Gentrification. It’s all well and good in principle: improving areas with renewal and rebuilding. But it can also have a pretty dark side with increased property values, and the displacement of lower income families and businesses.
Gentrification stands still for no man. Alternative lifestyles are swept aside, interesting and distinctive areas are suddenly everywhere, and the capacity for cultural production is massively reduced.
Take Berlin. Berlin is an extraordinary place. Most people understand its Cold War history as a divided city, with capitalist west and communist east facing each other off over a wall. But less familiar are the underground and alternative scenes which have characterised the city over decades, centuries even.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 people from east and west felt the relief of being freed from political oppression and cultural and social separation. Young people in Berlin had never known anything different than this divide, and the new unified state felt great. People wanted to celebrate this freedom together; they wanted to party.
The fall of the wall also opened up a whole array of large official buildings, including former industrial and military spaces, which were left redundant and ready to be reclaimed by the city. These buildings were typically dark, solid and functional spaces, standing for an authority which no longer existed.
The newly united city was the perfect playground for party goers with the wealth of abandoned buildings up for grabs and ready to be put to good use. This was the landscape from which techno emerged in Berlin. The city now started beating to a different rhythm. New clubs and party venues sprung up all over, changing the landscape and reunifying communities.
A new dawn
As with the other scenes before it, techno was well hidden. Music was played “in clubs that were not owned by anyone in districts no one was responsible for, in buildings that did not exist according to the land register”. As techno DJ Clé put it: “We lived at a time when normal people slept.”
The location of clubs during the period was clustered, but their distribution fluid. As it should be with alternative underground scenes: clusters of venues constantly shift, evade capture, move with the times.
But as the new Berlin has started to settle down, the techno scene has changed to reflect this growing confidence in a new identity – providing fixed venues for clubbers.
The most notorious of all the clubs is housed in an old power plant. Berghain, often referred to as a “techno cathedral” is widely considered one of the world’s best nightclubs. But in rising in popularity and prominence, Berlin’s underground world has lost some of it’s earlier sparkle. With “authorised” techno clubs now the norm across the city.
Tourists – the so-called “Easyjetset” – come from all over Europe to join locals in pilgrimage to these “temples of techno”. And the music has its authorised heritage too. With old 1980s samples worked into contemporary techno compositions.
Inside the 2012 techno night at the the Teufelsberg (“Devil’s Mountain”), a former NSA listening station. Image: Getty.
The threat of renewal
As Berlin emerges from the dark days of the 20th century, and as the process of gentrification spreads like a helix across the city, from the centre out into the suburbs, so the places associated with these scenes inevitably come under threat. As districts are “modernised” to make way for new homes and redevelopments, the options to find alternative locations for these underground scenes diminishes. The gentrification process means places associated with alternative scenes are being closed down and scenes pushed to the margins.
And herein lies a problem. This significant history is also hidden from those responsible for managing the city’s future – its planners and politicians. How can they promote or understand the significance of something they will probably never see?
No one is suggesting the clubs and venues should all remain preserved as fixed points in a vibrant and changing city. The vital ingredient here is the capacity to sustain these alternative scenes, underground and hidden from view in plain sight within the city.
This underground heritage seems essential to social and cultural sustainability. To deny it here, in Berlin of all places, is to deny the city’s capacity to attract and sustain alternative lifestyles, compromising Berlin’s very identity.