In Berlin, the coolest city in Europe if not the world, you don't want to appear too cool. You risk standing out among the truly hip, the people who led the way out of postwar geographic isolation and into a brave new world of outlaw entrepreneurship and (surprisingly understated) social innovation.
So, no, don't ask if the table is ordering sangria before dinner ("This is not Mallorca," someone says as a means of gentle correction), avoid wearing sunglasses unless the light is absolutely blinding, try not to wear all black at every occasion. Of course, you fail at all of the above until, well, you remember you packed some gray clothes. The Berlin way of doing things is figured out quickly enough. Drawing attention to yourself is not the way.
U-Bahn station late night in NeukollnIn Berlin, being a part of something bigger, at once more open, universal and common, is the way into true cool. You can meet someone at dinner, at a bar, a lecture or at a museum, spend hours talking, bump and kiss on the dance floor if the night goes really deep, sleep together in a park until sundown the next day, then say goodbye at the subway platform or as you ride off in separate directions on bikes. It may not happen to you, or half of it could. It is part of the romance of the serendipity of the everyday. There are so many people in Berlin open to social adventure that love -- all kinds of love -- though fleeting, is traded so often as to appear commonplace. Maybe it isn't, but the sheer volume of opportunities seems to make it so.
Incubation, feisty and organic
I spent 10 days in Berlin in late August. No, I didn't wake up in a park after a night of talking and dancing. I had a room and a comfortable bed in a friend's apartment in Kreuzberg, once the epicenter of countercultural activity in the old American sector of West Berlin, before the Wall fell in 1989. It was in this borough that much of the incubation, feisty and organic, cultural and political, for present-day Berlin took place. The neighborhood is now filled with post-hipsters, ageless Bohemians, corner shops and restaurants opened by Turkish immigrants. It is like Hamtramck superimposed on Williamsburg with a navigable canal cutting through its middle.
My primary daily destination was roughly seven blocks away at Kraftwerk Berlin
, in Mitte, once on the other side of the Wall (remnants of which remain throughout the city, including at the Topography of Terror
, an outdoor/indoor museum built on the grounds of the former headquarters of the Gestapo and SS). It was at Kraftwerk that Berlin Atonal
, a five-day festival of sonic and visual art, was held. I participated as a panelist for a discussion called the Detroit-Berlin Experiment, DJ'd an after party at Ohm, a small club on Kraftwerk's ground floor, and pulled an all-nighter to write this review for XLR8R
A former power station converted into a multi-level performance venue -- also home to the Tresor
label and club -- the building was the star of the festival. It is also the catalyst for the Detroit Berlin Connection
, a project launched earlier this year resulting in a one-day conference
in May at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). Inspiration for the project comes from Martina Guzman's 2011 report for National Public Radio
Tresor and Atonal founder Dimitri Hegemann with Regina Baer at Kraftwerk BerlinIt was a presentation by Tresor and Atonal founder Dimitri Hegemann
in December 2013 that started the ball rolling. We'd met on Skype a few months before when I called him for this feature on the resurgence of Tresor
. Dimitri and I connected over music, food, politics, Berlin, and Detroit. Especially Detroit. He has long regarded this city and its techno artists like Blake Baxter, Mike Banks, Jeff Mills (and the entire "hard music from a hard city" business model and aesthetic created by Underground Resistance
and Submerge Recordings) as the inspiration for Tresor and the family of labels run out of the Kreuzberg-based Hard Wax
The success of the building that housed Tresor's new projects seemed to energize Hegemann, who has been interested in investing in Detroit for over 20 years. The Detroit-Berlin project is multi-faceted: it aims to intensify the connections that creative communities in both cities have had for 25 years; develop exchange programs for artists in Detroit and Berlin; and buy properties in Detroit and encourage creative people to move here.
Hegemann says he wants to buy and develop something big in Detroit. But what? And where? The Fisher Body Plant in the North End has been a target, as has the Wurlitzer building downtown. Smaller buildings to house Berliners visiting and working in the city are also targeted.
"Move to Detroit"
Panel discussion at Atonal Festival at Kraftwerk Berlin. Topic: the Detroit-Berlin Experiment
At the Detroit-Berlin panel during Atonal, Hegemann reduced questions about Detroit to this simple answer: "Just go. Experience Detroit for yourselves. If you like it, move there."
Another panelist, electronic music artist Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot said Detroit techno saved him and other artists "from all the bad music that was happening in Europe" in the early 1990s.
"We need another Detroit moment," he said.
To that I responded that there likely will not be another Detroit moment like the one that helped light creative fire in Berlin decades ago. Something else is happening in Detroit now, I said, not about individuals exporting music or art, more about building a community of souls, managing growth, helping to make a better city for all that live here. More hands on deck are welcome. Move to Detroit was a message Hegemann and I shared with the panel, which also included techno artist Godrun Gut, and an audience of about 40 people.
Walter Wasacz at Ku'dammLess formally, that same message seemed to work by just wearing my Tigers cap around Berlin. Kids lining up at Tresor club noticed and gave me props. Volunteers at the festival gave me props. It was an icebreaker on several occasions. "I'm from Detroit …" helped kickstart dozens of conversations.
I met a musician from Paris, a member of the DSCRD
collective, who said five days he spent in Detroit a few years ago were "amazing, incredible." When I asked why, he said he didn't know exactly. He said it was the people he was with and others he met. It vaguely reminded him of Algeria, where his mother's side of the family is from. But it was experience itself he was talking about. Just being here, living here for five days made an impact.
There was also media attention with Detroit in the spotlight.
I was interviewed by Sebastian Meissner of Radio Deutschland for a Detroit piece that should appear some time this fall (listen to the teaser here.). A reporter from the Wall Street Journal talked to me, Dimitri, and Meissner (who has traveled to Detroit many times) for a Detroit-Berlin feature expected run this month. Another comprehensive Detroit piece will appear in Electronic Beats in September. Look for links to these stories soon in Model D or here
As I walked or rolled on a rented bicycle across Berlin -- a huge city of 3.5 million people living in 12 boroughs spanning 344 square miles (more than twice the size of Detroit's 140 square miles) -- entrepreneurial ideas that could work in Detroit seemed to be everywhere:
- Bicycle rental shops
: They are all over Berlin. Cyclists are ever-present, night and day, rain or shine. High-volume tourist activity adds to the number of riders. Berliners loved pictures I showed sent by friends attending Slow Roll
. The scene in Detroit is impressive, but more bikes, more bike lanes, addition of protected lanes would all be welcome. All neighborhood revitalization projects must include bicycle transit in the conversation. Europeans will respond to a campaign that suggests that all one needs to get started in Detroit is a place to live, a computer, a phone, and a bicycle. Feed the momentum. Keep it rolling. Sorry General Motors, the epoch ruled exclusively by the car is done, over, kaputt.
Cycling in Kreuzberg- Neighborhood market pavilions
: Eastern Market is a treasure, and it's on track to become the 24-hour community it desires to be, but why not also spread the food wealth and create smaller weekend destinations with multiple vendors selling farm fresh and prepared foods in other neighborhoods? A great example of this in Berlin is the Wochenmarkt, open Fridays and Saturdays at Kreuzberg's Markthalle. Everything can be found here: coffee, breakfast, lunch, baked goods, produce, meats, wine. Food is helping remake Berlin. It's helping Detroit, too, but food business practice here needs to continue to rise up to the next level.
Wochenmarkt (Pop up vendors every Friday and Saturday) in Kreuzberg- Techno bars:
Not dance clubs so much as local bars with a modern electronic music vibe. Detroit is 'Techno City,' after all. Many Berliners think that the music here grows on trees. Wrong. I poked a hole in this illusion during the panel discussion. You will only find techno in the hearts and minds of a few people in Detroit (OK, maybe a few thousand), I said, but there are few clubs (Whiskey Disco, TV Bar, the Works) and no bars that are all about it. There are 25, perhaps more, in Berlin.
Suggestion: create pop-ups at existing bars first, let's say the first Wednesday of each month (modeled after techno entrepreneur Drew Pompa's Aphotic Segment
that takes place the first Sunday of each month at North Corktown's Nancy Whiskey). The bartender is also the programer, selecting music herself when no DJ is available, hiring DJs the rest of the time. Simple, yes?Walter Wasacz DJs at opening night after party: the Very Unimportant People (VUP) lounge at Ohm
- Techno farms
: Or soul funk jazz farms. Or folk rock farms. Or French Chanson farms. Why not? Imagine 100 acres dedicated to corn, spinach, squash - and Carl Craig. Or Audra Kubat. Or Francoise Hardy. Ravers in Berlin are going green, even organizing a 'Green Rave Parade' and pick-up litter campaigns with police escorts. However we do it, we need to bring music events outside -- on the street, in parks, in restaurant and bar patios, and on urban farms -- from May through October.
Lutz Leichsenring of the Berlin Club Commission in Mitte- Create a body to oversee creative entertainment venues, much like the Berlin Club Commission:
Lutz Leichsenring of the BCC told me the Berlin Club Commission represents people programming events that are seen by local authorities as art and not merely popular entertainment options. The group even gets involved as a sort of ombudsman for disputes involving groups bringing mobile sound into public parks. There is quite a large scene made up of free party people in Berlin.
- Create a community within a community, like the otherworldly Holzmarkt on the banks of the River Spree:
Detroit has a river too, of course, and it has space aplenty in its interior. Why not develop a free-spirited, communal, love-friendly, everyone welcome network of buildings and trails where healthy food and good music are the moneymakers? It has a code of ethics that includes a "no photos, no drugs" policy (signage that you see in Berlin in various places, it can be a surprisingly effective social limit setting tool). Skeptics, take a look at this rendering
and say it isn't the coolest thing ever. The rest of you: free your minds, make your own drawings, and start building your own utopian village.
Canal in BerlinTo be continued...
Five days of festival going and five days to bounce around a city with as much activity as Berlin is not nearly enough time. Planning for the next Detroit-Berlin conference is already underway. It will be two days next May and not one. We are looking at a Wednesday-Thursday schedule. The first one was held on the Friday before the Movement festival. More partnerships are being formed. Trading love, inspiration, and ideas between key players in the two cities is ongoing. The most important takeaway from the Berlin trip is that we can see it taking hold.
Walter Wasacz is former managing editor for Model D. He writes for various publications and plays and promotes music as Nospectacle. When he DJ'd in Berlin he brought records by Detroit's Mike Huckaby, Pirahnahead, Model 500, Deepchord, Kyle Hall and his own project. Wasacz is a finalist for the Knight Arts Challenge Grant.