A believer in the political power of techno in bringing people together, Collins serves as a conduit between Berlin and Detroit. He poses in Submerge, the officially unofficial store of the Underground Resistance record label.
Last August, Dimitri Hegemann welcomed to Berlin two Detroit city council members, a mayoral aide and Fernando Palazuelo, the Spanish developer who bought the 3.5 million-square-foot Packard Plant for $405,000 at a tax auction in December 2013.
They spent their days meeting with police and waste management officials, who explained the strategies they utilize in managing a nightlife economy.
At night they visited Hegemann’s new Tresor, in a vast former power station along the Spree River. “They were blown away,” says John Collins, who has played regularly in Berlin since the 1990s.
“We wanted them to see what electronic music had done for Berlin, but we also wanted them to see the city post-Wall, with the buildings repurposed. I had a city council person dancing the entire night to my set at Tresor. She was speechless.”
The byword for the creative chaos that Berlin was turns 25.
It was clear that the wooden bookcase was blocking the entrance to something. So Dimitri Hegemann, his partner Achim Kohlberger and an acquaintance moved it and a rush of air came from down below.
The birth of Tresor (German for “vault”) was a momentous event for Hegemann. “This space was a gift,” he remembers. The three and a team of helpers cleared out 40 to 50 years of dirt and detritus from the vaults of the former Wertheim department store, destroyed during WWII.
The club opened in March 1991 and the techno and house music elite played in the dark, strobe-lit room to crowds delirious in post-Wall euphoria. It became Berlin’s best marketing campaign, attracting creatives and revelers, many of whom stayed. Despite threats of closure, the club stayed open until April 16, 2005. Hegemann opened a new Tresor two years later.
A respected producer both at home and in the German capital, Collins welcomes Hegemann’s enthusiasm.
A DJ in Detroit since the 1980s, he became involved with the Underground Resistance, an anti-mainstream techno music collective that sought to empower the disenfranchised African-American population in the city and continues its mission today.
Its founders—Jeff Mills and “Mad” Mike Banks—are also among the music’s most influential talents.
Two years after the fall of the Wall in 1989, Hegemann stumbled over an abandoned vault in the former no-man’s-land that separated east and west and transformed it into Tresor. Not long after, he called the Underground Resistance to come and perform.
“When the wall came down, techno was the backdrop to east and west coming together,” says Collins, who played to adoring crowds in the cramped and exhilarating nightclub.
“Every time I think about that it blows my mind. A lot of people in Detroit have no idea what the music did. Specifically for Berlin.”
Born in a small town in West Germany, Hegemann moved to the divided city in 1978. He opened an office in West Berlin, where he put on experimental art shows, founded a record label and opened his first club—later closed by the cops.
When the Wall fell and young people began pouring into Berlin from across Germany and the world, Hegemann saw his chance.
Berlin nightlife impresario and self-described space explorer Hegemann believes in the power of buildings to foment change. He plans to turn parts of the 3.5 million- square-foot Packard Plant into a creative village.
“For three or four years, the West and East German authorities had to figure out what to do with two armies, different traffic systems and all of that. We didn’t ask for space, we just took it,” he says. “Ultimately, it was good for the city. The city tried to bring industries back to Berlin but failed completely. But this alternative culture grew.”
And that alternative culture thrived at night. Small speakers, cases of beer and a few lights were sometimes all that was needed to open a club in the surplus of empty buildings. For a bitterly divided population, the escapist, danceable beats of techno provided the same thing it did for outcast Detroiters: community.
The music’s founders—Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson—went from playing to small audiences at home to filling clubs in Berlin.
The dream of a famous nightclub created in an abandoned basement brought young people looking for opportunity. They set up coffee shops and bars in empty buildings, opened galleries and spun records. In a divided city, a community grew. Artists, says Hegemann, “might not have the money, but they bring with them the spirit.”
It was unregulated. It was chaotic. And it legitimized everything Hegemann believed about the importance of dreaming. He can’t tell you how many of his ideas never came to fruition.
There was the bar-slash-post-office where patrons could have letters delivered and read them while enjoying a drink. Or the image of a Zeppelin with a massive wooden horse hanging from it, guided by dancing ravers holding its tethers. “I’ve failed a lot,” he says. “You do need to ask yourself: ‘Is it do-able? Am I crazy?’ ”
He knows the Berlin blueprint might not work in a country that carefully monitors nightlife. But his hope is that an idea or two might take hold and that the younger generation will step in. “What’s important here,” he says, “is that you give the soul, the weird, a platform.”
City officials appreciate his vision. And Hegemann’s standing among Detroit’s creative community is assured. A frequent visitor to the city since he discovered Jeff Mills’ music, the 61-year-old is received as a kindly uncle with best intentions. “I’m opening doors in Detroit, for Detroit,” he says. “To help them help themselves.”
For all he has achieved in Berlin, Detroit might complete his legacy, and give credence to those who believe the chaos of creativity can achieve much—even a city’s rebirth. “I belong to this group of people that have ideas that torture us,” he says. “I have a built-in rejection of the mainstream. I don’t hate it, but I see the possibilities in the alternative.”
He has a PDF with renderings of his proposed “Packard music district”—with a club, open-air market, highline park and a hostel. He continues in a soft voice, the earnest nightlife evangelist: “You can talk about it with one another, but you need to get going on it, too. At the end of the day, it’s up to you. You can’t rely on others.”
As he tromps around the ground-floor level of one of the buildings, he gasps at a piece of early-20th-century inlaid tile still visible under a layer of dust on the floor. Before he leaves, Hegemann pauses underneath a piece of graffiti for a photo. It reads “Employment available.”