Detroit-Berlin connection to fuel city’s comeback?

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

Detroit has been compared to a lot of things, but is it like Berlin, a city bombed out in World War II and then cut in half for more than 40 years?

The capital of Germany is a city of 3.4 million with a lot of things going on that Detroit would love to have. It’s the third most popular European city tourists flock to, behind London and Paris. It boasts more than 300 “places where music is played,” with many of those nightclubs.

Many of those clubs play techno, a music born in Detroit, and for that the Germans are very thankful. So thankful that some of them want to pay it forward, and show Detroiters how it can be done here.

Several Germans involved in what they call the Detroit-Berlin Connection were in Detroit this week to talk about the similarities between the two cities. Berlin was especially challenged in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down. Much of the city consisted of desolate spaces between small pockets of culture. And like Detroit, Berlin had to mend political and social wounds suffered over many years, and try to grow.

“All the master plans failed,” said Mario Husten of the Detroit-Berlin Connection. “It was clubbing and culture that were the ignition for Berlin. You can’t buy creativity. You can’t buy culture. The culture comes first, then the money follows.”

Young, creative people poured into Berlin after 1989 because it was cheap to live there, compared to London and Paris, and because of the clubs that grew up around techno music.

There are now some 344 places in Berlin where music is played, said Lutz Leichseuring of the Berlin Club Commission. “Eight-five of those we consider nightclubs,” he said. And tourism has followed.

The comparisons don’t all hold. Berlin’s bars have been open all day and night since 1949, when all curfews were lifted, and the Germans believe it helped build their club scene. They also think it helps keep it safe, since there are flocks of people on the streets all night. It’s doubtful that would happen in Detroit anytime soon. Here, bars have to stop serving alcohol at 2 a.m., although, with a special license, they can stay open until 4.

To show they’re serious about forming a bond, Husten and a German-American collective bought a house at 2990 E. Grand Blvd. in Detroit a few weeks ago, and they intend to invite artists to live there. The deal is, “You have to create something that stays in the city of Detroit, you can’t take it with you,” Husten said. He didn’t intend to help buy a house while visiting Detroit, but he decided putting stakes down would indicate their commitment.

One thing Detroiters need to do is buy into the romantic view of the city that so many Europeans have, Husten added. To them it isn’t a backwater, but a mysterious promised land that has created most of the music they love — from jazz, R&B and Motown, to Iggy and the Stooges and the rock era and later, techno.

“Watch movies like ‘Only Lovers Left Alive,’ ” Husten said, of the Jim Jarmusch film showing beautiful vampires living in Brush Park. “Don’t just talk about the bad stuff.”

Added Dimitri Hegemann of the legendary Berlin club Tresor: “Berlin is the big brand in Europe; Detroit is on its way to being the big brand in the United States.”