It takes about half an hour on the prepare to get from the middle of Berlin to Köpenick, and the journey is a sport of two halves. The second half is a mild rumble by way of the commercial, residential and woodland heartlands of Bundesliga membership Union Berlin. The primary half is a sight-seeing tour of Berlin’s world-famous nightlife.
After Alexanderplatz, the prepare pulls into Jannowitzbrücke, the place an enormous energy station towers over the financial institution of the river. Behind it lies Tresor, an elder statesman of town’s techno scene, and the KitKatClub, famed for its fetish events and strictly kinky costume code. Because the prepare approaches Warschauer Strasse station, the tracks and river half methods and an imposing grey constructing looms within the open sky over a low-build retail park. That is Berghain, essentially the most well-known of all Berlin golf equipment and a byword the world over for town’s taboo-free, 24-hour social gathering tradition. Its notoriously scrupulous door coverage is an attraction in itself.
All these venues are near the place the Wall as soon as stood and all of them have been based within the decade or so after reunification. They’re locations which grew out of that distinctive interval in Berlin’s historical past, when historic trauma and a sluggish economic system meant town was nonetheless filled with unfilled areas.
These days, the areas are disappearing and the golf equipment are surrounded by constructing websites, shiny new workplace blocks and procuring malls. Berlin has modified radically within the final 30 years, however few areas have been remodeled fairly as a lot because the central districts of the previous East. Greater than another, they’ve been topic to that acquainted cycle of gentrification: a depressed space turns into a cultural hotspot, the tradition brings money and growth, and slowly however certainly individuals start to be pushed out.
Union, whose house lies out within the leafy suburbs of the previous East Berlin, are a world away from all of this. But as they’ve risen from lower-league obscurity to Europa League during the last decade, they too have come to face the identical issues as town’s different main subcultures.
“In case you have too many people who find themselves solely right here as spectators, then finally it will not be that nice any extra,” says Christian Arbeit, the membership’s well-known, long-haired stadium announcer and spokesman, after I meet him in September 2021 He’s speaking about Union, however he may simply as properly be speaking about Berghain.
Arbeit has been the face of Union for greater than a decade, and he has seen each his membership and his metropolis increase in reputation throughout that point. He meets me in one of many stadium’s beer gardens, and for the center a part of the interview, we have now to shout at one another. It’s the day earlier than a match day, and behind us, somebody is testing the loudspeakers within the stadium. At one level, they play a widely known advert for a model of Berlin beer that additionally occurs to sponsor Union. A quickfire collection of clips displaying ravers, mechanics, dominatrixes and DJs is overlaid with the 2003 tune Berlin, Du Bist So Wunderbar. With its slickly synthesized organ notes, hip-hop beat and scratchy vocals, the tune is an anthem for Berlin’s Twenty first-century self-image. It was launched in 2003, the identical 12 months that then older, Klaus Wowereit, famously described his metropolis as “poor, however horny”.
When Arbeit first took the microphone, Union have been extra poor than horny. They have been nonetheless within the fourth division and reeling from the monetary and footballing woes of the early 2000s. After their fan-led stadium renovation and promotion to the second division in 2009, nonetheless, they established themselves because the undisputed second drive in Berlin, behind their western rivals Hertha BSC. They, too, turned extra affluent, and footballing success shortly started to dovetail with town’s cultural cool. Because the beloved German DJ WestBam put it in an interview with FAZ newspaper in 2016: “Union are extra techno than Hertha.”
For a very long time, Arbeit was a part of that picture. A guitar-playing, bearded rabble rouser with shoulder size hair, he was a membership spokesman tailored for a cult membership. However the look has modified lately. When his hair was shaved off within the wild promotion celebrations of 2019, I made a decision to not develop it again. He wears shirts extra usually now, and appears extra cautious of over-romanticising Union.
“We do not do something particularly to please different individuals. We will not assist it if individuals like us,” he says, and admits that it was not at all times comfy when Union’s reputation hit new heights within the mid-2010s. “There have been loads of individuals within the fan scene who noticed that with a number of skepticism.”
By the point Union have been promoted to the Bundesliga in 2019, the followers had lengthy since expressed their disquiet. Two years earlier, when Union first challenged for promotion, they raised a banner on the terraces studying: “Shit! We’re going up!”
They have been solely half joking. Success had by no means been a part of Union’s DNA, and there have been real fears about whether or not they may keep their id as a fan-led, neighborhood membership within the prime flight. What if an excessive amount of cash and success modified the membership? What in the event that they modified it for the more serious?
In addition to concrete questions on sponsorship offers and ticket costs, that additionally meant considerations about who was coming to Union. When you hit the mainstream, in any case, being cool is a double-edged sword. Because the areas have stuffed within the city panorama across the nightclubs, so too have they stuffed across the lifelong followers on the terraces on the Alte Försterei. In 2010, the Union had 6,500 members. Within the decade since, they’ve grown exponentially to succeed in virtually 40,000.
So, at what level is it now not the identical membership; now not the identical metropolis? At what level does “poor however horny” stop to be an outline of actuality, and begin changing into a nostalgia journey, or perhaps a plain lie? Do Union, like Berlin, danger shedding their soul the extra profitable they turn out to be? Once I ask Arbeit, he narrows his eyes and chooses his phrases from him fastidiously. “The membership won’t ever cease altering,” he says. “However hopefully it does so slowly sufficient that it could possibly nonetheless acknowledge itself.”
As with the techno scene, meaning sustaining a steadiness between the vacationers and the locals. These for whom the stadium or the membership is a bucket-list expertise, and people for whom it’s a lifestyle. At Berghain, they make use of the world’s most well-known bouncer to filter out the voyeurs and keep the social equilibrium inside. Union might not have fairly as strict a door coverage, however Arbeit explains that in addition they don’t actively courtroom new followers. In contrast to different golf equipment from Europe’s prime leagues, he says, they haven’t sought to widen their fanbase within the Far East or the USA. “If we focus our energies on issues like that, then we’ll lose our core function.”
Whether or not for the Union or for the membership scene, that restraint can also be an train in self-preservation. The extra seen you’re in Berlin, the extra probably you’re to be overrun by vacationers and thrill-seekers. Ideally, you wish to be cool sufficient to thrive, however well-hidden sufficient to outlive.
“It’s kind of like Sleeping Magnificence,” says Arbeit. “To get to her, the prince first has to know the place she is, after which he has to chop his manner by way of the thickets. With us, individuals know the place we’re, however you continue to need to stroll by way of the forest earlier than you’ll be able to kiss us awake.”
Scheise! We’re Going Up! by Equipment Holden is printed by Duckworth Books (£14.99). To help the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com for £13.04. Supply fees might apply