BERLIN (Reuters) - It’s Friday night and hoards of hipsters and tourists are jostling to get into Berlin’s clubs, lured by strobe lighting, queues with an eclectic mix of people and the promise of a non-stop party until Monday.
But in the former communist district of Prenzlauer Berg, it is quiet. Once abuzz with party goers until dawn, the quarter is now inhabited by wealthy professionals and their families who wheel prams rather than beer crates along its leafy streets.
There are almost no clubs left here, as gentrification, rising rents and complaints about noise take their toll, forcing some of the best known names to shut or go elsewhere.
The same is beginning to happen elsewhere in the city, a phenomenon known by locals as “Clubsterben”, or “club death”, threatening Berlin’s reputation as the party capital of Europe and its “easyjet” tourism.
“People come to Berlin exactly to have that feeling of freedom, that whole offering of arts and culture and music,” said Sabrina Boller of Astra, a club in the east of the city that says it is fighting plans by investors to build a shopping centre on the site.
“So if you take that away, why would people come here? I don’t think people want to come here to have another shopping centre,” she said.
Astra is not alone. Club promoters estimate that around 15 clubs are in danger of closing down due to property development and noise complaints, and many more of Berlin’s 225 bars and discos are under threat.
Inside Astra, a DJ clad in a blue stegosaurus costume and shrouded in artificial smoke performs to a throng of beer-drinking clubbers, while Australian DJ Ned Kelly awaits his cue in a chintzy room offstage, reminiscing on what drew him halfway round the world to Berlin.
“It’s more happening compared to Australia and other countries. It’s the spot for new sound in techno music globally, and it’s the spot to be for music and DJs,” Kelly, whose real name is Nathan Landers, told Reuters before going on stage to relieve the stegosaurus.
The city’s sprawling network of clubs has flourished in the many buildings left empty in the east since the fall of the Berlin Wall, taking root in the twisting passages of former power plants and factories, or even on the bottom of drained swimming pools.
Entrances to dance floors are concealed behind fake wardrobes, or through a secret door at the back of a butcher’s shop, and clubs such as Berghain and Tresor — considered the birthplace of techno — are listed in the guidebooks of the 15,000 tourists who visit Berlin each weekend.
And it’s not just the tourists who come. The red tape that curbs clubs in other cities has not yet taken hold in Berlin, and this freedom has led to a diverse cultural scene that draws artistic and creative minds from all around the world.
“The club scene is very important for all kinds of branches,” said Lutz Leichsenring at the Berlin Club Commission, an organisation set up in 2000 to represent the interests of club owners.
“We don’t have big industry in Berlin but we have creativity. The film industry, the media, fashion, they all make a big profit out of the club scene,” he said.
It is estimated that music earns up to one billion euros each year for the feeble economy of Germany’s capital, and the city created a one million euro fund earlier this year to try to support Berlin’s “endangered” clubs.
But club owners say the problem has become particularly acute in the last few years, and these measures have come too late for such places as communist East Germany-themed Klub der Republik in Prenzlauer Berg, which closed down this year to make way for swanky apartments.
The crumbling buildings that house Berlin’s clubs are rapidly becoming prime real estate as investors seek to polish up the once grimy and divided city, with rents rising by more than 10 percent last year in some areas.
Berlin’s new demographic of “yuppie” professionals with a German penchant for obeying rules is also having its effect on nightlife, with complaints about noise from just one disgruntled neighbour enough to cause serious problems, club owners say.
Housed in what was once a 19th century beer garden and frequented by David Bowie and Iggy Pop in the 1970s, the Kreuzberg club SO36 nearly closed in 2009 after a neighbour complained about the noise.
Authorities told the club it needed to pay almost 100,000 euros for a soundproof wall or turn down its music at 10 p.m.
“For a concert house or a nightclub like us that would have meant death,” said Nanette Fleig, a member of the association that runs the club, which hosts a monthly Turkish gay night.
But there is some hope for clubs. An outcry from Berliners and donations from bands and local businesses helped pay for the wall and saved SO36 from closure, at least for now.
“We were lucky that so many people came to the rescue and said SO36 had to stay,” Nanette said.
“For the moment we are more or less secure,” she said.
Additional reporting by Sarah Marsh and David Sincock, editing by Gareth Jones and Paul Casciato