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Berlin club culture battles 'highway to hell'

September 9, 2023

The extension of the A100 freeway through central Berlin would destroy numerous nightlife institutions. But the club scene has joined with climate activists to halt its construction.

People line up outside Berghain nightclub in Berlin
Clubs like Berghain grew up in the post-Wall wastes of East BerlinImage: Christophe Gateau/dpa/picture alliance

When the Berlin Wall fell nearly 35 years ago, cultural life soon flourished in the abandoned factories and buildings that were left behind.

Pioneering techno music clubs like Tresor, located in a bombed-out department store vault, and later Berghain — occupying a derelict GDR power station — were some of many that gave life to the remnants of war and division in Berlin. Global creatives, DJs and dreamers soon flooded in to join the party that has become synonymous with the city.

Yet these spontaneous, self-managed cultural venues have long been vulnerable to so-called Clubsterben, or club death, with many already lost to development, gentrification and pandemic restrictions.

More recently, the threat has been heightened by the potential extension of the A100 highway through Berlin. Around 30 clubs and cultural venues that grew up over decades lie in its wake.

The area in question, running north of the Spree River through Friedrichshain in the former East Berlin, has remained relatively free of development. But the 17th and final section of the A100 could flatten the entire precinct.

While Berlin's long-ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD) opposed the extension, the new Christian Democratic Party (CDU) leadership supports it — as does the federal transport minister who has final authority over the project.

A Berlin legend: Club Tresor

Culture scene fights back against A100 extension

Some of Berlin's most celebrated venues face eviction if the A100 goes ahead.

They include the popular riverside dance club, Else, constructed with converted shipping containers; About Blank, an industrial techno club complex run by a collective that once squatted the space; and Wilde Renate, a labyrinthine club and exhibition space located in a former tenement house.

But grassroots campaigning to stop the A100 has reached critical mass in recent months.

Following a similar action in 2022, a classical orchestra and choir blocked the A100 this April under the banner "Make Music Instead of Concrete" — and while performing the ACDC song "Highway to Hell."

Meanwhile, the Berlin club scene joined forces with climate activists and local citizen initiatives on September 2 to put on a rave for 20,000 people to celebrate cultural life in the district. More than 1,000 attendees came as part of a bicycle demonstration that rode from Berlin's Transport Ministry and aimed to highlight the climate impacts of the highway extension.

The event, titled "A100 wegbassen," which means to get rid of the freeway with loud bass, was partly organized by the Berlin Club Commission, the world's first self-organized network for club culture — and who in 2018 employed a similar theme, "AfD wegbassen," to protest a far-right Aternative for Germany party event in the city via a techno street parade.  

"With lots and lots of people we showed that building another highway is a project of the past. The city of the future focuses on people, not cars," said Fridays for Future in an Instagram post after the event.      

One of the impacted clubs, About Blank, said it was willing to stand in the way of the freeway for the sake of both club culture and to stop the climate-changing car traffic that the development will bring.

The collective behind the renowned techno club, founded 13 years ago, said it would help "create a club-cultural barricade against fossil capitalism, which causes the climate catastrophe."

"The highway extension is an anachronism, an old burden of the state-protected automobile lobby," it added.

Lutz Leichsenring, spokesperson for Club Commission, told DW that Berlin artists and activists had helped stop freeway construction in the 1980s when culturally vibrant tenement streets were due to be flattened in the Kreuzberg district in the former West Berlin.

Berlin: Capital of techno and club culture

Rising costs means freeway may not go ahead

But while 1950s-era urban planning designed to create car cities is alive and well, Leichsenring believes rapidly rising costs alone could kill the final A100 extension long after the first stage was completed in 1958.

At a cost of €200,000 ($214,000) per meter of construction, the effort to pull down and relocate vast swaths of Berlin may no longer be viable, he believes — especially with costs and permissions not due to be approved until 2027.   

Moreover, the fact that car usage in Berlin has declined by 16% since the introduction of Germany's cheaper €49 monthly public transport ticket means alternatives, including bicycle lanes, are possible to what Leichsenring calls "a very absurd project."

Nonetheless, the Club Commission spokesperson fears the lack of certainty could force clubs, theaters and museums to quit the area as they search for long-term security of tenure.

Berlin culture senator backs clubs for UNESCO heritage but silent on A100

From Klaus Lederer of the Left Party (Die Linke), former Berlin senator for culture, to his current successor, Joe Chialo of the Christain Democratic Party (CDU), Berlin politicians of different political backgrounds have strongly supported Berlin club culture, noted Leichsenring.

This also relates to the growing economic power of the club scene, with a Club Commission study showing that Berlin clubs generated €1.5 billion in revenue for the city in 2018.

When Chialo, a former Green Party member, assumed his role as Berlin's culture czar in 2023, he said he wanted Berlin's clubs to be recognized as "cultural sites."

"Clubs are talent factories, make an important cultural contribution; they make inner cities more attractive [and] attract audiences," Chialo told Berlin newspaper, the Berliner Zeitung.

This relates to efforts by the Club Commission and others to have Berlin's clubs recognized as part of  UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2021.

"This is important because Berlin's clubs have never been recognized as cultural sites," Sophie Kahrmann, DJ and director of Berlin's Anomalie Art Club, told DW during the Rave the Planet street party in 2022. "Achieving cultural recognition is a way to observe its importance in Berlin and around the world." 

DW contacted Chialo's office for comment on the potential impact of the A100 on the Berlin club scene but has not had a response. 

Spectacle on the highway

Cultural and grassroots activists aim to continue to pressure government by drawing public attention to the issue.

From September 9 to 24, a post-industrial wasteland lying on the route of the next section of the highway will host the action,  "Spectacle on the Highway" (Spektakel auf der Autobahn). The two-week program includes live music, circus shows, theater and flea markets and aims to show what would be possible on the vacant site if the freeway wasn't built.

people gather under a circus tent
Land that will be lost to the A100 has been transformed into a vibrant cultural space during 'Spectacle on the Highway' Image: Stuart Braun/DW

"We want to show with our program what can actually take place here," said Konstanz, spokesperson for the collective organizing "Spectacle on the Highway," as hundreds flooded into the catch music and performances on its opening day on Saturday.

Even if the highway was stopped, showcasing the cultural value of the site might also stop it being sold off to the "highest bidder," she said, referring to the new construction projects encroaching on the land by the rail tracks — and flanked by the Wilde Renate nightclub and Zukunft, an outdoor music and cinema venue.

After the current two-week pilot project, the goal is to make the abandoned strip — owned by rail operator, Deutsche Bahn — a permanent cultural space, Konstanz said.

people walk among stalls and tents as a train passes
'Spectacle on the Highway' showcases how local Berlin culture can enliven derelict space, as opposed to highways and high risesImage: Stuart Braun/DW

Such an effort to creatively explore the potential of the site is typical of the way club culture emerged in the voids of Berlin. 

"You always have to have space left for future generations," said Lutz Leichsenring of cultural life in what has long remained an "unfinished city."

"That's a big mistake, to develop everything."

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.