spreepark
Earlier this year, an electronic music festival took place in Berlin which served to highlight the messy politics and economic shifts of the city's vibrant techno scene. Luis-Manuel Garcia explains.
"Hey, that's the wristband from that Luna Land party."
"How was it?"
"Oh, I was only there for a few hours, but—"
"Were there lots of Prolls?"
"Oh, it's German slang for lower-class people from the provinces or the suburbs; usually young teenagers with fake tans and spiky hair..."
"Ah, like chavs in Britain, or ginos or white trash or something in the States?"
"Maybe. Sure. They usually come from the suburbs of the former East Germany. I'm from the East, too. How was the Spreepark? I used to go there as a little girl with my family, before the wall fell, when it was still Kulturpark Plänterwald. A lot has changed since then..."
This is the beginning of a conversation I had with a girl in the smoking area of Berghain / Panorama Bar, at about 9 AM Sunday morning in August of this year. She was right, of course: a lot has changed in Berlin since the wall fell—nearly everything. And Luna Land, a two-day party in an abandoned amusement park east of Berlin, became a flashpoint for anxieties and frustrations about how Berlin is changing, and who is changing it.
The amusement park was already being considered by one of Berlin's legendary nightlife institutions (Bar 25) as their next location, but then an outside promoter (Minimoo) came in and rented the site out for a two-day music festival. Minimoo's large-scale festival history was far from spotless, however, and their critics were quick to point it out. In the debates that took place in the news, blogs, and community forums (including Resident Advisor), topics like tourism, gentrification and commercialization were constantly coming up, with the specter of the Love Parade looming in the background. The party went off without substantial problems—the cops didn't shut it down and there were no stampedes—but the political showdown going on behind the scenes revealed the stress and strain of a music scene dealing with a rapidly shifting landscape.
Spreepark Berlin started its life in 1969 as Kulturpark Plänterwald, located on 29.5 hectares (73 acres) of land between the Plänterwald forest and the river Spree, in the eastern Berlin district of Treptow-Köpenick. At that time, the district was in East Berlin. It was the only amusement park in the socialist German Democratic Republic. It wasn't a manicured and coordinated theme park like those in the West; it was closer to Coney Island, an unrelated mix of midway attractions and thrill rides on an asphalt lot, kind of like a permanent county fair. The park had an average of 1.7 million visits per year, but in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down and the GDR collapsed, so did Kulturpark Plänterwald.
The park reopened in 1991 as Spreepark Berlin, and then things got complicated. There's not enough space here to do justice to the whole convoluted soap opera, which you can read all about in Der Spiegel's in-depth, English-language feature story. But what follows is an abridged, condensed version of the story, anyway.
The transformation of Kulturpark Plänterwald into Spreepark Berlin began in 1990 with an amalgam of investors headed by Norbert Witte. Witte came from a wealthy Austrian family of carnival performers and amusement ride owners. Yearly attendance numbers quickly rose to 1.5 million visitors, but the park management was weighed down with debts from the cost of renovating and re-opening. Witte continued to develop the park by adding additional rides and attractions, like a looping roller coaster, a wild water ride, a stage for shows and both Wild West and English-themed villages.
By 1999, however, Spreepark was in deep debt, having taken out loans as well as a mortgage worth 20 million Euros from the city of Berlin. There were lots of reasons for why attendance waned, but the increasingly steep price of admission and the lack of nearby parking spots were considered contributing factors. In 2001, the Spreepark management company declared bankruptcy and closed the park for good (here is the website for Spreepark, as it was on the day it closed).
For some reason, Witte thought that the solution to his massive personal debts was to move to Peru and establish an amusement park called Lunapark, across from a shopping mall in Lima, the country's capital city. He shipped out six rides from Spreepark, which he was allowed to do because he gave the owners the impression that he was having them repaired there. Lunapark was a financial failure; within months of arriving, Witte's wife was having trouble feeding her family, so she returned to Germany with the children. Lunapark Peru
Now, here's where it gets crazy. Witte decided to recoup some of his losses by smuggling drugs. Through a contact back in Berlin, Witte got in contact with a local Peruvian drug cartel and arranged to have 76 kg (167 lb) of cocaine stuffed into the hollow steel mast of his "Flying Carpet" carousel, and then told customs officials that he was sending the ride back for repairs. He left his eldest son, Marcel, to manage the shipment from Peru, while Witte went ahead to Germany to receive it; Marcel was 21 at the time and had no idea about what his father had arranged. One of the members of the drug cartel was an undercover agent. Both men were arrested for drug trafficking: the son in Peru and the father in Germany. In 2004, Norbert was sentenced to seven years in prison, of which he only served four in a low-security prison before being released. Back in Peru, his son was sentenced in 2006 to 20 years.
Norbert Witte has since taken over management of (what remains of) the Spreepark, living in a pair of trailers on the abandoned grounds and making a living off of menial labor. Marcel remains incarcerated in Peru, occasionally visited by his mother, who has since divorced her husband. Spreepark is now dilapidated and overgrown with weeds; it is surrounded by a fence and monitored by security, since it has become a favorite destination for photographers and urban explorers. Ownership of the property has reverted to the city of Berlin, with more than 11 million Euros of debt still outstanding.
Bar 25, Gentrification and "Post-Tourism" Tourism
Despite all this drama (or maybe because of it), Bar 25 has its eye on Spreepark as a new location. In late June 2010, German newspapers were reporting that one of the founding managers of Bar 25, Christoph Klenzendorf, had expressed interest in buying Spreepark after their location in Friedrichshain closed in September 2010.
The history of Bar 25 started in 2004, when Klenzendorf and some of his friends signed a lease for the property at Holzmarktstraße 24-25.
This was part of a larger stretch of land along the river Spree owned by Berlin's sanitation service (BSR); they had been having trouble finding tenants for the space, so they were happy to rent a smaller parcel out to Klenzendorf when he approached them. Klenzendorf moved onto the property with a trailer and his friends in August of 2004, and a six-week-long, non-stop party ensued. Over the winter, they started on plans to create a bar, hostel, and restaurant on the location, which opened in the spring of 2005 as Bar 25. Over the years, additional amenities were added (like a spa and a pizza oven), but the core of the location was the bar itself, in a Western-themed log cabin overlooking the Spree, along with a restaurant that shared the building, a cluster of hostel cabins hidden behind a wall, and another cluster of trailers and cottages behind another wall.
The six-week party that started it all set the tone for Bar 25's events. The place soon became famous for its "anything goes" hedonism and drugged-out messiness. The club would open on Friday and stay open non-stop until Monday afternoon or evening, and so on Sundays it became a favorite spot for people to collapse or keep going at the end of a grueling party weekend. Everyone has a story of excessive drug use, sexual adventure and/or lost items. They were also infamous for their severe and often hostile door staff that refused entry and humiliated people in line for reasons that were sometimes elitist...but also sometimes for no clear reason at all.
Bar 25's relationship with their landlords was never friendly, but it got downright nasty real quick. Property values were rising along the river Spree in Friedrichshain as the gentrification of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg was pushing eastward and the urban development plan, "Mediaspree" was accelerating. Berlin's history of gentrification is an odd and unique one, mostly due to the fact that the Berlin Wall discouraged migration into the city and kept property values down until the late '80s. As Markus Albers reports in an article in Monocle, the entire process of gentrification in Berlin is about 20 years out of step with pretty much the rest of the world; while new patterns of gentrification have been developing in super-dense cities, rural areas and abandoned first-world industrial zones, the gentrification of Berlin neighborhoods like Mitte is a flashback to New York or London in the '80s.
After each final closing party for Bar 25,
more Berliners became skeptical. This
time, though, they were really closing.
During the '70s and '80s, Berlin developed an urban development policy often called Behutsame Stadterneuerung ("cautious urban renewal"), which mostly arose out of the conflicts and debates about what to do with Kreuzberg, Berlin's most diverse working-class neighborhood. This policy involved giving local residents' associations more than just an advisory role in urban development: they actively participated in project planning and had a say in the approval of these projects. This policy placed an emphasis on preserving and renovating existing building stock—that is, those classic Wilhelmian "Altbau" buildings characteristic of Berlin and nowadays at a premium—instead of demolishing and replacing it.
However, in the '90s after reunification, many of these policies were dispensed with, as dreams of a shiny new German capital overrode any interest in preserving Berlin's distinct urban landscape—even though places like Kreuzberg were already an important part of the "tourist image" of the city. Rapid gentrification took place in Mitte and Kreuzberg, spilling over into Prenzlauer Berg by the early 2000s; it is now creeping into Neukölln (around Hermannplatz) and most of Friedrichshain.
Tourism has also played a role in this gentrification, although the role has been changing as tourism has changed. These days, there's been a lot of talk among those who study tourism about "new" tourism or "post-tourism" or even "neo-Bohemian" tourism. All of these terms refer to an emergent kind of traveler who isn't interested in the sorts of attractions and activities that are typically associated with tourists: they don't like vacation packages or group tours; they aren't that interested in museums and monuments; they don't shop in "mainstream" shopping areas; they'd rather stay in a hostel or sublet someone's apartment than stay in a hotel.
This kind of tourism changes neighborhoods differently than conventional tourism. Instead of going upscale and marketing their attractiveness as a tourist destination, post-tourism neighborhoods adapt to make tourist visits easier and more profitable while constantly denying their status as emerging tourist destinations. Part of the value of these places is in keeping up the appearance of being untouched by tourism (and gentrification). Of course, gentrification still happens, just differently. A recent interview with urban planner Johannes Novy in Ex-Berliner magazine reveals that 10,000 apartments have been removed from the housing market and converted into vacation rentals for just the kind of tourists that don't like hotels. This tightens the housing market, drives up rents and drives out poorer residents.
This post-tourism is probably impacting nightlife differently, too. Think back to Berlin's old "club mile" of the '90s rave era—WMF, E-Werk, the original Tresor—located near Potsdamer Platz in Mitte. By the turn of the century, it succumbed to the effects of classic gentrification: residential and business properties went upscale and there was a concerted effort to saturate the area with luxury stores and expensive dwellings. But some of Mitte's "alternative" areas changed differently. Oranienburger Straße, for example, transformed from, in the words of Albers, a "laissez-faire laboratory" of cultural experimentation into a "subcultural theme park for pub-crawls and Ukranian prostitutes." With the rising tide of post-tourism, similar changes are likely in store for other boroughs of Berlin that offer forms of "alternative culture."
And so, the "new" club mile of the 2000s (running along both banks of the river Spree from Jannowitzbrücke to Oberbaumbrücke) may find itself turning into a subcultural theme park, ready to cash in on new forms of tourism, rather than being completely wiped off the map like the earlier club mile in Mitte. But this is complicated by the Mediaspree urban redevelopment project, which has been grinding its way across the banks of the Spree since the early 2000s. Interestingly enough, the Mediaspree project mimics the "cautious urban renewal" of the '80s by preserving old (industrial) building stock, but withholds from local residents the kind of bargaining power they once had. Similarly the Mediaspree project is aimed at bringing money to the city by luring "creative industry" businesses into these renovated industrial sites along the Spree. Many of the development plans that are under the Mediaspree banner include provisions for "cultural" elements like galleries, restaurants, and event spaces, which are supposed to preserve the "alternative" allure of the old, undeveloped East Berlin. Mediaspree protester
Bar 25's location was right in the middle of the Mediaspree project's development area, and the owners (BSR) had plans to capitalize on it. The lease period was going to end in the winter of 2008, so Bar 25 held a big closing party in September 2007. When BSR gave them notice of termination at the beginning of 2008, they ignored it and partied for one more summer. When the eviction notice went to court, they got a settlement that allowed them to stay for the summer of 2009, but they had to return the property by the fall, with everything cleaned out and the trees cut down. How they stayed on for 2010 is anyone's guess.
Either way, for four years running, Bar 25 had big final closing parties in the fall, thinking they would never be back again. By this summer, a lot of Berliners were getting skeptical of these claims and beginning to wonder if it was just a devious marketing ploy, but the tone of things this September made it seem like, this time, they were really closing. One of the things that made it seem serious was that Klenzendorf had publicly expressed interest in Spreepark.
What's curious about this is that Klenzendorf had made a big deal about the impermanence of Bar 25. In several interviews, Klenzendorf insisted that much of the specialness of the place came from the fact that it will soon close, that he'd rather end it before it got stale. In Tobias Rapp's Lost and Sound: Berlin, Techno, and the Easyjet Set, for example, Klenzendorf is quoted giving his opinion on the inevitable closing of Bar 25, saying: "At some point, it'll all be over. But it's also beautiful that it's so transitory. It means it will have been an experience for all those who were here. A fantastic time. A closed chapter. That's how it'll be, and I think that's great."
But by the summer of 2010, the philosophy had shifted. Bar 25's management was considering re-opening in a new location; a website dedicated to "saving" Bar 25 from closing came online; and Bar 25 and a group of filmmakers have been collecting money online to create a documentary about the place. Suddenly, Bar 25 went from having a Zen-like acceptance of its finality to running in three directions: preserve the magic on film, prevent the closing altogether or start afresh in a new place.
As enticing as Spreepark seems, it poses some problems for Bar 25. Sure, the abandoned Wild-West-themed train station overgrown with vines and the roller coaster disappearing into bushes matches perfectly with the bar's mix of childlike fantasy and adult hedonism; also, one of Bar 25's main themes has always been the circus, and this translates easily to Spreepark. But, although Norbert Witte still manages the park, the city owns the land, and there are millions of Euros in debt still owed to lenders and investors. This means there are at least three parties that have to be satisfied in order for the project to go ahead, even before considering the costs of renovating the space and getting the necessary land-use permits. Also, two other companies have expressed interest in taking over the amusement park.
And, as if that weren't enough, Bar 25 would soon discover that they wouldn't even be the first ones to re-open the park for the purposes of a party.
Minimoo and Minitek
Enter Minimoo. According to a story in Spex Magazine, Jenny Tan had been visiting Berlin last year, wandering along the perimeter of the Spreepark with her mother, when they happened across the park's manager (presumably Norbert Witte). She had been thinking about organizing something in Berlin along the lines of what she had been doing in New York City, and so she entered into negotiations to use the park for an event, which would eventually become the Luna Land party.
Jenny Tan was one of two founding members of the minimal-centric party promoter Minimoo, along with Daniele Laudonio. Tan comes from Germany, and does economic research on Africa, and Laudonio comes from Italy and owns a catering company. While there are few biographical details publicly available on them, NYC-based clubbers that I spoke to reported that Tan had access to a large pool of investors through personal contacts, and the East-Berliner woman I spoke with in Panoarama Bar claimed that she came from a wealthy Hamburg family. I can't confirm these bits of information, but either one would help to explain how a pair of clubbers in NYC could organize a massive techno festival in Berlin. This is especially so considering Minimoo's history with music festivals.
Minimoo had its start in 2007 as an itinerant series of minimal techno parties, developing a reputation for holding their events in fresh and unusual locations. They booked international DJs and did minimal public advertising, relying mostly on word-of-mouth and an invite-only mailing list. In the fall of 2008, however, Minimoo went big and went public with Minitek, a weekend-long minimal music festival. They booked an amazing lineup of minimal heavyweights—Richie Hawtin, Magda, Heartthrob, Marco Carola, Audion, Troy Pierce and so on—and then reserved an outdoor space near Coney Island for the daytime parties, and Penn Plaza hotel in Midtown Manhattan for the nighttime parties.
It was supposed to be non-stop, top-notch minimal techno from Friday to Sunday. By all accounts, however, it was a disastrous mix of bad luck and mismanagement. There's no room here to give the details of just what went wrong and how (although you can read the reviews on Resident Advisor and Little White Earbuds), but phrases like "textbook clusterfuck" and "abject failure" come up in the course of these reviews.
So, you can imagine how thrilled the managers and fans of Bar 25 were when—after having expressed an interest in Spreepark, but before any deal had been made—they discovered that a promoter was organizing a big techno festival in the same place. And it wasn't a local Berlin promoter, but a US company that dropped into the scene and steamrolled past them. On top of all of that, this organization was known back in NYC for being responsible for a disastrously mismanaged music festival. Bar 25 managers like Christoph Klenzendorf seemed to studiously (and wisely) avoid any public comment on the matter, but their fans and followers didn't hold back.
Even before mentioning the competition with Bar 25, some critics were raising organizational and environmental questions. When the Love Parade was still in Berlin, the event left the Tiergarten—Berlin's largest and most well-known park—a puke- and piss-soaked mess of trampled grass, broken trees, destroyed animal habitats, broken glass and condoms. What would happen to the Spreepark and the neighboring Plänterwald when thousands of fun-seekers showed up to party? And then there was the matter of the disaster at the Love Parade in Duisburg that summer. How would the crowds be managed, especially in a park full of broken-down, highly dangerous amusement park rides? In that aforementioned interview with Spex, Tan addressed these concerns, assuring the public that they would take responsibility for cleaning up, that there would be ample security, and that attendees would only have access to a small portion of the property.
At the same time, things began to heat up in discussion forums and comment threads. I first noticed this when I was checking out the Facebook page for the party a few days in advance and saw a comment on the event's wall that read, "Something to hide?" Confused, I refreshed the page and found that the comment had disappeared. Looking further down the wall, I saw that there were several defensive comments, seeming to respond to criticisms of the event that were no longer there. Thankfully, I was able to use my browser cache to find the previous version of the page and look up the author of that deleted comment. On his profile, I found a who's-who of Bar 25 regulars and employees (including the infamous "Door Hitler").
The comments under the event page at Resident Advisor were more illuminating, since the event creator can't censor comments. The very first comment made an immediate connection to the Minitek debacle: "minitek two?" And the next commenter "really hope[d] that this [wasn't] a fake." One user started posting in defense of the event, assuring everyone that the party was for real and that it would go off without a hitch, but some remained skeptical. One German-speaking commenter added, "I heard that the Park knows nothing about the event," and later, "and I heard that it's a fake!" Halfway down the page, a sort of press release / manifesto was posted by the Minimoo crew, written in and German and English, on the RA page along with the Facebook page and the event's homepage:
DEAR HATERS! Immediately afterward, an English-speaking commenter asks, "Why so many haters for this festival?" And another user replies with an explanation that's worth reprinting in its entirety:
we are really sorry that your plans to sabotage our endeavour to make a few thousand people smile & dance under the ferris wheel over the weekend isn't quite working out. hate and rant as much as you want on all your forums and message boards but leave those in peace that are just looking forward to something they believe will be a fun and amazing experience. i hope that the dark clouds over your head will follow you all weekend while all those at Spreepak will be blessed with sunshine. should you get bored with being miserable, lay off your negative attitude and join the party. i'm sorry it's not yours but we're happy to share.
lots of love,
the minimoo crew (Tuesday, Aug 24, 2010)
it's not easy to understand and I will not try to explain the whole story in english.While this probably wasn't the work of a Bar 25 manager, the writer is clearly part of that scene; she talks about "our work" and references Spreepark as the intended location for "our...perfect dreamland." Then, she references Bar 25 and Bachstelzen (another location that shares a lot of clientele with Bar 25) and associates them with "local ravers," in opposition to the party organizers.
It's just sad... for me, for ravers, for Berlin, for the future.
Our fear is that this event will destroy our work of the last years. That it will never be possible to create our all perfect dreamland there. To much to explain...
Its one weekend for such a great chance *puff* The most local ravers (supporters of 25, stelz, and so on) understand... the organizers not.
For me Lunaland is just an other f***ing bubble, if it would not be at this place!
Have fun sweeties. Stay free. (Wednesday, Aug 25, 2010)
Although not the most eloquent argument, this post captures what raised the hackles of a lot of Bar 25 loyalists. There's a sense that the Berlin scene is going through some rapid changes—just look at the recently bulldozed site on which Bar 25 once stood—and everything feels a bit fragile. The plans for the future seem to feel precarious, too, so the arrival of an unexpected and unknown actor (Minimoo) raised fears that this would further destabilize things. Furthermore, the notion that Minimoo came from NYC and "intruded" on the local scene resonates all too easily with the Berlin techno scene's ambivalent relationship to tourism. And so, by late August, we had a situation where fans of Bar 25 were feeling squeezed between gentrification (Mediaspreee) and tourism (Minimoo), while the Minimoo organizers were discovering that they had wandered onto a political minefield where their own history was coming back to haunt them.
So, how was the party? Fine. No big organizational problems, no disasters. The weather was a bit chilly and the attendance was slow during the daytime event, but the location was amazing. There were great sets by Marc Schneider under the Ferris Wheel and by Lee Curtiss in the "Village" stage (which had shockingly good acoustics), and there were ample toilets, drinks, and food stands. And, interestingly enough, I noticed that quite a few of the on-site event staff—especially the DJ handlers—were actually Bar 25 regulars. I mentioned this to one of my friends, and she said, "A paycheck is a paycheck. And, in Berlin, you need every paycheck you can get."
Published / Friday, 26 November 2010
Photo credits / Lunaland Peru, Norbert Witte - Rohfilm
BAR25 - Andreas Praefcke
Minitek sign - Eddie Birk
Mediaspree protest - DPA
All others - Paul Clement