It’s party on as usual tonight. Five guys in so-called Hotrods – mini open-top cars – zoom off. It’s a muggy Saturday evening in the RAW area in Berlin's Friedrichshain neighbourhood. They shoot over the old rail tracks and the cracked concrete ground of the capital’s party mile. The engines roar as the drivers swerve through a gap in the surrounding wall.
Just through the gap lives 55-year-old Carola Ludwig. The screeching of the hotrods, thudding of the music, and the endless voices in this area of Friedrichshain mean that she gets little sleep. A sign in her living room reads “Pssst! No loud tourists”.
But the revellers below can’t see her sign, and probably wouldn’t care if they could. Take 25-year-old Chris for example. He’s donned a pink mini skirt, plastic crown, and is clutching a bottle while laughing with ten equally pink mates. He’s getting married soon, and this is his good-bye to youth and freedom.
This cluster of graffitied former railway buildings, shrouded in the smell of fries, cigarettes and joints, has become the playground for those who don’t want to think about tomorrow. It’s become the place of excess: it doesn’t matter what you drink – there’s much more to do than that.
It’s one of the last places in Berlin where you can escape from the fashionable metropolis. The size of ten football pitches, this array of clubs, bars, and restaurants, complete with climbing wall, skate park and artist’s studios, is disheveled and unfinished. Yet, decades ago, this was the Berlin that enchanted many.
Raw, impulsive; creative: it is becoming the battleground of the alternative Berlin. Visitors vs. residents, investors vs. artists, policemen vs. dealers: the area breeds controversy. But can there be one vision? And how close does a night there bring us to an answer?
16:00: it’s still almost 30 degrees. Sweaty crowds amble over Warschauer Bridge towards the RAW area beyond the railway track, passing a fast food cabin and photo booth.
17:00: A wide boulevard, part tarmac part cobbles, leads onto the RAW site. Julia Oppenauer sits in front of one of the disused warehouses. “Welcome to our living room” she says, wearing a bikini and sunglasses, her feet dangling into a paddling pool.
Oppenauer is the chairwoman of the RAW//cc union of artists, which uses these buildings as creative spaces. “We want the RAW to be preserved as a socio-cultural center”, she says.
The Göttingen based Kurth Group bought three quarters of the area last year. It presents itself as a family business uninterested in quick profits, but CEO Lauritz Kurth plans to convert unused areas into office blocks. At the same time, he emphasises the need to preserve the RAW community: “The area can develop and change without losing its DNA.”
18:00: Oppenhauer looks down at the paddling pool. “Here is the alternative event,” she says, grinning. Beyond the walls of a former workshop, lies an elegant swimming complex called ‘Haubentaucher’ with a 240 square meter pool. On sunny days, people lie on sun-loungers drinking cocktails there.
The organisers claim that it unites the urban and the easy life, but the RAW purists don’t approve. It’s more St Tropez than raw; more Pol Roger than Pilsner.
19:00: Victor Javier Alaluf stands on a ladder and grabs a box from a shelf, pulling out a golden skull decorated with butterflies. The needles that pin the insects onto the skull were first used to treat his leukaemia. The Argentinian artist works in one of the studios here, and regularly goes to the local flea market, collecting whatever he finds.
“For people it’s just rubbish. For me it’s treasure,” he says. The artists find that what they take from the city, they then give back. But how long will that continue for?
20:00: Dieter Winkler, on the floor above Aluluf, was one of the first to bring color to RAW. He explains what it was like when the first artists moved here in 1999: “It was empty, grey, and the windows were smashed in.” Today the clubbers get on his nerves, but he does believe that they’ve got a dialogue running with the area’s owners.
22:00: Carola Ludwig pours a cup of tea, branded “No Stress”; if only it were so easy. She says that the noise makes her ill. Having lived in Revaler Strasse for twenty years, she has always been committed to the area, but people who treat it like Disneyland bother her. There’s been a resident initiative for years, but despite agreeing to help, the police do nothing.
23:00: Ludwig looks out her window at two men leaning against her house: drug dealers. She says that there are sometimes sixty in the area. Crime in RAW has often been in the headlines in recent years. Police claim that drug crime has tripled, and that violence is on the rise. The freedom of the area comes at a cost.
00:00: The Kurth Group says that it has invested €40,000 into better lighting, CCTV and a security service. They have been patrolling since March, and the crime rate seems to have gone down. According to a security guard, tonight is a relatively calm one.
01:00: More and more people are arriving; bars are filling up; club queues are growing. Young girls huddle in the mini-disco in a telephone box; two men are chatting about how high they’re going to get.
03:00: In ‘Cassiopeia’, one of RAW’s oldest clubs, they are dancing to hip-hop. Techno, drum and bass, reggae: all genres waft through the streets. Lutz Leichsenring, a spokesman for the Berlin Clubbing Commission, calls RAW one of the epicentres for nightlife.
The bouncer here thinks the new security is excessive. He says that people here just want to let go. “Under the surface humans are just animals,” he adds.
05:00: Clubbers stumble back to the station. For the police, it’s another accident-free night. In just a few hours, the flea market will open up, the artists will emerge, and the skaters will get out their boards. Then the music and alcohol will take hold again. Peace and quiet is not a familiar phenomenon here.