Neon silhouettes of women in suggestive poses bathed the street in a purple glow. Rowdy crowds of stags and hens milled about beneath the iridescent glow of signs advertising table dances, drag shows and ‘Sexy Sexy Girls’. Football chants and cheesy euro pop echoed from bars jammed with revellers as groups of costumed ‘lads on tour’ spilled out onto the pavement, half cut and looking for their next watering hole. This is the Reeperbahn; Hamburg’s most notorious street and Europe’s largest red light district.
Known locally as die sündigste Meile (the most sinful mile), the Reeperbahn cuts a wide path through the centre of St. Pauli. As with most seafaring towns, sailors would traditionally head into the city to while away their shore leave in the multitude of insalubrious bars and brothels. Shaking off their sea legs by getting their leg over, if you will. Although those days are long gone, the strip clubs and legalised prostitution remain. Down Große Freiheit (“The Great Freedom”) illuminated lettering arches over the road promoting The Safari, the only live sex theatre left in Germany until its closure in 2013, and the Dollhouse, a popular table dancing venue. A few minutes walk from here, tucked away beyond Davidstraße lies Herbertstraße, almost as famous as the Reeperbahn itself. Historically, this was the only area where prostitution was tolerated in Hamburg and even during the Nazi regime it continued to thrive, only now blocked with barricades to protect the sensibilities of passing pedestrians. The barricades are as much a part of Herbertstraße as the women behind the windows, beckoning customers in to pay them a visit. Our tour group watched on as pairs of sniggering men – and it is always men, as women are famously prohibited from entering – squeeze through the chicaning stiles only to emerge a few minutes later, red faced and giggling harder. It seems that what was once a sordid refuge for sex hungry punters has become more of a tourist sight to tick off on your Hamburg itinerary.
Despite the impression I may be giving, it isn’t all seediness and sleaze. A burgeoning foodie scene sees residents and tourists mixing in the Reeperbahns pedestrianised central reservation over plates of steaming street food. Nestled between the sex kinos and sex shops on the street’s eastern side are elegant music halls such as The Operettenhaus and Schmidt’s Tivoli. Well dressed theatre-goers weave between the cosmopolitan crowds visiting the cafes and vibrant restaurants that sit side by side with the dive bars and strip clubs.
As well as the mix of both ‘low’ and high culture, this area is of huge pop cultural significance too. It is here that the Beatles mastered their craft, playing 10 hour shifts night in and night out at the strip clubs of the early 1960’s. There is a famous quote from John Lennon, “I was born in Liverpool, but grew up in Hamburg” – and growing up they did, both personally and professionally. I wandered up Große Freiheit in search of the Indra, the club where it all started for the Beatles in Hamburg. I found the place in total darkness with the only indication of its illustrious history a small plaque by the front door. These kind of markers are scattered all around the Reeperbahn – outside the Star Club, Große Freiheit 36, and the Top Ten Club – a discreet reminder of the greatness that once walked the stages here.
The band are now immortalised in sculpture along with Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe at Beatles-Platz, a small square at the foot of Große Freiheit. The illuminated, metallic silhouettes of the Fab Four destined to spend eternity posing for selfies with drunken stags and hens.
I found myself back among the party-goers the next morning in the most unexpected of places; the Fish Market. I weaved through the early morning shoppers, salivating over the stalls stacked with rows of fish sandwiches and searching for the source of the coffee aroma filling the air. The barks of loud, brisk German cut across the crowds as sea food vendors, dressed in white smocks, presented their merchandise to the shoppers in the manner of a particularly ferocious auctioneer. People gathered around, seeing it as more of a show than a sales pitch, and the fishmonger plays to them like an experienced thespian. They laugh at his animated delivery and hang on to his every word as he wraps a greasy eel in paper and jokingly hands it to a passing child. He clasps it with both hands and runs away to join his parents, ecstatic with his slippery haul.
Carousers returning from the clubs and bars of the Reeperbahn stop by the market to end their night with a final pint by the harbour as shoppers are just starting their day. Swaying and slurring as they try to decide between a smoked mackerel roll or a tray of calamari smothered in creamy garlic sauce, I couldn’t resist joining them in this most Hamburguese of breakfasts. I stuffed myself with a tray of battered scampi before coyly returning for a huge slice of bread-crumbed cod in a bap.
In an attempt to escape the morning chill I followed the rabble into the 100 year old market hall, a wonderfully preserved and refurbished brick gem embellished with decorative wrought iron staircases and balconies. Rather than traders and fish stalls, the hall is lined with bars doling out beer to the gathered congregation. A band of middle aged men were living out their dad rock dreams on stage, the singer doing his best Bon Scott impression to a crowd that were both far too enthusiastic and far too drunk for 7am.
This is the strange dichotomy at play in St. Pauli. Among the sex tourists, party goers and stag dos this is a working, living neighbourhood. People shopping for fruit and fish at the market, having an al fresco coffee or attending the theatre while gluttonous hedonism plays out all around them. Nowhere is this split in values more apparent than in Sternschanze, an area just 10 minutes walk from the entertainment district. Tucked between the main avenues of Schanzenstrasse and Schulterblatt you will find sidewalk cafes, stylish boutiques and achingly cool bars frequented by a mix of youthful hipsters, bohemians and the more well-to-do residents.
This is to Hamburg what Kreuzberg is to Berlin – It’s Dalston but with a gritty, revolutionary edge. Walking to Schanze from Feldstraße U-Bahn station I couldn’t help notice the barrage of posters advertising local gigs – mostly punk or metal with a political slant – or the anti capitalist graffiti daubed on every available surface. At it’s heart, behind the hipster eateries and drinking spots, Sternschanze is a hotbed of left-leaning political activism. This is apparent in the storied history of the Rote Flora. Initially built as a theatre in 1888, it went through a variety of guises before being abandoned. In 1987 plans were made to refurbish the building, much to the chagrin of local residents. Within months the protests grew, culminating in violent assaults by militant groups and all renovation plans were scrapped. Ever since, the building has been squatted, functioning as a ‘community centre’ that offers space for cultural and political events.
Wandering towards the Rote Flora it is hard to see that it is a working counter-cultural hub. The boarded windows and rough sleepers huddled on the front steps give the appearance of a long disused building. Only the banners draped across its facade betray its recent use. One such banner, taking up the majority of the building’s frontage, was advertising the upcoming and widely publicised ‘Welcome to Hell’ march. 10-foot tall neon letters sit atop the roof spelling out “NO G20” – a reference to the much maligned G20 summit that was to be held the weekend after my visit. It is clear that the summit was not to be taken lightly by the people of St. Pauli. Every store and bar in Schanze had a small sign in the window declaring “No to G20, save my store” and rather unflattering depictions of Trump, Putin and Erdoğan – a who’s who of controversial figures – were stencilled or painted on every street corner. It is clear that Capitalism is a dirty word in Hamburg and the residents aren’t afraid to let you know.
It was the next day that I attempted to visit the Rathaus, Hamburg’s beautiful neo-renaissance city hall, and found myself among a vast crowd of activists protesting the summit. Thousands of people were gathered, armed with placards, to voice their disapproval. I couldn’t decipher a word of the speeches or chants emanating from the stage but the point was crystal clear; the G20 leaders were not welcome. I stuck around to soak in the atmosphere and enjoy the music of what was a relatively calm event, especially in comparison to the riots that were to follow just a week later.
The split in St Pauli is not only ideological but in some places, physical. Look closely at the ground and you will occasionally see a dividing line marked between the cobbles, on one side an ‘A’ and another a ‘H’ – referring to the two cities of Altona and Hamburg. The neighbourhood first began to develop outside the gates of Hamburg on what was known as Hamburger Berg (or Hamburg Mountain) and close to Altona, then under the administration of the Danish monarchy. The settlement was initially used to house businesses deemed too noisy or pungent for either of the surrounding cities but soon more people settled here; the rope makers that needed long stretches of land for their work moved in giving the Reeperbahn (literally meaning rope walk) its name, and sailors would stop by the area for ‘entertainment’ during their leave in Altona or Hamburg. Both St. Pauli and Altona were eventually absorbed into the sprawling expansion of Hamburg.
Maybe this is the reason that St. Pauli seems to have its own character, but then again, Hamburg in itself seems unique when compared to the rest of Germany. Disconnected from both Berlin and Munich to the South, it has forged a singular identity – one that is a little more Scandinavian in nature due to the city’s proximity to Denmark. Like most outward looking ports, Hamburg has welcomed immigrants and sailors for hundreds of years, seeing itself as a gateway to the world rather than a city tied to the dealings of distant Berlin. For centuries as one of Europe’s largest and busiest ports, Hamburg has had connections to 170 countries with which it traded in cocoa, fabrics and tobacco. It has always been a melting pot, with people from all over the world settling in St. Pauli and Sternschanze. Even today, the immigrant population of the city stands at over 15%.
With my short stay in the city I got the impression that Hamburgers are fiercely proud of both their city and their identity. Anchors and seafaring motifs are everywhere; this is a city that wears its history on its sleeve. It even has its own greeting, “Moin”, meaning ‘hello’ and the word “Quiddje” – a nickname Hamburgers use to categorise the rest of the world’s population – singling them out as different from all others.
Unfortunately this is an identity that is gradually being eroded despite attempts to fight the creeping gentrification. The battle for the Rote Flora was just the start – in 2013, the Dancing Towers were built at the eastern end of Reeperbahn much to the dismay of older residents and the proliferation of modern buildings in St. Pauli is being fiercely opposed by groups such as the St Pauli Preservation Society.
In Hans-Albers-Platz our tour guide struggled to be heard over the roisterer’s in the square’s rowdy bars as he pointed out the flats overlooking the mayhem. The penthouses here are inexplicably becoming some of the most expensive real estate in the borough, despite the noise from the clubs below. People are slowly becoming priced out of the area. Later that evening we ended our tour on Davidstraße, facing the barriers of Herbertstraße. Music pumped from the cheap bars that are popping up to attract teenage clubbers. Prostitutes loitered outside, hassling anyone that passed in the hope of drumming up business. “You see this building here?” our guide pointed to the modern, glass structure behind us, “This is one of the most expensive restaurants in St. Pauli, even though it faces Herbertstraße. Most people call it the inverse fishbowl. The rich people can sit safely inside and enjoy their meal while they watch all of this out here.”
Throughout my time in Hamburg I found myself drawn back to St. Pauli, taken in by its history, nightlife and political outlook. Nowhere else have I found a single neighbourhood that contradicts itself in such a brazen manner, the multiple facets of its split personality coexisting to create a place that is both beguiling and intriguing. I’m sure that at some point I will be drawn back to both it and Hamburg, providing it holds on to its individuality.
Have you visited Hamburg and St. Pauli? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below.
Disclaimer: My trip to Hamburg was sponsored by Come to Hamburg and I was provided with a free red light district tour by the St. Pauli Tourist Office. However, all thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are my own
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