Death of the Reeperbahn: Hamburg's streets of shame

Times are changing in Germany's most famous red-light district – and the brothels that thrived for decades are closing their doors. Tony Paterson reports on a sexual revolution

The inner sanctum of Hamburg's "Mile of Sin" looks as if it has been built to withstand a terrorist attack. Twelve-foot-high barricades block off both ends of the notorious Herbertstrasse brothel and large signs warn visitors: "Under 18s and women – Verboten!" Adult males have to squeeze through narrow doglegs in the barriers just to get into the street.

Past the barricades, about a dozen prostitutes in full pornographic regalia sit perched in narrow shop windows on shiny swivel chairs covered with Playboy towels. They look like kinky Barbie dolls. Each one has a little glass porthole in her window to help her negotiate with clients.

Last Tuesday at around 10pm the only punters on Herbertstrasse were two Asian men enjoying a fit of the giggles. They walked up and stared transfixed at the street's most spectacular exhibit – a full-blown Teutonic dominatrix in knee-high black leather boots, matching corset and a mane of hair that covered surreal breasts. The dominatrix did not bat an eyelid or even look up. She was too engrossed in the novel she was reading.

Controlled and legal prostitution – at least the kind that made Hamburg's Reeperbahn famous and profitable for decades – is dying in what still rates as one of the world's most famous red light districts. And if the scene witnessed on what is reputed to be the area's most titillating street brothel was anything to go by, even its practitioners have become bored with the idea of organised sex for sale.

The message was driven home explicitly less than a week ago with the announcement that Hamburg's oldest brothel is to shut down for good next month having provided an uninterrupted service for its clients for the past 60 years. Hotel Luxor is located in what could be described as the Reeperbahn's heart: a narrow side street called Grosse Freiheit or "Big Freedom". It is the street which was once home to the legendary Star Club that propelled the Beatles to fame. Nowadays it contains the only venue left in the city to feature live sex acts on stage.

Above the main entrance of Hotel Luxor an attempt is made to entice clients with a flickering neon sign that reads: "Pretty woman for happy nights." Upstairs the establishment is reminiscent of an Edwardian brothel: there is a small cocktail bar surrounded by acres of red plush and curtained-off niches with portraits hung on walls and flowers on little tables. A flight of stairs leading to rooms above is fenced off, with a sign saying "private hotel".

In the middle of this sex emporium stands Waltraud Mehrer, a petite woman in her sixties with bobbed blonde hair. She has been Hotel Luxor's madame for the past 21 years: "Yes many people see our closing as a sad development," she said, "But you can't make money by offering real sex on the Reeperbahn any more. I blame it on internet sex , the noisy discos and dance clubs and the popularity of call girl services."

The brothel had its heyday in the 1970s when demand was so high that it stayed open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and employed 12 prostitutes. Nowadays it employs four girls and is open four nights a week. The place will be shut down and put on the market from 1 April. "The only things up and running in the sex trade are the table-dance clubs. The discos on the street have ruined out business," said Ms Mehrer. "Men seem to prefer a hotel room and a call girl to a brothel these days," she added.

The Luxor's demise is reflected in police statistics. In the 1980s Hamburg St Pauli, the district in which the Reeperbahn is located, was home to more than 1,000 prostitutes. Many plied their trade at the district's famous six-storey Eros centre brothel which then counted as one of the biggest in Europe. The fear and spread of Aids forced the brothel to shut down in 1988. Today, Hamburg has fewer than 400 registered women on the game. Table dance clubs, which offer their clients table-top strip-tease and the chance of a quick grope at the stripper for an entrance fee of around €30 (£23) are the nearest equivalent to the city's once thriving brothels. Nowadays the Reeperbahn overflows with supermarkets, tacky discount sex shops offering such bizarre products as a beverage called "Cock a lada", transvestite clubs, cheap eateries and perhaps most significantly 99cent bars which give their teenaged customers the chance to get drunk for as little as €5.

The surge in teenage binge drinking had been accompanied by an alarming increase in violent street crimes, with up to 50 incidents of actual or grievous bodily harm reported in the area each weekend. More than 43 per cent of the perpetrators are under the age of 21. The police and city authorities have responded with CCTV surveillance cameras and last year they imposed a ban on weapons, including knives and baseball bats. Desperate to clamp down on the problem, the city is considering a blanket ban on alcohol being consumed on the Reeperbahn.

Just a few doors up from the doomed Hotel Luxor, drinkers still flock to Gretel and Alfons, a pub that the Beatles used to frequent virtually every night during their sojourn in Hamburg in the early 1960s. The bar is decorated with Beatles memorabilia including a glass case containing pint-sized models of them in their famous collarless suits and a bill which reveals that Paul McCartney only returned to pay the band's outstanding tab in 1998.

Patti, the pub's barmaid, looked back nostalgically to the days of the Fab Four. "Back then this place was the centre of the pop music business. There were loads of clubs which had new live bands playing every night," she said. "Now there are hardly any music clubs any more and the whole area is overrun at the weekends by teenagers who flock to the 99cent bars and get smashed," she added. Her views were echoed by Siggi, the 72-year-old doorman at the Safari club opposite. The club is Hamburg's last "live" establishment and its acts include a rendition of Fred and Wilma Flintstone indulging in Stone Age sex on stage. Siggi, who has worked at clubs on the Reeperbahn since 1951, said: "In the old days, there was no live striptease, only film of nice looking girls naked from the waist up. The whole atmosphere was different," he insisted.

Thirty years ago the venues around Siggi's club included a dance bar/brothel equipped with table telephones which enabled customers to ring up any prostitute they fancied, a miniature circus with a ring, prancing horses and animals that did tricks and perhaps most novel: an act that involved women wrestling in mud with the front row of the audience protected by a large rubber sheet pulled up to the neck. "That was in the Bikini Club," Siggi recalled. "Nowadays the street fills up with drunken kids who go and buy their food at Lidl and then throw up all over the pavement."

The Star Club, which attracted not only the Beatles but the likes of Cream, Chuck Berry and Ray Charles, closed its doors in 1969. The first attempts to cash in on the area's Beatles legacy was made in 2006 when a Hamburg radio station and the city government announced plans for a Beatles Square. Life-sized glass statues of the Beatles standing on a black stone circle in the form of an LP were meant to be a major tourist attraction coupled with a Beatles museum. Two years on the project has simply failed to materialise.

Critics blame Hamburg property developers such as Andreas Fraatz, the grandson of the former red light district "King", Willy Bartels, for the Reeperbahn's demise. Mr Fraatz reflects a trend that began in the 1990s when the city government began gentrifying sections of the St Pauli district. He is behind a €350m development project that includes 300 flats for high income earners and offices for a major advertising agency. He insists that the district's prospects will only improve if prostitution is left to die a natural death and the whole area is taken upmarket.

Few oppose Mr Fratz more vociferously that Karl-Hienz Böttrich-Scholz, an ex-Reeperbahn policeman and head of the St Pauli Preservation Society to which 200 of the district's businessmen belong. He is adamant that the area should stick to its pornographic traditions. "The Reeperbahn is the most important street in the world alongside 5th Avenue," he maintains. "International guests do not come to Hamburg for the seagulls, they come for the Herbertstrasse or to go to the Bums show," he added.

Yet probably the most significant reason for the Reeperbahn's seemingly terminal decline lies about a mile away on the opposite bank of the mud-brown river Elbe. The container port has more lights than the Reeperbahn and is busy round the clock round the year. There are plans to dredge the Elbe to accommodate bigger, deep draft container ships.

People like Siggi remember the Fifties and early Sixties when the streets of the Reeperbahn thronged with sailors because back in those days cargo ships took at least four or five days to unload which allowed their crews a run ashore every night. "These days the turnaround on the container ships is so quick that the crews often don't even get off," said Siggi.

To remind visitors of what those good old days were like, Hamburg has resurrected one of the old, slow-to-unload, cargo ships. The Cap San Diego is a beautiful white painted freighter which is kept in immaculate condition as a museum ship and visited by thousands of tourists each year. To complete the picture, a handful or so have been known to spend the evening on the Reeperbahn – before it disappears completely.

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