Wednesday, December 31, 2014

In Berlin, the party isn’t over — it's just no longer free

The German capital’s legendary club scene has gone for-profit.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (December 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — On the eve of a new year, Europe's capital of slouching, grungy cool has found itself in the midst of an identity crisis.

This debt-plagued city has clawed its way to international respectability partly thanks to a tourism boom. But longtime residents who gave the German capital its cachet as “poor but sexy” — as dubbed by former Mayor Klaus Wowereit, who stepped down this month — worry newcomers are killing the vibe.

That includes the legendary club scene.

Something definitive has already been lost, says Jan Jasper Kosok, the founder of an influential German pop culture blog called Knicken, or Kink.

“The era of the ultra-cool, big and central club is basically over,” he says, going on to name several shuttered or transformed venues. “There’s no such thing as the Deep, the old, old Cookies or 103 anymore. Big clubs are either commercial or overcrowded with tourists.”

The club scene emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, when the euphoria of newfound freedom in the ex-communist parts of the city found expression in some of the thousands of square feet of empty space created by the closure of former East German businesses.

Although techno was the musical genre of choice, the aesthetic was industrial because of the available concrete venues. The club Tresor, for one, was housed in a department store vault. And because there was no such thing as closing time in Berlin, unlike most other cities, the party never had to stop.

“All these kids from East and West went to Berlin to see what’s going on, and then there were no authorities for a while to chase after illegal clubs,” Tresor founder Dimitri Hegemann recently told The New York Times.

Now some complain that there are just too many of those kids.

Hardly a month goes by without a newspaper article bemoaning the onset of higher rents, the end of grungy authenticity or the demise of a cherished nightspot.

Earlier this month, artists painted over iconic building-sized murals by the Italian artist Blu in the hip neighborhood of Kreuzberg, in the former east, rather than participate in the city's transformation into “an amusement park for those who can afford the rising rents,” Lutz Henke, one of the artists/vandals wrote in the Guardian.

Last summer, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Mayor Monika Hermann raised eyebrows in the Berlin senate with a proposed “code of conduct” for tourists who view the party-town reputation as an invitation to smash bottles and urinate on doorsteps.

And at last year's “Berlin Music Days” festival, also called “Bermuda," panel discussionsfeatured topics such as “Techno-tourism: We don't want to become Ibiza,” a reference to the Spanish island renowned for its tourist-oriented summer club scene.

But amid all the naysaying, some believe something more than just common gentrification and immigration may be underway.

Although the frontier days of underground parties are winding down, impressarios from the golden age have figured out how to commercialize the club scene without sacrificing everything that made its reputation.

Part-time DJ Julian Braun says now there's a place for everyone.

“It became way more professional and institutionalized,” he says. “Before, you'd have to know people or be on some underground mailing list to be invited to parties. That's not so important anymore.”

Instead, clubs such as Berghain and Watergate — which both recently celebrated their 10-year anniversaries — have become institutions of a sort while remaining at the cutting edge of the techno music scene, where they still defend their own ideas of cool.

Notorious for its anything-goes gay floor, where a guest is said to have once turned up with a dildo made of frozen feces, Berghain has neither toned down for tourists nor allowed the club to become a circus show for the curious.

In addition to their strict, seemingly arbitrary door policy, bouncers put stickers on smartphone camera lenses to enforce the club's ban on selfies — and turf out anyone who dares peel them off.

And while Watergate has reputedly become such a tourist mecca that Berlin clubbers say they'd never pay for entry there, many still wait in lines that are rarely shorter than 50 yards. Impressario Steffen Hack, a Berlin squatter and radical before reunification, ensures that only the money in the till at the end of the night reminds him of Ibiza.

“Do you feel like I’m a snobby, arrogant guy who sits on his club and feels like Puff Daddy?” Hack recently told Exberliner, a Berlin newspaper for English speakers. “We are Kreuzbergers. It sounds stupid, but we feel probably like a socialist club, with all the [contradictions] that are in that sentence.”

Police raids are still virtually unknown and Saturday-night parties continue well into Monday, thanks to both the usual club drugs and tourists who turn up on Sunday afternoons, when lines are shorter and bouncers apply a more liberal door policy.

Smaller clubs such as Farbfernseher — or Color TV, located in a former television shop — and throwbacks like About:Blank, Chalet and Renate still have something of the old Berlin vibe, and the quality of the music on offer hasn't declined, the pop culture writer Kosok says.

It's just that now it's about making money.

“The good times of Berlin clubbing were kind of over, when the illegal summer parties were not taking place at the center of the city anymore,” Kosok adds.

“They charge you for that Berlin feeling now, which renders it senseless.”

Senseless, perhaps. But still sexy.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Germany’s hipster scene meets precision engineering

A tattooed engine guru is bringing California hot rod style to Porsches.
By Jason Overdorf

GlobalPost (December 2014)

HAMBURG, Germany — Dressed in black denim, canvas sneakers and a motorcycle-gang inspired Mezgerwerk sweatshirt — the brand he created with his business partner — Matthias Hoeing looks more professional skateboarder than expert engine-builder.

As a machine tool whirs in the background inside his workshop, he raises the cuff of his sweatshirt to reveal a forearm “sleeved” by red and green tattoo ink.

“I grew up with skateboarding and rap music and punk rock and American cars,” the 40-year-old mechanics guru says. “That's the kind of stuff that influences me.”

As a veteran racecar engine builder, however, Hoeing has the technical chops to realize his drive to bring California hot-rod culture to Germany's staid community of Porsche afficionados.

With its reputation for clockwork precision, special certification programs for “authorized” mechanics and pricetags upward of $50,000, Porsche likes to present its cars as unimprovable.

Most Germans who drive and restore classic models have always approached their cars more like museum curators than motorheads. But Hoeing wants to smash that conservative image, whatever the old-school collectors or brand stewards may say.

“To them it's sacrilege,” he says. “But I don't care.”

Hoeing cut his teeth building racing engines for Hamburg-based manufacturer Thielert in 1998 before moving to southern California in 2001 to work for Porsche Motorsport, the Stuttgart-based automaker's racing team.

Then he met Magnus Walker, a British Porsche restorer who has brought the rocker hair, tattoos and wild designs of the custom car scene to California Porsche fans for the past 20 years.

“In Germany, I was building Porsche engines,” Hoeing says. “But I had no desire to get into the Porsche scene because to me it was dentists and lawyers and people who drive their preppy cars to the ice cream parlor.”

“When I met Magnus,” he adds, “it was an eye-opener.”

Since he returned to Hamburg in 2008, Hoeing's supercharged engines have been clawing out a foothold for the muscle car in Germany's Porsche world.

Although the Southern California aesthetic for body styling has yet to take off, the growing popularity of hot rodding and so-called “custom culture” suggests he may have picked the right moment.

Hot rods, tattoos, low-riders and choppers have made a dramatic leap in popularity during the past decade and a half, says 44-year-old Michael Perrech, who started organizing the “Kustom Kulture Forever” exhibition in Herten, Germany, 13 years ago.

“It was very hard in the early years because hot rods weren't very popular,” he says. “Now we're at the point that companies like [workwear maker] Dickies come to us about sponsorships.”

Hot rodding is especially big in the former East Germany, where groups like Hot Heads Eastembrace Rockabilly and American cars — perhaps a reaction to the political repression and 18-horsepower, recycled-plastic vehicles that were the specialty of the German Democratic Republic.

At least one company, Sour Krauts, has created a “motowear” brand featuring helmeted skulls, gothic script and slogans in the vein of “Trust me: I have a beard.”

But a huge gulf remains between the hot rod world of facial hair, tattoos and ducktail haircuts and big brands like Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, Perrech says.

“They don't really get hot rodding,” he says. “Everything has to be strict and on the point.”

Hoeing says he's an engine builder, not a car builder, and the high price of admission — one of his rebuilt engines runs $25,000 to $60,000 — means Porsches will never outstrip Fords in Germany's custom car scene. But with his engines providing the muscle and his image setting the tone, the gulf may be set to shrink.

Touted by Walker as the best Porsche engine builder in Europe, Hoeing had more business than he could handle before he teamed up with his business partner Torsten Hanenkamp last year. Their six-man workshop's engine business is now growing fast on the strength of bread-and-butter rebuilds that coax 380 horsepower from a standard 3.6 liter, 250-horsepower Porsche 911.

Their Mezgerwerk brand — named after Hans Mezger, sometimes called the greatest engine designer of all time — has all the right ingredients to become a cult hit like West Coast Customs, the team behind MTV's “Pimp My Ride,” and Orange County Choppers.

Hoeing says his business is already diversifying. “I get emails from people who want to buy T-shirts or sweatshirts every day.”

Thursday, December 18, 2014

As migrant deaths reach record, Europe retreats from protecting lives

Rights groups are urging governments to act after more than 3,000 deaths in the Mediterranean this year alone.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (December 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — When Mazen Dahhan decided to flee Syria’s civil war last year, he entrusted his life and those of his wife and three children to a smuggler in Libya who promised to take them across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

The 37-year-old neurosurgeon hoped he and his family would find refuge in Italy. But less than 24 hours after they embarked on the journey, their fate took a harrowing turn.

Their ship came under fire off the coast of Malta from traffickers in another boat. When their vessel sank, Dahhan says, his entire family drowned.

“You can’t imagine what it was like,” he says. “I lost ten years of my life in ten seconds.”

At least 30 of Dahhan’s fellow passengers perished. More than 200 were rescued in the following days, the Guardian reported last October.

The number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean has soared since then: More than 3,000 people have drowned attempting to cross the sea this year, according to the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration. At least 5,000 people have lost their lives while crossing seas and remote deserts or mountains across the globe, making 2014 the deadliest year on record for migrant deaths, the group says. It emphasizes that the real number could be much higher.

(Simran Khosla/GlobalPost)

As the world marks International Migrants Day today, human rights groups are making urgent calls for countries to find a political solution to the global immigration crisis. The issue is particularly severe in Europe because of the number of deadly conflicts raging in nearby regions in the Middle East and Africa.

“We must address the drivers of desperation migration and act in concerted and coherent partnership,” IOM’s director William Lacy Swing said in a statement. “This is a battle we must fight together. We need more political leadership and the courage to counter the worrying rise of xenophobia.”

The tragedy that befell Dahhan’s boat, along with another shipwreck a week earlier in which more than 350 migrants from North Africa died near the Italian island of Lampedusa, prompted Italy’s then-Prime Minister Enrico Letta to announce a robust rescue mission in the Meditarranean.

The Mediterranean had “turned into a grave,” Deutsche Welle quoted him as saying.

Italy’s naval search and rescue operation, called Mare Nostrum, has saved up to 150,000 lives over the years, Amnesty International says. But last month, reeling from the task’s magnitude, the authorities announced they would hand over patrolling the Mediterranean to the European Union.

In October, Britain said it would no longer support future Mediterranean rescue missions, claiming that saving migrants only encourages more asylum seekers to risk their lives.

Even as the question of how to deal with the growing number of refugees seeking asylum in the EU has become increasingly acute, the issue has devolved into a political shouting match among member states.

Some countries are calling to attention to what they say is the disproportionate number of refugees they’re accepting.

A look at the figures indicate that some of the loudest complainers — France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom — aren't actually taking in a significantly larger number of asylum seekers relative to the size of their economies and populations, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Experts point out that countries such as Malta and Sweden are taking on a far greater share of the burden than Germany and other countries raising the loudest outcries.

“Contrary to popular perceptions, Germany’s intake of refugees is relatively low in comparison to other EU countries,” London School of Economics professors Luc Bovens and Jane Von Rabenau wrote in a blog post. “Politicians are playing with the numbers so as to overstate how much responsibility Germany is assuming for EU asylum seekers.”

UNHCR data supports those claims:

France has taken in fewer than four asylum seekers per 1,000 people of its population of 66 million.

The UK has taken in two asylum seekers per 1,000 people of its population of 64 million.

Germany has taken in around two asylum seekers per 1,000 people of its population of 83 million.

Sweden has taken in 12 asylum seekers per 1,000 people of its population of 10 million.

Malta has taken in 23 asylum seekers per 1,000 people of its population of 423,000.

Concerns about the financial and social costs of absorbing refugees has pressed some European lawmakers to direct more spending to border policing and other programs designed to keep asylum seekers out of the continent, Amnesty International says.

“The measures they have been taking to keep people out are getting more severe, and financially they spend more and more money on building the fortress Europe,” says Franziska Vilmar, an Amnesty expert on refugee and migrants' rights. “This is the tendency, and there is no shift in sight.”

EU member states spent almost half of a $5.6 billion EU fund for refugees and asylum seekers between 2007 and 2013 on infrastructure and other border control measures for the Schengen area. Less than a fifth of that amount was allocated for the processing, resettlement and integration of refugees.

What the countries do seem to agree is how much money should be spent on rescue missions in the Mediterranean.

Triton, the operation run by Frontex — the EU’s border-policing organization — to fill the gap left by Mare Nostrum’s closure, has a budget of $3.8 million a month. With only a handful of permanent staff, it relies on the largesse of member states for equipment and personnel. It will limit its operations to 30 nautical miles off the coast of Lampedusa, and its primary focus will be border control.

The former Italian operation, in contrast, cost $11 million a month. The Italian navy patrolled as far as 160 nautical miles from Lampedusa to the border of Libyan waters. Although it performed other duties, its focus was search and rescue.

The disbanding of Italy’s Mare Nostrum for a weaker replacement suggests that trend is continuing despite the deaths of as many as 23,000 people trying to reach Europe since the year 2000, Amnesty International says.

Italy discontinued its operation because its neighbors refused to help foot the bill, complaining that Rome was sending asylum seekers on to other countries rather than documenting them according to a set of EU rules known as the Dublin Regulation.

Under those rules, the country that documents an asylum seeker's first entry into the EU bears responsibility for housing while the claim is evaluated — unless the person has family ties in another EU country.

Critics say that gives Italy a strong incentive not to document the people it rescues, while politicians in France, Germany and Sweden have increasingly called for a reform of the Dublin system to push asylum seekers into relatively unpopular destination countries, such as Poland and Slovakia.

As the debate continues, neither the migration policy debates nor the sea journeys' dangers appear to be deterring those fleeing ongoing sectarian violence and civil wars across various parts of the Middle East and Africa.

The toll weighs heavily on survivors like Dahhan.

“I blame myself,” he say of his family's loss. “I cry every night and every day. I don’t know how I’m supposed to live again. Life has no meaning.”

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Europe's 'supergrid' ambitions show how complicated shifting to renewable energy is going to be

As international negotiators in Lima struggle to set emissions targets, battles in the EU are highlighting trouble ahead for the next phase of tackling climate change.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost (December 2014)

BERLIN, Germany — As international negotiators in Lima, Peru struggle to agree on a major deal that would cut emissions at a UN climate change convention on Friday, Europe's efforts to forge a united front at home suggest that any binding commitments on reducing greenhouse gases would be only the first of many hurdles in any serious effort to keep global temperatures down.

The European Union is leading the way in some respects.

Before the UN could come up with a plan, the EU passed its own binding commitment in October to slash greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent of 1990 levels before 2030.

Last week, Germany's cabinet also agreed to cut emissions by 78 million metric tons a full decade ahead of that deadline by forcing coal-fired power plants to shut down.

Already, Germany's program of Energiewende, or “energy transition,” has changed market conditions so dramatically that two of its largest energy suppliers — Stockholm-based Vattenfall and Dusseldorf-based EON — have announced plans to quit burning coal or sell offtheir fossil fuels assets altogether.

But as Europe's conflict with Russia raises concerns about energy security on the continent, the competing agendas of the EU's member states and their various electricity companies has made progress on the key prerequisite to meeting emissions reduction targets painfully slow.

There’s nearly unanimous agreement that the cheapest and fastest way to reach the targets is to connect all 28 member states to the same electricity “supergrid.” The European Commission has made more than $7 billion in funding available to spur construction.

Some believe the supergrid could begin to bear fruit as soon as 2018.

But the work needed to put those electricity grid connections in place is so huge, it's easy to see the commission's financing scheme as little more than window dressing, says Andrew McKillop, former in-house policy analyst at the European Commission's energy directorate.

“Cross-border gas transport and storage infrastructures are massively developed relative to the same thing for electricity, which almost do not exist,” he says.

Some forecast that the supergrid won't see “serious development” until at least 2035, after an investment of “several hundred billion euros,” he adds.

But with fixed tariffs for green energy providing a guaranteed return on investments, financing is one of the smaller obstacles.

The real hurdle is that behind every new connection stands a complex set of stakeholders for whom the greater good isn't always good for everyone.

“The overall social welfare effect in Europe [of linking national electricity grids] is almost always positive,” says Markus Steigenberger of the Berlin-based climate think-tank Agora Energiewende.

“But if you go down to look at a single country, the situation might be different.”

The need for the supergrid is well-established.

Because the energy supply from the sun and wind varies according to weather conditions and time of day, distributors will have to build in oversupply and costly storage capacity to meet Europe's goal of generating as much as 80 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2050.

But connecting national electricity grids will dramatically reduce that redundant capacity, the result of a “smoothing effect” from incorporating a larger geographical area so that strong sun in Spain can balance a dearth of wind in Germany, the former EU adviser McKillop says.

“The question of intermittancy of renewables would be resolved or reduced,” he says.

That would mean substantially lower costs.

By some estimates, in order for EU member states to reach the 2020 target of generating just 40 percent of their power from renewables without linking the national grids, they would have to build 70 percent more reserve capacity.

That required reserve increases significantly when the target for the share of renewables is boosted to 80 percent.

“Not doing the grid doesn't mean you can't decarbonize,” Steigenberger says. “But it's many times more expensive.”

Anyone can do the math. But just as the different perspectives of rich and poor countries have stymied the UN negotiations on emission cuts, the different needs of the various EU member states and influential companies continue to plague the nuts-and-bolts efforts to build the supergrid.

It's not always the case that the advance guard of the conversion to renewables — chiefly countries in Western Europe — are pitted against the coal-powered East.

A planned connection between the German and Norwegian electricity grids called NordLink will enable Germany to offload excess wind power to hydropower-rich Norway during its dry season and stabilize its own supply the rest of the year.

Although power companies are keen on the plan, Norway's energy-intensive industries have fought to lock in the country's electricity in the hope of keeping prices down.

Such concerns have thwarted efforts to link Norway to wider European markets since the 1990s, according to a 2012 report commissioned by the Smart Energy for Europe Platform.

Analysts found that another scheme — to increase linkages between Germany and western Denmark — would have a negative effect on social welfare in both countries even though the plan would benefit Europe as a whole. That project was recently shelved.

In another case, experts believe adding a third cable to the two existing links connecting the Polish and German electricity grids would benefit both nations and their neighbors, some of which already receive electricity generated in Germany and routed through Poland's grid.

Polish and German companies, too, were keen on the plan, which has been under discussion since 2006. Wind energy from Germany might have allowed Poland to speed the shutdown of its coal-burning power plants.

Nevertheless, the scheme has yet to get off the ground because of the Polish government's fears that spikes in supply from Germany's wind producers would result in nationwide brownouts.

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As renewables grow to account for an ever-larger share of the world's energy supply, such problems are poised to become increasingly complex.

Managing a grid dominated by a steady supply from conventional power plants is relatively simple. But with renewables allowing consumers to plug in and drop out, draw power and contribute supply, it can become well-nigh impossible — as suggested by a Hawaiian electricity company's move to stop homeowners from installing solar panels last year.

For the UN negotiators trying to set emissions targets, that’s not a good sign that the next phase of the battle to control climate change will be any easier.