Reborn to be wild: Berlin's 24-hour party people

With cutting-edge clubs, café society and a thriving art scene, long-neglected eastern districts of the German capital are reinventing themselves as centres of youth culture. Tony Paterson reports
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The Independent Online

It's two in the morning in the once drab Berlin district of Friedrichshain in the former communist east of the city and the area's near-permanent non-stop party is getting into full swing. Salsa music echoes from one bar where the quarter's new twenty-and thirty-something residents drink Beck's beer and Bionade from the bottle or slurp glasses of latte macchiato. Crossover, a raw mixture of punk and techno music belts out of a café next door where almost identical-looking customers in black leather jeans and jackets with hoods do the same.

The facades of the late 19th-century apartment blocks in this formerly wholly-working class district of what was the capital of Germany's "First Worker and Peasant State" are all glistening with coats of new plaster and paint. Boutiques selling the latest from Berlin's expanding home-grown fashion industry jostle for space with new bars, restaurants, clubs and shops selling used CDs. Down the street an art gallery owner is squeezing limes for caipirinhas in the front room of a ground-floor apartment which has been turned into an impromptu private club for "scene" members – it may be nostalgia or novelty, but 45s of Sixties soul music spin on the turntable of an old hand-cranked gramophone.

It is hard to imagine that just a few years ago, old East Berlin districts like Friedrichshain looked as if the Second World War had ended yesterday. Far from being pristine and white, the brick fronts of these buildings were covered in scabs of decaying plaster and still pitted with millions of bullet holes fired from the weapons of Stalin's Red Army as it advanced through Hitler's capital in the spring of 1945. During most of the city's communist era, the downtrodden residents who lived there remained imprisoned by the Berlin Wall and rarely ventured out from their dingy apartments after eight in the evening.

Yet if Berlin is defining a new image for itself as one of Europe's coolest cities, then it owes this reputation to districts like Friedrichshain. Unlike similar inner-city areas in European capitals like Paris or London, the area's new cool residents are nearly all white, nearly all in their 20s and 30s and most of them weren't even born in the city. What's more not a few of them are either students, wannabe artists, or surviving on state benefits in a city that is officially bankrupt to the tune of €61bn (£46bn).

All profit from a factor which puts Berlin wildly at odds with most other big cities in western Europe: it's cheap. It costs just over €2 (£1.50) to travel to the city's outermost edge on public transport. Rents can be as little as a quarter or less of what one would pay for an equivalent flat or bed-sitter in London.

The demographics are equally peculiar: after Germany's reunification in 1990, Berlin lost 1.7 million of its 3.4 million inhabitants as people moved to the countryside. But in the interim those who have fled the city have been replaced by 1.8 million new Berliners. Many are young, essentially middle-class people from the far-flung corners of the old West Germany, yearning for the perceived excitement of Germany's reunified hip capital, where breakfast can be had 24 hours a day and there are no licensing laws.

Gerd Sonnenberg, 29, is one of the city's tribe of new, white middle-class Berliners. He moved from Heilbronn, a city in the south-west state of Baden Württemberg, to Berlin with his wife and baby son two years ago. He studied graphics and now works as a website designer from his two-bedroom apartment in east Berlin's fashionable Prenzlauerberg district. He does not earn much more than €3,500 (£2,600) a month, but pays only €950 (£710) for his accommodation. "Why did I choose Berlin? If you come from a provincial nest like I do, it's the only city, it's where its happening," he said.

This sort of demographic development has enabled Klaus Wowereit, Berlin's party-loving, proud-to-be-gay Social Democrat mayor, to define the city which he governs as "poor but sexy". "It is the place to be," he insists.

Those Germans who qualify as members of the "cool" generation seem to agree with him. In the years that have elapsed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the big money has stayed away but allowed space and time for the city's downtown eastern districts to evolve into a mecca for often struggling artistic and creative talents.

Not long after reunification, east Berlin's working classes fled the crumbling inner-city apartments that they inhabited in districts like Friedrichshain, Prenzlauerberg and Mitte. Most had hardly been touched since the Second World War and were often heated by coal ovens with only one lavatory for every two flats. Then the property developers moved in and began renovating. The areas soon started to attract people like Gerd Sonnenberg en masse.

At weekends, Kollwitzplatz square in Prenzlauerberg defies statistics which show that Germany has one of the lowest birth rates in the world. The square's Saturday morning market, awash with stalls selling Brittany oysters and organic vegetables, is peopled by a theoretically non-existent phenomenon: the German baby boomer. Even Angela Merkel, Germany's first woman chancellor, has a spacious late 19th century renovated apartment in Berlin's fashionable Mitte district. There is more evidence of cool Berlin just a few hundred yards from Ms Merkel's front door. The Bang Bang Club near the district's Hacksecher Markt underground station has become one of the city's top venues for Indie pop music. British bands such as Headlines, Ballboy, Go Faster and The Indelicates were playing gigs there just before Christmas, as well as rival groups from America and Scandinavia.

"We focus on Indie pop and garage rock and most of the bands that play at the club come from either Britain, the US or Scandinavia," explains Oliver Bartholomey the 40-year-old who opened the Bang Bang Club last March. "German rock musicians haven't taken to Indie pop – so that's why we rely so much on foreign bands."

He says that while a few British musicians now live in Berlin, most fly over to the city to perform. The Bang Bang Club's agents brought the Arctic Monkeys to Berlin last summer.

Berlin's "cool" label also derives from the fact that the city is littered with modern art galleries. No other metropolis in Europe can boast so many. The number stands at around 400 and is rising steadily as the big galleries in New York, London and Los Angeles open their own Berlin branches. There are 5,000 students currently enrolled at the city's art schools, at least 300 independent Berlin fashion labels and dozens of film and television production companies.

Thilo Wermke runs his gallery Neu in the Mitte district. He fled the city not long before the fall of the Berlin Wall and worked as a teacher in Hamburg before the pull of the new, reunited capital became too powerful. He came back and set up his gallery in a block of former stables. Today he maintains that Berlin is the only city in Germany in which it is possible to be creative in a genuinely artistic sense. "Art has something to do with allowing yourself to drift and no place is better for that than Berlin," he says.

The joke in Berlin is that it's possible to survive without paying a cent on the food and drink that comes free with the glut of gallery openings and art shows that are one of the staples of the city's cultural scene. One gallery employee puts it this way: "In Berlin nobody actually works – everyone is either an artist or a politician."

But it's possible to argue that even Germany's staid political scene has been forced to become a bit cooler since it was obliged by a parliamentary majority of a mere 18 votes to shift from Bonn to Berlin in 1999. The politicians' presence is often likened to a UFO having flown in from Mars. But as the last people to do national politics from Berlin were the Nazis, the country's current post-war politicians have gone out their way to dispel any suggestion that moving back to the capital could result in a repeat performance.

Norman Foster's revamped Berlin Reichstag parliament building has become democracy cast in architectural form and the most visited building in Germany after Cologne cathedral. During the day it seems as if a permanent queue is formed outside, as tourists line up to go inside and watch politics in action.

Just a few streets away Joschka Fischer, Germany's first Green foreign minister, can be spotted most days out on his daily jog. Opposite Angela Merkel, the first German leader to manage to be both conservative and green, can be seen meeting the people in front of her new glass and concrete Chancellor's office – a building that Berliners have unceremoniously nicknamed "the washing machine".

Tourism has also managed to massage and promote Berlin's brand of coolness, if only by word of mouth. A record 6.5 million people visited the city last year and the majority came from Britain, followed by France – courtesy no doubt of easyJet and its discount rival Air Berlin.

Yet cool Berlin is really nothing new. Anyone who has seen the film Cabaret or read Christopher Isherwood will know that the city already had such a reputation in the 1920s and early 30s before the word cool was even invented.

In the 60s, capitalist West Berlin was Germany's hotbed of counter culture and student unrest. In the 80s, its run-down Kreuzberg district in the west became German headquarters of the alternative lifestyles, punk rock, squatting and military draft dodging.

Even communist East Berlin's Prenzlauerberg district was home to the dissident movement that helped bring about the fall of the Berlin Wall.

None of these districts have much to do with what might be described as the real Berlin that can still be found in rough, predominantly working-class districts such as Wedding in the west or Marzahn in the east of the city. In these areas the bar stools are bolted to the floors in the corner pubs to make sure that nobody nicks them and there is widespread evidence of that other Berlin statistic: that half the city's population survives either from unemployment benefit, a pension or social security.

Berlin may be cool in some districts, but it certainly isn't rich compared to other big cities in Europe. For once, the mayor is right. The town is "poor but sexy".