Dance Economy

Berlin Club Boss Eyes Detroit

Hegeman at Tresor caro Ponizak
Mr. Hegeman at the famous Tresor, a club in a vault.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The once-devastated German capital could be a model for culturally rebuilding the hollowed-out capital of the U.S. auto industry.

  • Facts


    • Berlin is home to more than 28,000 companies in art, fashion, film and music.
    • Detroit has lost more than half of its population and suffers 25 percent unemployment.
    • Thousands of buildings in Detroit stand empty. According to estimates, structures in a third of the city area have been demolished.
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Nightclub owner Dimitri Hegemann is up way too early for a Wednesday morning. He has a meeting with some politicians in Room 311 of the parliamentary house in Berlin’s Mitte district, and sits in front of his MacBook, going over ideas for an unlikely project: How Berlin can help Detroit, the broken and bankrupt U.S. auto capital, get its groove back.

A quarter century ago, Mr. Hegemann started a techno music revolution in some abandoned buildings of formerly divided Berlin. Now he wants to do the same in America’s crumbling “Motor City” – where techno music was born – and where block after block of deserted businesses, warehouses and factories blight the cityscape today.

Mr. Hegemann is convinced the rundown industrial metropolis can learn and profit from Berlin’s creative class, and is seeking support of political leaders, both in the German capital and in Detroit.

“If I were 25 today, I would rather go to Detroit than Berlin.”

Dimitri Hegemann, Founder, Tresor

Specifically, he has his eyes on Fisher Body Plant 21 – an empty car-body factory formerly owned by General Motors. Mr. Hegemann wants to turn the six-story building into a cultural complex, possibly a nightclub, arts venue, restaurant, galleries and youth hostel.

“We are bringing the magic ingredients,” he promised in Room 311.

In 1991, Mr. Hegemann used a similar formula to convert an abandoned vault in an old Berlin department store – with 1.5-meter thick concrete walls and ceilings painted black – into his world-renowned techno club, Tresor. In the basement, waves of young people came to party through the night, surrounded by darkness, pulsing strobe lights and music blasting at more than 100 decibels.

Mr. Hegemann called it “acoustic narcotics,” and the club became a symbolic of a new Berlin – young, hip and happening.

Mr. Hegemann told Berlin leaders that Detroit techno was the soundtrack for reunifying young people of former East and West Germany. The subculture helped reshape Berlin’s international image. “From small DJ boxes, great stories were made,” he said.

Sven Vath 2007 Tresor laif
Superstar DJ Sven Väth plays Tresor in 2007. Source. Action Press


The 61-year-old Mr. Hegemann has snow-white hair today and mostly dresses in dark clothing. He is a man on many missions, constantly spitting out ideas in a series of exclamations. “Innovation needs space, and space needs innovation,” Mr. Hegemann told the politicians.

The nightclub and music impresario comes from a much smaller world – the community of Büderich in North Rhine-Westphalia, population: 3,000. Eventually his parents’ world became too small for him and he wanted something bigger.

“I wanted to experience Woodstock in Büderich,” he said. And because Woodstock was not coming to Büderich, Mr. Hegemann moved away to find the music and freedom he craved.

First he studied music in Münster, but did not play an instrument. Then he moved to Berlin because the publisher of a rock music encyclopedia was teaching there. Together they would talk for hours, comparing Italian violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini to the late great American guitarist, Jimi Hendrix. At night, he would go on crawls of city bars. That’s when he began to fit himself into the noise. Between 1982 and 1990 he organized music festivals, including Berlin Atonal.

Video: The world-famous Tresor techno club became a symbol of Berlin.

Mr. Hegemann went to Detroit for the first time in the early 1990s, not long after opening the Tresor. He fell in love with the music scene in the shrinking city, once home to nearly 2 million but now less than 700,000. That left a lot of space for creativity, and Mr. Hegemann had a lot of ideas. One of his first in Detroit was to open a nightclub in an old cinema. The project failed.

Now he knows that he needs hard numbers to back up his Detroit ambitions. He knows, for instance, the passenger totals for Berlin airports and how busy city hotels are. He can tell you how much of a role the creative class plays in the German capital, first and foremost through music. He is no longer just a techno freak; these days he’s a businessman.

These days, Mr. Hegemann flies to Detroit three times a year. “If I were 25 today,” he said, “I would rather go to Detroit than Berlin.”

In Detroit, Mr. Hegemann got to know Fernando Palazuelo, a Spanish real estate investor, who buys, renovates and resells old buildings. He has already done that in Barcelona and Lima. After Detroit went bankrupt, he opened an office there.

Mr. Hegemann heard that Mr. Palazuelo was buying up empty buildings, including the old Packard car factory, Michigan Central train station and Fisher Body Plant 21. So he went to his office and talked about the meaning of historic buildings – that a space must tell a story. Because ultimately, Mr. Palazuelo has to fill his spaces with good ideas in order to make good money.

Mr. Hegemann wants to fill the Fisher Body Plant 21 with art installations and music. He would open pop-up restaurants all over the city. Michigan Central Station could be a techno club. “That would go international within one week, I am totally sure,” he said.

But there are problems in Detroit that Berlin doesn’t have – like a 2 a.m. bar curfew and liquor license rules that would shut parties down before the night really gets going. The entrepreneur is hoping to convince Detroit’s mayor to lift the curfew, among other things.

A few weeks after the sales pitch in Room 311, Detroit city leaders finally came to Berlin. Mr. Hegemann found them lodging for the delegation near Checkpoint Charlie. Outside their windows they could see colorfully painted Trabis in traffic, construction cranes, a wall panorama by Yadegar Asisi and, naturally, masses of tourists plowing along the sidewalks. Berlin couldn’t get better advertising.


This article first appeared in Die Zeit weekly newspaper. To contact the writer:

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