Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Whither Amerika Haus?

In German cities -- excuse me, make that West German cities, the Amerika Haus was something you just always assumed was there. Exactly what it was was hard to figure out: was it an adjunct of the government, a propaganda tool, a reference center for Germans needing information on the States, or what? The answer was, yes, all of the above, and doubtless, especially in Berlin, just a bit more, if you catch my drift.

The Amerika Haus here was a squat, ugly box visible from the tracks of the S-Bahn at Zoo Station, sitting on Hardenburgstr. separating Zoo's sleaze from more upper-crust offerings like a Steinway showroom and an art college. Word soon got out among expats settling here that it had a great lending-library if you could negotiate the German harridan who reigned over it, and so did the British Council just a few doors down. It also had a small auditorium to which authors and other speakers came from time to time (I once saw Paul Williams of Crawdaddy give a lecture on Bob Dylan there, pretty much the first time I'd seen him since I'd quit the magazine in 1967), and a nice exhibition space which hosted a fine show of jazz photography by William Gottlieb, Herman Leonard, and William Claxton which I covered for the Wall Street Journal, and, in the process, got to interview and meet these great masters -- three of the coolest old hipsters it's ever been my pleasure to hang out with.

Signing up for the library remained one of those things I was going to get around to doing (hey, they were cool enough to have a copy of Rock of Ages, the book I'd co-authored), and one day a friend was raving about Alan Lomax's book The Land Where the Blues Began, and recommended I get it from the Amerika Haus library, because it was a pricey item. I went down there and discovered...all the books had been sold off the previous weekend. In fact, the place looked gutted; there was almost nothing there; a few computer terminals dedicated to study overseas for German students, some pamphlets, and that was it. I later found out that the attitude of the American government was that since we'd won the Cold War, there was no more need for an Amerika Haus, although a couple of them had opened in cities in East Germany and were being maintained for the time being.

I thought this was awfully short-sighted, since after all Berlin was one of Germany's most important cities, half of it had been isolated from all things American for fifty years, and there was an intense interest in the country on the part of Ossis I knew who could now travel or study there. At one point, trying to raise money for my English-language magazine and website project, my colleagues and I visited there to talk to some kind of "information officers," and they all wished us luck and told us the institution was broke and they were all being transferred at some point.

Amerika Haus just sat there, and my trips up and down Hardenburgstr. became rarer and rarer, so it wasn't until a couple of days ago that it came back into my life. A friend forwarded an invitation to a meeting in the Rotes Rathaus which was to be chaired by some people who wanted to turn the now-empty building into a center for cultural diplomacy. As much because I was curious about the interior of the Rathaus, Berlin's central administrative building, which dates to the 1860s, as anything else, I headed down there last night to see what was up.

The meeting started with a summary of the current situation: this past October 1, the U.S. Embassy, which had paid the lease on the building, which it was renting from the city, had stopped their €7000/month payments. The city, therefore, had decided to put it on the market -- yet another piece of real estate for the impoverished Berlin government to get rid of -- and they want €22,000/month for it. All of the Amerika Hauses in Germany had been closed, although many in the West had been taken over by something called the German-American Institute. In Munich, which had dearly loved its Amerika Haus (I attended an election-night party there in 2000 -- they had the temerity to serve Michelob!), it was taken over by the Bavarian American Center, an organization funded by the State of Bavaria which has pretty much continued the cultural program the U.S. had paid for previously. The one in Frankfurt is sitting empty, its future uncertain.

Unofficially, the City of Berlin would like to keep the building as some sort of German/American center, although it will be putting the thing up for bids at some point in the indefinite future. The group sponsoring the meeting, calling themselves The Committee Amerika Haus Berlin, coordinated by the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, is hoping to gather some non-governmental agencies (NGOs) who'd like to have a central office space, have them take the upstairs offices, maybe stick in an American cafe in the old cafe space on the ground floor, and maybe even combine it with an American bookstore -- which would be the only English-language bookstore in town selling new, as opposed to used, books. The auditorium could be used for performances and lectures, and the exhibition space, too, could be used for its old purpose.

One interesting aspect of this is that "America" is being broadly defined to include at least Canada -- the guy in front of me was a representative of the government of Quebec -- and maybe the other Americas. They're also searching for European groups interested in exchanges with the Americas.

But what they're really searching for is money. They made no bones about it: Berlin is so totally broke that a porno shop or a mattress warehouse could -- at least theoretically -- rent the place tomorrow if they saw fit, as more than one speaker mentioned. (With Beate Uhse's porn mega-supermarket and museum just around the corner, I sort of doubt it'd go to porn, but I should never underestimate the stupidity of local entrepreneurs). At the moment, though, some potential sponsors and tenants have identified themselves, including Duke University, a student-exchange program called Lexia International, another one called SIT Study Abroad Berlin, and, weirdly, a magazine called Pulse Berlin, which, if I heard the fast-talking ICD guy correctly, is partially founded by Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard, as well as by the ICD themselves.

It was a weird collection of people, from the pony-tailed ICD guy to the hard-bitten right-winger from the Checkpoint Charlie Foundation, but it's an intriguing proposition. As more than one person noted, Hardenburgstr. and the Zoo Station area in general is hardly a sexy address these days: Zoo Station itself is already being partially dismantled as its function as the city's central station has been taken over by the glitzy new Hauptbahnhof. But cultural input of all kinds is starving here in Berlin, and the right combination of people working together might well revitalize both the cultural scene and the ugly old box (under landmark protection, I was surprised and amused to find out) of Amerika Haus.

They're going to have to move fast; the city wants to hear something in 30 days. I signed up to stay on the story, because it's a sort of quintessentially Berlin one, even though I doubt there's anything I could do at this point. Plus, of course, every single project I've involved myself with here has either been hijacked by idiots or crushed by the conservatism of Berliners.

In fact, I may not be around to see how it ends. I ran the numbers the other night once again, and the magic figure is €12,300. That pays all the debts, rents me an apartment with a new couch and washing machine, and gets me out of here. And that's where I'm putting my energy these days.


daggi said...

and maybe even combine it with an American bookstore -- which would be the only English-language bookstore in town selling new, as opposed to used, books

Apart from "Books in Berlin", in the Goethestraße in Charlottenburg, obviously. Ok, which sells new *as well as used* books, but last time I checked, it seemed to be new stuff. (If anyone from BiB (the bookshop) is reading this, gissajob. I'm yer Yosser.)

"St. George's" (what a nasty name for a shop, it reminds me of some dodgy East End (London) pubs covered with English flags since the 1990 world cup where no "Travellers, Irish, Paki's or Gypsie's" are allowed in) and "East of Eden" are just second-hand, that's true though.

Michael Scott Moore said...

What Berlin lacks is a good American reading room. Never mind a good English-language library -- the one in Munich blows the Gedenkbibliothek out of the sky -- I need a place to flip through US as well as UK publications about once a month. *That's* what Amerika Häuser used to be for.

Anonymous said...

actually St. Georges two bookcases full of new books and is quite amiable about ordering anything they don't have from the local distributor...

as far as Amerika Haus, let's turn it into a detention and torture camp and make some extraordinary renditions from the streets of washington dc, what's good for the goose is good for the gander eh?

as far as zoo being sexy - there are still a few bargains to be had, it depends on how much cash you have and what your taste in boys is.

Ed Ward said...

Agggh, this is what I get for writing and posting within an hour.

The Amerika Haus/Zoo location isn't sexy!

Although, as someone who usually waited for the last U9 to Wedding on my way back home from the radio station back in the old days, I'm glad to hear Zoo's reputation for sleaze is still intact. It was the first place I ever saw those wall-mounted cigarette machines vending clean needles and needle cleaning kits.