“New York is sooo over,” says recent New Yorker-turned-Berlin transplant Jordan Nassar, gesturing at me with a cigarette as the smooth voice of jazz musician Lisa Bassenge fills the smoky back room of Pampero Apartment, where a few dozen Berliners crowd on a handful of sofas nursing dark beers and making me feel hopelessly conventional. “That’s my quote.” It’s my first night in Berlin, and I’m tagging along with former Gridskipper writer and current expat Emilie Trice as she makes her rounds through an underground nightlife scene that’s rapidly putting New York to shame.
First stop, the weekly word-of-mouth jazz, dinner, and DJ party, well-hidden in a seemingly vacant building whose name I can neither reveal nor pronounce. As the Manhattan club scene becomes increasingly overrun with bottle service, corporate-sponsored parties, and Jagger Daggers, Deutschland’s formally impoverished capital city offers an eerie looking-glass into a pre-Rachel Zoe-definition Bohemia where landlords routinely barter space for artwork, party invites come from freely distributed street fliers instead of personal assistants, and there’s no translation for “last call” because, well, bars don’t close.
The scene inside is just as trippy, as fabulously extravagant drag queens float through a sea of impossibly cool art-world elite, sipping drinks served by topless bartenders and surveying the “20 boxes.” The boxes are cages of performance art, ranging from miniature hanging nooses to a day-glo mural of Flava Flav. The trance-techno sounds of “Edie Sedgwick Rebirth” thunk, thunk, thunk all around us. I am Alice in this haunted-house Wonderland that successfully fuses utter chaos and stereotypical German structure. A well-groomed blond gallerist named Gregor articulates the city’s unique equilibrium of East Berlin Bohemians and the surge of art-hungry Western European money, while beside us, a 6’5” drag queen in a gold prom dress dances to Bowie.
We escape Enklavkonfigur, and after a quick carb boost via the Ostenbahnhof station McDonald’s, it’s off to Bar 25, the (appropriately) circus-themed Friedrichshain outdoor club that lines the Spree river and welcomes party-seekers from Thursday night through Monday morning. The photo booth and stage are striped cotton-candy pink and blue, and distractions like a rope swing, bronze pony, and bonfire make it easy to see how patrons routinely stay for days on end. Trice warns me she once stopped in with a boyfriend for a drink Thursday night, only to stumble out Sunday morning. Those not satisfied with the outdoor toys can duck into the rustic-log-cabin-style covered bar, complete with trance-happy DJ and retro-disco ball dance floor.
Despite my best efforts, I fail to keep up with Trice’s merry band of expats and artists; I overhear plans to power through till the next afternoon, when Badeschiff, an artificial pool built in the Spree, opens its bar to sunbathers next to an S&M accessories show. Like CBGB before it, Bar 25 is in danger of being shut down due to looming corporate construction, which serves as a delightfully easy metaphor for the city’s impending gentrification.
Upon exiting Enklavkonfigur, Nassar uses Warhol’s famous line — “I am deeply superficial” — to defend himself against a friend’s teasing. Berlin may offer a refreshing rabbit hole to a bygone world of free love and artistic freedom, but (as a New Yorker, I can’t help but add) the Edie Sedgwick, Bowie, and Warhol references suggest that a nostalgia for past-times New York has survived the city’s rumored death-by-corporation. The kinderspielplatz (playground) may have changed, the spirit remains the same.