Idea Exchange: Detroit looks to Berlin to reclaim its title of ‘Techno City’

DJ Richie Hawtin performs in Detroit at last year's Movement techno music festival. Detroit invented the genre of electronic music but is now trying to learn from Berlin where techno is more popular and the club scene is recognized as a vital part of the city economy. (Bryan Mitchell/Movement)

DETROIT, United States — The three-story brick building at 3000 East Grand Boulevard has the curtains drawn and windows taped. A sign declares it the home of a labor union, Laundry Workers Local 129. But upon closer inspection, a note on the door reads: “No Appointment, No Entry. Call First.”​

Luckily on this blustery day, I have an appointment.

Behind the door is no union hall. It’s the headquarters of Underground Resistance, a venerated record label in the bass-thumping world of techno music. While Underground Resistance cultivates a shadowy public persona, inside I’m greeted warmly by John Collins, a DJ who gives me a tour of Exhibit: 3000. The two rooms of display cases are filled with old album covers, fading 1980s club photos and vintage synthesizers.

The artifacts tell the story of a genre of electronic music that Detroit invented. Middle-class African-American youth here nurtured the hard-edged techno sound in the city’s abandoned industrial spaces. The 1984 record “Techno City” by the artist Juan Atkins — widely considered the first of its kind — sits proudly on the wall.

Techno continues to have a small core of dedicated fans in Detroit and around the United States. But its popularity here never quite grew out of its basement roots.

In Berlin, however, it’s a different story.

The German capital embraced techno music as a cultural import it could make its own. Techno became the soundtrack of Berlin’s post-unification era, with East Berlin’s vacant buildings offering a playground for electronic music aficionados. Nowadays, the city boasts 350 nightclubs that are legally allowed to operate 24 hours per day, which means the beat literally never stops. Detroit’s homegrown techno talent now goes to Berlin to make it big, while techno tourists pour in thanks to the city’s central European location and abundance of cheap airfares.

Now Berlin is building a large-scale museum to techno — something on the scale of other music museums such as Seattle’s Experience Music Project or Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Standing in the tiny exhibit at Underground Resistance, it is easy to wonder: Did Detroit miss out on its own invention? And can it get a second chance with techno music by learning something fom Berlin?

One big weekend

To be sure, Detroit still knows how to throw a techno party. This weekend, about 100,000 fans will stream into the Motor City for the city’s downtown electronic music festival, known as Movement. This is an annual event, now in its 17th year, and it’s a big deal in techno circles. Every club in town will be hosting the crème-de-la-crème of visiting DJs — many of them from Berlin — and the truly dedicated can find a party somewhere in town for at least 72 consecutive hours. To honor the occasion, Mayor Mike Duggan declared this Detroit Techno Week.

Still, the question of how to capture Berlin’s energy for more than just one holiday weekend per year gnaws at many in Detroit’s music community. It’s also a question among Berlin nightlife entrepreneurs who want to give back to — and possibly invest in — the city that inspired them so much.

Chief among them on the Berlin side is Dimitri Hegemann, the German nightclub impresario who is behind the Berlin techno museum. He’s also the founder of a nonprofit called Detroit-Berlin Connection, which fosters dialogue between the two cities in order to help them learn from each other.

DJ John Collins stands with an exhibit of artifacts from Detroit’s techno music roots. (Greg Scruggs)

For the past two years, on the sidelines of the Movement festival, a contingent from Berlin’s nightlife industry joined Detroiters for a daylong conference at the Detroit Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCAD).

Then in August of last year, a 20-person delegation of Detroit public officials, developers, architects and investors accepted Hegemann’s invitation to visit Berlin and see some of the city’s dynamism in action. They visited architecturally inventive nightclubs such as Kraftwerk, a repurposed power plant, and met with local officials to better understand how the city government has supported a nightlife culture that evolved organically over two decades.

“Berlin is doing very cool things with historic spaces,” says Barry Blackwell, an aide to Detroit Councilwoman Mary Sheffield, who was part of the delegation. “The conversation was centered on how we can bring some of this energy and newness to Detroit.”

In addition to historic preservation, the delegation learned about Berlin’s intentional lack of a curfew. For example, Berlin is considering joining the “night mayor” movement sweeping Europe, seeing the value of having city leadership dedicated to promoting an economy that takes place when most city residents are asleep.

Walter Wasacz, the Detroit-based vice-president of the Detroit-Berlin Connection, says the goal is “getting local governments interested in extending hours of operation for local economies to use every hour in the day to do their business.” He describes the philosophy as “using the night as a way of inspiring young people to think differently and create new communities.”

Sister cities

Some doubt that Detroit is ready to make as much out of its own music as Berlin has. “I’m not really sure how realistic it is to try to mimic what’s going on there blow by blow,” says Monty Luke, MoCAD’s Curator of Public Programs — and also a DJ.

Detroit is missing a number of Berlin’s advantages. Detroit is less densely populated, underserved by transit, and is located in a country with a lukewarm attitude toward techno. “But,” Luke concedes, “if Detroit should model itself after any other city in terms of what it could be in terms of dance music, it should definitely be Berlin.”

To others, the chasm between the two cities feels as wide as the ocean separating them. “You’re talking about Europe, an area that’s hundreds of years older and wiser and more mature in some ways than we are,” says Jason Huvaere, president of Paxahau, the company that produces this weekend’s Movement festival. “There’s a huge generational gap and cultural difference.”

However, everyone involved in the Detroit-Berlin Connection is cognizant that city success stories cannot be carbon copied.

“We’re not just trying to be Berlin,” emphasizes Collins, the DJ from Underground Resistance, who also joined the delegation in Berlin. (He was booked to play at Hegemann’s legendary club, Tresor). Collins also feels that the exchange is not a one-way street. “They learned a lot from the energy, artistry and creativity that you can only get from living here in Detroit,” he says.

The burgeoning sister-city relationship between Detroit and Berlin is still in its infancy. “We’ve not really achieved any policy change,” Wasacz admits. “We’ve created dialogue with city officials and community members that are interested in what we’re doing.”

[Read: Idea exchange: What Singapore is learning from Copenhagen on bicycling]

While 24-hour bar licenses or a nightlife-district zoning overlay are not on this year’s city council docket, Huvaere hopes it will open minds. “I would love to have state leadership that completely embraces the arts,” he says. “Berlin and other places [in Europe] understand that it’s incredibly important if not the most important in a lot of ways.”

What’s more, policy change isn’t the only yardstick by which to measure the Detroit-Berlin Connection. One potential tangible outcome may be an investment from Hegemann himself, who is negotiating with the owner of the Packard Automobile Plant, an abandoned century-old behemoth and one of Detroit’s signature post-industrial ruins.

He envisions turning the derelict space into a nightclub and youth hostel — affordable lodging is one of the keys to Berlin’s nightlife tourism. He also would like to have a community space to teach electronic music production to Detroit’s next generation. Collins hopes the project, if it comes to fruition, will serve as home for a six-month residency program for Berlin-based DJs and producers.

“I’m an advocate for my city,” Collins says proudly, and sees no contradiction in absorbing lessons from Berlin’s techno transformation. “It’s just a way of taking Detroit to the next level.”

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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