It takes about half an hour on the train to get from the centre of 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 heartlands of Bundesliga club Union Berlin. The first half is a sight-seeing tour of Berlin’s world-famous nightlife.
After Alexanderplatz, the train pulls into Jannowitzbrücke, where a huge power station towers over the bank of the river. Behind it lie Tresor, an elder statesman of the city’s techno scene, and the KitKatClub, famed for its fetish parties and strictly kinky dress code. As the train approaches Warschauer Strasse station, the tracks and river part ways and an imposing grey building looms in the open sky over a low-build retail park. This is Berghain, the most famous of all Berlin clubs and a byword the world over for the city’s taboo-free, 24-hour party culture. Its notoriously scrupulous door policy is an attraction in itself.
All these venues are close to where the Wall once stood and all of them were founded in the decade or so after reunification. They are places which grew out of that unique period in Berlin’s history, when historical trauma and a sluggish economy meant the city was still full of unfilled spaces.
Nowadays, the spaces are disappearing and the clubs are surrounded by building sites, shiny new office blocks and shopping malls. Berlin has changed radically in the last 30 years, but few areas have been transformed quite as much as the central districts of the former East. More than any other, they have been subject to that familiar cycle of gentrification: a depressed area becomes a cultural hotspot, the culture brings cash and development, and slowly but surely people begin to be pushed out.
Union, whose home lies out in the leafy suburbs of the former East Berlin, are a world away from all of this. Yet as they have risen from lower-league obscurity to Europa League over the last decade, they too have come to face the same problems as the city’s other major subcultures.
“If you have too many people who are only here as spectators, then eventually it won’t be that great any more,” says Christian Arbeit, the club’s famous, long-haired stadium announcer and spokesman, when I meet him in September 2021. He is talking about Union, but he could just as well be talking about Berghain.
Arbeit has been the face of Union for more than a decade, and he has seen both his club and his city boom in popularity during that time. He meets me in one of the stadium’s beer gardens, and for the middle part of the interview, we have to shout at each other. It is the day before a match day, and behind us, someone is testing the loudspeakers in the stadium. At one point, they play a well-known advert for a brand of Berlin beer that also happens to sponsor Union. A quickfire series of clips showing ravers, mechanics, dominatrixes and DJs is overlaid with the 2003 song Berlin, Du Bist So Wunderbar. With its slickly synthesised organ notes, hip-hop beat and scratchy vocals, the song is an anthem for Berlin’s 21st-century self-image. It was released in 2003, the same year that then then mayor, Klaus Wowereit, famously described his city as “poor, but sexy”.
When Arbeit first took the microphone, Union were more poor than sexy. They were still in the fourth division and reeling from the financial and footballing woes of the early 2000s. After their fan-led stadium renovation and promotion to the second division in 2009, however, they established themselves as the undisputed second force in Berlin, behind their western rivals Hertha BSC. They, too, became more prosperous, and footballing success quickly began to dovetail with the city’s cultural cool. As the beloved German DJ WestBam put it in an interview with FAZ newspaper in 2016: “Union are more techno than Hertha.”
For a long time, Arbeit was part of that image. A guitar-playing, bearded rabble rouser with shoulder length hair, he was a club spokesman tailor-made for a cult club. But the look has changed in recent years. When his hair was shaved off in the wild promotion celebrations of 2019, he decided not to grow it back. He wears shirts more often now, and seems more wary of over-romanticising Union.
“We don’t do anything specifically to please other people. We can’t help it if people like us,” he says, and admits that it was not always comfortable when Union’s popularity hit new heights in the mid-2010s. “There were plenty of people in the fan scene who saw that with a lot of scepticism.”
By the time Union were promoted to the Bundesliga in 2019, the fans had long since expressed their disquiet. Two years earlier, when Union first challenged for promotion, they raised a banner on the terraces reading: “Shit! We’re going up!”
They were only half joking. Success had never been part of Union’s DNA, and there were genuine fears about whether they could maintain their identity as a fan-led, community club in the top flight. What if too much money and success changed the club? What if they changed it for the worse?
As well as concrete questions over sponsorship deals and ticket prices, that also meant concerns over who was coming to Union. Once you hit the mainstream, after all, being cool is a double-edged sword. As the spaces have filled in the urban landscape around the nightclubs, so too have they filled around the lifelong fans on the terraces at the Alte Försterei. In 2010, Union had 6,500 members. In the decade since, they have grown exponentially to reach almost 40,000.
So, at what point is it no longer the same club; no longer the same city? At what point does “poor but sexy” cease to be a description of reality, and start becoming a nostalgia trip, or even a plain lie? Do Union, like Berlin, risk losing their soul the more successful they become? When I ask Arbeit, he narrows his eyes and chooses his words carefully. “The club will never stop changing,” he says. “But hopefully it does so slowly enough that it can still recognise itself.”
As with the techno scene, that means maintaining a balance between the tourists and the locals. Those for whom the stadium or the club is a bucket-list experience, and those for whom it is a way of life. At Berghain, they employ the world’s most famous bouncer to filter out the voyeurs and maintain the social equilibrium inside. Union may not have quite as strict a door policy, but Arbeit explains that they also do not actively court new fans. Unlike other clubs from Europe’s top leagues, he says, they have not sought to widen their fanbase in the Far East or the USA. “If we focus our energies on things like that, then we will lose our core purpose.”
Whether for Union or for the club scene, that restraint 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 well-hidden enough to survive.
“It’s a bit like Sleeping Beauty,” says Arbeit. “To get to her, the prince first has to know where she is, and then he has to cut his way through the thickets. With us, people know where we are, but you still have to walk through the forest before you can kiss us awake.”
Scheisse! We’re Going Up! by Kit Holden is published by Duckworth Books (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com for £13.04. Delivery charges may apply