Berlin night clubs might get same zoning designation as opera houses

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Marco Werman: Clubbing in Berlin — it’s been a thing for a long time. The musical “Cabaret" showed life at the seedy Kit Kat Club as the Nazis were rising to power. Fast forward to the 1980s, SNL and Mike Myers spoof disaffected young Germans who also like to dance.

Today, Berlin's club scene is under threat from rising property values in a gentrifying city. But one group of clubbers wants to save the scene with a law that would give nightclubs the same status as opera houses.

The World's Sarah Birnbaum reports.

Sarah Birnbaum: Daniel Plasch fell in love with techno music as a teenager in the 1990s. He says he used to hang out at the legendary club Tresor, which was in the cellar of an old department store where the bank vault used to be. The dance floor was sandwiched between bank safes.

Daniel Plasch: I just went down in there. I got goosebumps. I couldn't believe myself. It was kind of like an enlightenment, you know, this, like, old bank vault and then this, like, ramming bass and kick drum and the high hat. And you're just, like, you know, you're losing it.

Birnbaum: Daniel wanted to bring this religious experience to others. It was only a matter of time before he ditched his law career and opened up Stattbad, a techno club in an abandoned city pool. He says the top electronic musicians in the world played there.

Plasch: Nina Kravitz, Ben Clark, Len Faki, [Unintelligible] — you just name it. People would actually come from all over Europe just to see a certain lineup. They would write us in advance to be like, "Oh, we're coming for this night. Can we somehow make sure that we get in?" And then you saw what impact this actually has.

Birnbaum: But then, in 2015, the Stattbad club became a casualty of gentrification. The owner of the property decided to sell to a private developer for a huge profit. Stattbad is now rental apartments. This is happening all over the city. And, in fact, there is even a word for it: “clubsterben,” which translates as "club death."

About 100 clubs have closed in Berlin over the past decade and about 25 more are under threat. And now club owners and supporters are coming together to do something about it. They're advocating for a change in the German building law that would give clubs the same status as opera houses and theaters. Right now, clubs are in the same urban planning category as brothels and casinos.

Lutz Leichsenring is the spokesperson for the Club Commission, an industry lobby group.

Lutz Leichsenring: In the club, you're curating your program, you're booking artists and you're going to festivals. So that's much closer to how a theater, for instance, or a concert hall is run.

Birnbaum: If the law were changed, it would be a lot easier for new clubs to get zoning licenses and it would pave the way for more clubs to open, even in residential neighborhoods. Now, if this were happening in New York, where I'm from, I almost guarantee you there would be a large outcry from neighbors. I mean, who wants to live across from a nightclub? It's loud, there are long lines, lots of drug use. But in Berlin, this proposal has widespread support, both from the public and from politicians.

For example, Klaus Lederer. He's in Berlin government on the Culture Committee, and he's basically arguing that clubs need more protections. It could be that politicians are jumping on the bandwagon because clubs bring millions of euros to the local economy. The Club Commission estimates that three million tourists come to Berlin every year for the clubs. But Lutz Leichsenring says there's more to it than that.

Leichsenring: It's part of the DNA of Berlin, that you have this kind of club scene and people talk about it and come from all over the world. Even the startup scene is advertising with, "Come to Berlin, to its vibrant culture.” And, you know, it's just defined by it.

Birnbaum: And maybe that's why techno fiends and politicians have united under the hashtag #SaveOurSpaces. Berliners know that giving nightclubs the same status as opera houses won't change everything. It won't reverse gentrification. But they hope it could lead to a nightclub revival.