More than just an afternoon out – why Bearpit Karaoke must stay in the Mauerpark

Phil Butland

Recent visitors to my facebook page may have been surprized to see a series of videos and posts banging on about karaoke – not my usual sort of post. Here’s what its all about.

Every Summer, in the Mauerpark, which separates my district of Wedding from the more up-market Prenzlauer Berg, there’s an afternoon openair karaoke session (known as Bearpit Karaoke) organised by the genial Irishman Gareth Lennon, under the name of Joe Hatchiban. Recently he’s also put on similar events in London.

I don’t go every week, but I try to go when I can, especially when I have visitors. It’s a cheap and entertaining afternoon out, and “Joe” shows just the right balance of encouragement and abuse for the singers. What started as a fairly intimate thing now attracts thousands of tourists and locals every week. Even in pouring rain, the amphitheatre where the karaoke is staged is always full.

This year, there’ll be no karaoke till late August at the earliest. Because Berlin’s water utilities are laying storage canals, the local authorities have told Joe that they’re not going to talk to him about his license until late July. As Joe says “even if things were to move positively and quickly, you’d be looking at mid- to late August before we’d start (mega-optimistically; there’s more than one City department tasked with paperwork for the shows).”

First, yes you did get this right. To play music in an open space, Joe has to apply for – and pay for – a license. And in recent years the cost of this license has risen by 1000% The costs have been covered by a whipround at each event, but this is something that’s being largely organised for fun, not money.

Money is being made elsewhere, though. 3-4 years ago, the Groth group – a major financial contributor to both the conservative CDU and the social democratic SPD – was given planning permission to build 700 luxury flats in and around the Mauerpark. Rents in the area are already going up, and the district is preparing to react to a different class of inhabitant. There has been serious talk, for example, of closing the park at 10pm so that the new locals won’t be disturbed by local kids with nowhere else to go picking up beers at the local off license and playing music.

Berlin is still one of the cheapest capital cities in Europe, but this is changing. Rents are rising massively, and even old working class districts like Neukölln and Wedding are barely affordable. A new initiative Deutsche Wohnen Enteignen (expropriate German homes) has been set up to challenge this, and looks like it will be one of the liveliest campaigns in the coming year or two.

The barriers being placed in the way of Mauerpark karaoke should be seen in this context. Its about much more than a few people singing on a Sunday afternoon. Last Summer, I was in Belgrade, where the whole riverside area is being ripped up and gentrified. We don’t want the same thing happen to Berlin, especially in such a historic area (the park used to be in the shadow of the Berlin wall).

I understand why some people are asking why Joe doesn’t just move and set up stall elsewhere. The event is so popular that people will follow him. I understand, but I don’t agree. We fought, and lost, a campaign to stop the Groth corporation building on the Mauerpark. Local residents are now paying the price. If we don’t fight this one, the gentrifiers will carry on taking over our districts and trying to kick out the riff raff (in other words, people like us)

At the moment, the Bearpit Karaoke facebook page is being deluged with messages of support, and I sense a campaign is forming. If it is, the international dimension will be important. For many people, the Sunday karaoke is the highlight of their Berlin visit. Together we can win this one.

Watch this space for concrete suggestions of what you can do