The train takes about half an hour to get from central Berlin to Köpenick, and the journey is a game of two halves. The second half is a gentle rumble through the industrial, residential and woodland areas of the Bundesliga Union Berlin. The first half is a world-famous nightlife sightseeing tour of Berlin.
After Alexander Platz, the train pulls to Janowitzbrücke, where a huge power station towers over the riverbank. Behind him lies Tresor, a major statesman in the city’s art scene, and the Kit Kat Club, famous for its erotic parties and very peculiar dress code. As the train approaches Warschauer Strasse station, tracks, avenues of river portions and a majestic gray building loom in the open sky over a low-built retail park. This is Berghain, Berlin’s most famous club and a world-class example of the city’s 24-hour taboo-free party culture. The strict door policy they are known for is an attraction in itself.
All of these are close to where the Wall once stood, and they were all established within a decade or so after the reunification. They are places that grew out of that unique period in Berlin’s history, when historical shock and a stagnant economy meant the city was still full of empty spaces.
Nowadays, spaces are disappearing and clubs are surrounded by shiny new construction sites, office complexes, and shopping malls. Berlin has changed radically in the past 30 years, but few areas have changed quite as much as the central areas of the former East. More than anything else, they were subject to that familiar cycle of gentrification: a frustrated area becomes a cultural hotspot, culture brings money and development, and slowly but surely people begin to drive them out.
Union, whose home is in the leafy suburbs of former East Berlin, is a world away from all this. However, as they have risen from the obscurity of the lower league to the European league over the past decade, they have also come to face the same problems as other major subcultures in the city.
“If you have too many people who are just here as spectators, it wouldn’t be so cool in the end,” says Christian Arbet, the famous long-haired club announcer and spokesperson, when I met him in September 2021. He’s talking about Union, but he can also talk about Berghain.
Arbeit has been the face of the league for more than a decade, and has seen his club and city boom in popularity during that time. He meets me at one of the beer gardens in the stadium, and in the middle of the interview we have to shout at each other. It’s the day before the game, and behind us, someone is testing the speakers in the stadium. At one point, they ran a popular ad for a brand of Berlin beer that just so happened to be sponsoring Union. A series of fast-fire clips featuring cranes, mechanics, dominatrix and DJs covered in a 2003 song. Berlin you are so amazing. The song is an anthem to Berlin’s self-image in the 21st century thanks to its masterfully crafted organ note, hip-hop rhythm, and muddled vocals. It was released in 2003, the same year that then-mayor, Klaus Voeret, described his city as “poor, but exciting.”
When Arbeit first took the mic, Union was poorer than sexy. They were still in the fourth division and had financial and football problems in the early 2000s. After a fan-led renovation of their stadium and promotion to the second division in 2009, they established themselves as the undisputed second power in Berlin, behind their western rival Hertha BSC. They also became more prosperous, and soon the success of football began to go along with the cultural coolness of the city. As the beloved German DJ Westbam put it in an interview with FAZ in 2016, “Al Ittihad is more techno than Hertha.”
For a long time, Arbeit has been part of that picture. A bearded guitarist with shoulder-length hair, he was a custom-built club spokesperson for a cult club. But the appearance has changed in recent years. When he shaved his hair at the wild 2019 promo festivities, he decided not to regrow it. He wears shirts more often now, and seems more wary of overly romanticizing the union.
“We don’t do anything specifically to please others. We can’t help it if people like us,” he says, acknowledging that it wasn’t always comfortable when the union’s popularity reached new heights in the mid-2010s. “There were a lot of people In the fan scene they saw that with a lot of skepticism.”
By the time the union was upgraded to Bundesliga In 2019, longtime fans expressed their annoyance. Two years earlier, when Union first challenged the promotion, they hoisted a banner in the stands that read, “Damn it! We’re even going!”
They were only half joking. Success was never part of the league’s DNA, and there were real concerns about whether they could maintain their identity as a fan-led community club in the first division. What if a lot of money and success leads to a club change? What if they changed it for the worse?
In addition to concrete questions about sponsorship deals and ticket prices, this has also meant concerns about who is coming to the union. Once you hit the mainstream, being cool is a double-edged sword. As the spaces filled with urban landscapes around nightclubs, they also filled with lifelong fans on the terraces at Alte Försterei. In 2010, the union had 6,500 members. In the decade that followed, it grew exponentially to nearly 40,000.
So, at what point is it no longer the same club; No longer the same city? When does the phrase “poor but sexy” stop describing reality, and begin to become a nostalgia trip, or even an obvious lie? Does the union, like Berlin, risk losing its soul as it achieves greater success? When I ask Arbeit, he narrows his eyes and chooses his words carefully. “The club will never stop changing,” he says. “But I hope it’s slow enough that he can still recognize himself.”
As with the art scene, this means maintaining a balance between tourists and locals. Those for whom the stadium or club is a list of things experience, and those for whom it is a way of life. At Berghain, they use the world’s most famous guard to filter out voyeurs and maintain the social balance within. The federation may not have an entirely strict door policy, but Arbeit makes it clear that they also aren’t effectively attracting new fans. Unlike other clubs from Europe’s major leagues, he says, they have not sought to expand their fan base in the Far East or the USA. “If we focus our energies on things like that, we will lose our primary purpose.”
Whether it is for the union or the club scene, this self-control is also an exercise in self-preservation. The more visible you are in Berlin, the more likely you are to be overrun by tourists and thrill seekers. Ideally, you want to be cool enough to thrive, but hidden well enough to survive.
“It’s a bit like Sleeping Beauty,” Arbeit says. “To get to it, the prince first has to know where it is, and then he has to make his way through the woods. With us, the people know where we are, but you still have to walk through the woods before you kiss us awake.”
Scheisse! We’re going up! By Kit Holden Ho Published by Duckworth Books (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Controller, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com For £13.04. Delivery charges may apply