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Berlin's party scene takes hit amid coronavirus

Kay-Alexander Scholz Berlin
July 11, 2020

For the German capital, the COVID-19 pandemic has been economically devastating, as its liveihood depends on partygoers and tourism. But it doesn't mean Berlin's spirit will be dampened anytime soon.

Berghain club
Image: DW/K.-A. Scholz

When Berlin was recording a growing number of coronavirus infections in March, the city's Public Health Senator Dilek Kalayci had declared that "now is not the time for parties!" The capital's numerous clubs were forced to shut in a bid to contain the outbreak — among them was Berlin's legendary Berghain nightclub. 

Berlin's government has said clubs will most likely remain closed until the end of the year. This is in contrast to other cities, like Zurich, who have permitted clubs to re-open.

Read more: Techno in Berlin: After the hype, the downfall?

Nevertheless, Berliners are partying on, even with clubs shut. One group called Meditanzion, for example, is staging protests that combine yoga meditation with raving. The group has previously organized similar evening events at Berlin's Brandenburger Tor.

Many young Berliners have been gathering in the city's parks to party and dance. Berlin police usually show up eventually, letting them party on while also cautioning them to keep a safe distance.

Sign reading 'I love Berghain'
Berghain is one of Berlin's most famous nightclubsImage: DW/K.-A. Scholz

Clubs strictly without dancing

Some clubs with open-air premises, meanwhile, have partially re-opened. Authorities permit such clubs to sell drinks outside but prohibit guests to dance. "About blank," a club located in the city's Friedrichshain district, now refers to its open-air area as a "Sektgarten," or champagne garden, a variation on Germany's ubiquitous beer gardens.  

But not everyone is happy with this compromise. Dennis, who works at an upmarket barbershop near Berlin's Gendarmenmarkt square, says "it's no fun to rave sitting down." He says for years, clubbing was his hobby. He also admits that maybe there's a silver lining.

In recent times, he says, clubbing just wasn't the same in Berlin. "The music, the party-goers — it's all become a bit commercial and lacks creativity." He says he went clubbing just before the lockdown and didn't even finish his beer. "The music was just unbearable."

This commercialization, along with the gradual displacement of inner-city clubs due to rising rents, is putting Berlin's party scene under pressure. In late 2019, for example, KitKatClub, known internationally for its fetish parties, announced it will have to close its venue in central Berlin.

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Less partying bad for Berlin

The closure of Berlin nightclubs has serious economic consequences for the German capital. After all, its vibrant nightlife has attracted scores of tourists to the city. What will become of the city that has proudly worn the badge of "poor but sexy," coined by a former mayor, since the start of the new millennium?

Read more: 1989: How reunified Berlin birthed a club culture revolution

In June, Berlin's official unemployment rate rose by 2.7%. No other part of Germany has registered such a steep increase. Hotels are presently reporting an 80% to 90% vacancy rate. The German Hotel and Restaurant Association (DEHOGA) has called the situation a "disaster." No other European city has seen such a dramatic fall in visitors.

The city boasts 250 nightclubs generating €150 million in revenue and drawing 3 million tourists to the city per year — according to a study by Berlin's government. For the past years, Berlin profited from its image as a party hot spot.

"This has attracted non-touristic investment as well," urban planner David Koser tells DW. In his view, Berlin's hedonistic image probably contributed to Tesla's decision to open a factory just outside the city. "After all," he says, "Berlin is not a typical car city."

Johannes, who runs a restaurant in Berlin's Mitte district, is deeply concerned about the current nightclub situation. He fears that, soon, restaurants and corner shops will suffer as well. He's expecting a wave of insolvencies in the latter half of 2020. And it certainly does not bode well that easyJet recently announced it will halve its Berlin fleet.

Empty space in front of Berghain nightclub
No one partying in BerghainImage: DW/K.-A. Scholz

A number of clubs, restaurants and cultural figures have now joined forces to lobby their causes. At their inaugural meeting, representatives said they fear for their livelihoods and worry about Berlin's cultural and culinary landscape.

"One Berlin," as the group calls itself, is urging the city to grant them tax breaks, and to allow more parties in public places such as  Alexanderplatz.

Friedrichstraße, a new party hot spot?

Some Berliners, on the other hand, say they actually welcome the calm that has descended over the capital. They are glad to see a drop in tourism. "Party tourism has significantly impacted certain residential neighborhoods," Koser says, "and lead to ever more restaurants, late-night kiosks, holiday apartments and hotels opening that cater to tourists."

Read more: A visit to Cologne's Bootshaus, Germany's top club

This, he says, has led to a gradual displacement of locals and non-tourist businesses and the rise of buzzing nightlife neighborhoods.

He thinks the current crisis could provide an opportunity to get a hold on this development and limit the party tourism that is putting a strain on residential neighborhoods. Instead, he suggests, clubs and other venues could relocate to the city center, where "nobody would be bothered." For example along Berlin's Friedrichstrasse, which, he says, "used to be the city's main nightlife quarter."

His suggestion might actually catch on. Many commercial premises along Friedrichstraße are currently vacant. And in August, Berlin plans to temporarily ban car traffic along the street to see whether it will attract more pedestrians to the area.

But Koser still doubts Berlin will become a radically different city. "I don't think, once this coronavirus crisis is over, Berlin will shed its party image." Adding that "there is a big demand to party in an urban context."

Besides, he says, "Berlin's potential for innovation" is anything but depleted. So even if its techno scene disappears, vacant premises and plots of land will birth new, creative cultural outlets.

Berlin Spirit