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Photo : Sean P. Durham, Berlin, 2020

Berlin is still Cool, Poor, but Sexy

If Berlin is cool, poor, but sexy, does that make the average Berliner cool and sexy?

The poor part, well that comes and goes in every city dwellers life. There are a few more unfortunate souls on the streets of Berlin these days, hand outstretched, hoping to catch the attention of a passing kind heart and small change.

Berlin’s reputation has enjoyed a lot of Media coverage over the last few years. Mostly, it’ll be another article about successful startups making it in the cultural capital of Germany, or the cool clubs and DJs like Marcel Dentmann and Ben Klock, resident Djs in Berghain night club, in Friedrichshain.

If you’re a tourist you’ll do your best to get into the legendary Berghain, just to see what the fuss is about.

If you can get past legendary bouncer, Sven Marquardt whose mysterious door policy has created much bafflement among Berliners, then you belong to the cool, if not, don’t worry about it, you’ll find your coolness in another part of Berlin’s vibrant scene.

The Beginnings of Cool

It was during the 80s and 90s that Berlin really got its vibe, its feeling for modernity seemed to cause a fuss amongst travellers who happened to chance a flight to the famously walled city that was surrounded by Communists.

West Berlin was still a traditional city. The Kurfürstendamm was the main boulevard for fun and shopping all wrapped into one. Walk down the Ku’Damm past the night workers, discos and neon bars, drink a beer in one place, move on to another interesting bar and so the night went on. If you couldn’t speak German, it was going to be tough just ordering a round of drinks without misunderstandings.

Red Lit Curiosities and Dancing Nymphs

Side streets led off into brightly lit strips of curiosities. Clubs without DJs, but plenty of fun, and an easy way to spend too much money. The Red Light District of Berlin was down every side street, but the centre was Stuttgarter Platz. Every doorway led into a den of iniquity, a strip-club, a brothel, or a sort of brothel that really just took your money in expensive drinks while staff smiled at you, and people danced on stage and ripped their clothes off just for fun.

Get Locked up — for Fun

The neighborhood of Fuggerstrasse, a wedged in residential area that soon became the go-to place for Berlin’s gay scene, attracted all types of curious night hawks who needed to test their limits. Leather clubs, normal gay clubs to meet and drink, and bars with a twist of spice. “Knast”, the talk of the town gay bar where you could walk in and get locked up by some lurking gay bear. Knast is the German slang for Jail — you can imagine how this bar was themed.

In Berlin, it was always possible to go out, find your corner, and spend all night strapped to the tower of power then be home for breakfast by nine in the morning.

The Business of Change

A lot of beer passed through the tap before things began to change. Before the Berlin Wall fell.

In 1986, East European Mafia moved in to Berlin. There were incidents. Stuttgarter Platz and the profits from brothels and clubs looked like rich pickings.

German club owners received impolite visits from large men wearing expensive suits, they were told to sign a contract and accept the price offered for the sale of their business. The owners decided to tell them to go to hell.

The men from the Mob returned with a warning, generally a small spray of machine gun fire into the establishment, nobody killed, but often a patron or two wounded, this led the Germans to believe that these guys were dead serious about their offer.

Signed, Sealed, and it's a Deal

Contracts were signed and keys handed over. After the “Russian Mafia” had dealt with the red light district of Stuttgarter Platz, they moved on to the cool bars. The ones that were raking it in day and night.

The same methods were used to intimidate — previous reputations about how these people from the East Bloc did business soon got round, and contracts for small amounts of money were signed and sealed as legal business sales on large establishments.

One reporter noted that Russian Mafioso had no fear of using weapons, or killing a difficult customer. In Soviet Russia the penalty for murder was harsh, generally lifetime in a workcamp, where a convict wouldn’t last long anyway, it was as good as death sentence.

In the West, with a good lawyer, they could get away with a five year sentence, reduced with good behaviour. No big deal to these guys.

Cafe Graffiti and B52

On the edge of Adenauer Platz, Kurfürstendamm, there’s a bar named “Cafe Graffiti”, mostly young people hung out there, drank beer and ate lunch. The evenings brought another crowd in, they’d drink a beer or two, spend some money and head across the street to “B52”, a big disco that was the haunt of every wanna-be, night time adventure seeker in town. It had a dance floor with flashing floor lights, and great DJs. Back then, video was killing the radio-star, so DJs were just spinning discs in the corner. Nothing big.

“Cafe Graffiti” was doing so well, it came up into the sights of the Russian Mafia. They made their offer and waited the two weeks for the boss to reply with a signature. He thought he had too much to lose, so he said, “no way”. They tossed a grenade into the bar. People were injured by shrapnel from the low-charge grenade, and hospitalised. The contracts were signed and sealed.

The Confusion of Who’s Legitimate and Who’s Mob

There was a lot of media attention about how organised crime really was becoming organised, speculation about the future of corporate business unwittingly mixing with mafias from around the globe.

Organised crime was in the process of organising itself into legitimate business. Studies and research showed that the so called Mafia of eastern Europe had rapidly developed its ability to influence big businesses. There was indications that they controlled a lot of retail sources, food sources, and already signs of mafia in the energy business — including nuclear energy fields.

New Organised Business

Young Mafioso were being sent to business schools, studying law at Harvard, and opening legitimate business operations to be able to build contacts with corporate structures.

Berlin was still cool if you liked clubs and bars. Tourists came and went, Berlin was a “village”, the Wall only allowed you to travel so far in any direction before you turned around and went back to where you’d come from. It was an attractive little island of fun in the North of Europe.

The Fall of The Berlin Wall, 9th of November, 1989

The Berlin Wall fell, and East and West Germany joined forces — or did their best to do so. Property became big focal point for everybody with a nose for profits.

Within weeks of East Germany opening its doors to the rest of the World, East German residents were getting their first experience of what capitalism really meant.

Speculations about the Future

Property developers and speculators knew that bricks and mortar meant big profits in a reunited country that needed rebuilding. It wasn’t uncommon for an unknowing family to receive a knock on the door of their beautiful home on a Sunday morning. A couple of people dressed up in business suits and speaking perfectly good German to greet them.

The family would be offered a small sum of cash for their home, normally the sort of money that would’ve made an East German without commercial experience, gasp.

1000 Deutsche Marks, maybe 2000 thousand if they frowned at the first offer. The sum of money varied according to who was being spoken to, but generally the property developers managed to get the sweetest deal of their lives with smiles, and slapping a bundle of money onto a coffee table.

People lost their property to criminals preying on their lack of knowledge. As time went by, everybody seemed to get in on the game. The prices went up, but the value of property in the east was pure speculation, so nobody was prepared to pay more than a few thousand for a house with a garden.

Arthouse Tacheles Wrestles with the Future

A group of artists decided to go for some commercial property in Oranienburger Strasse, Mitte. They squatted in a corner building with countless rooms, broad passages and several floors high. It became one the best known cultural centers in Berlin, soon to be known World wide.

Kunsthaus Tacheles developed into a multi artist centre offering music, bars, studios and a theater. Tourists visited, bought art, watched shows, and drank in the wildly decorated bar at street level.

Banking on Leverage and Power

The first attempt to get the squatters out came from Deutsche Bank. They claimed that the property belonged to the West German Government and the squatters should leave immediately. Deutsche Bank wanted to buy it, they were prepared to pay about one Deutsche Mark for the property. A lot of commercial properties were sold at the ridiculous price of 1 Deutsche mark a simple gesture to cover the legalities.

An Interesting Thought that led to a Moment of German Satori

The squatters countered the claim with a simple zen thought. There was no way that property situated in East Germany would belong to the West German Government, not simply through the proxy of Governmental powers.

Property has to be acquired through legal means of purchase, not through strong-arming your way in.

The Artful Way of Law

Arthouse Tacheles members started to study the laws and managed to fight losing their rights to squat, and built the property into a useful and wanted cultural centre in Berlin.

After checking the law books, Deutsche Bank and the German Government realised that this bunch of rag-tag artists were actually right. Nobody owned any of the vacant property in former East Germany.

It would turn into a long fight that finally ended in 2012 after HSH Nordbank bought the property.

Guardians of the East

East Germany had been deserted by its Government, and at that time, nobody had a clue about how to legally move forwards. So they grounded the dodgy financial institute known as “Treuhand”, which basically means, “Guardian”.

This establishment managed and controlled the sale of former East German properties. Yes, of course, enormous amounts of money flowed through their coffers and it all got a bit mixed up in something called the “Gürtel Affair”. A very complex financial scandal that scans the globe.

Till this day, nobody can figure out the “Gürtel Financial Affair”, I think that’s the point of scamming and skimming money, anyway.

If you’re the type of person who enjoys a real life mystery, and following complex threads, then the Gürtel Affair is a wonderful playground to test your analytical skills. Be warned, it’s more difficult than the old detective board game, “Cluedo”.

Sexy but Poor, as Always

Berlin is always a shifting and transforming city, that’s probably what makes it sexy enough for people to live here. The money comes and goes, new political parties come and go — some old guard stay, and keep plugging away at their ideas of what a city should be.

One thing I do love about Berlin is that it’s given me a life of adventure — happiness, tragedy, sadness, love found and lost, money that came and went, I hope more comes again, and it’s given me many good friends. That’s a lot to think and write about.

We have had a rock solid Chancellor for the last 14 years, Angela Merkel. She has governed with fairness, made mistakes, and done a lot of good for Germany and has never forgotten that Germany, although a great economy, very capitalistic, is also a place where people must live and have a right to enjoy life.

Written by

Berlin Notes — Writing about the Creative Art of Living

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