B East Issues

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B.East Magazine’s ‘Meat’ Issue is charboiled

This juicy ‘Meat’ issue is the 13th incarnation of the magazine, and even the B.East seems to have fallen under the evil auspices of that unlucky number. What was supposed to have taken six months dragged on for much longer as things didn’t just go pear-shaped—they went bear-shaped. Read more…

B EAST Berlin re-launch

B EAST’s relaunch party in Berlin took place on an unseasonably warm winter night. With hundreds of sweaty dancing bodies packed into the venue, the event felt like a flashback to summer.

Music was provided by the fast-rising star Rangleklods, a Danish electronic producer based in Berlin who creates dark sexy beats and sings live. DJs from the Shameless Limitless stable kept the party churning til the police and ambulance arrived. New Berlin band Skiing kicked off the party with a short and sweet set of post-punk-pop.

The venue was Westgermany, a trashed-out former dental clinic above the grotty Kottbusser Tor in Kreuzberg.

More B EAST Berlin events are planned for the coming weeks…

FROM B EAST ISSUE 12: BERLIN’S ABANDONED THEME PARK OWNER

Published in B EAST Magazine, November 2010

By Joel Alas
Photos by Megan Cullen

Norbert Witte lives in a trailer inside the gates of a derelict theme park on the banks of the river Spree in East Berlin. The theme park is his own, as is the dereliction.

From the door of his trailer, Witte can survey the skeletons of his neglected amusement attractions, which loom through a verdant jungle of overgrown shrubbery. A rusting roller coaster frame stands high above the foliage. A pod of full-sized model dinosaurs lies helplessly on their sides in knee-high grass. Swan boats sit idle next to their pond. And towering above the whole ramshackle park is a giant Ferris wheel, its empty carriages hanging in the wind.
Witte’s own story mirrors the forlorn state of his ghostly fairground. His family is in tatters, with his son languishing in a Peruvian jail as a result of Witte’s bungled attempt to smuggle cocaine inside an amusement ride.
The highs and lows of this gregarious German showman have been followed intently by the tabloid press. His life has been turned into an opera and a documentary film.
“My life is either up or down,” Witte said.

Witte was born into a family of entertainers and fantasists. His father was a carnival ride operator in Hamburg. His grandfather, Otto Witte, was a circus performer who masqueraded as the “former King of Albania”, and even had the title added to his official documents and gravestone. It was on the carnival circuit that Witte met and wed his wife, Pia, and together they began a successful amusement ride business.
Disaster first struck at a fair in Hamburg in the early 1980s when one of his rollercoaster repair cranes, unregistered and uninsured, collided with a nearby amusement ride, killing seven people and injuring fifteen more. Witte was convicted of manslaughter and spent a short stint in prison. Barred from operating rides in Germany, he spent the next decade traveling around the former Yugoslavia working in small regional fairs.
Yet by 1991 he was back on top of the ramparts, having acquired the right to operate Kulturpark Plänterwald, or Spreepark, a much-loved theme park in the former German Democratic Republic.

Disneyland of the DDR

Opened in 1969, Spreepark was an oasis of carefree pleasure in the drab working suburbs of socialist East Berlin. It attracted over one and half million visitors a year at the height of its popularity. The park put on a brave face as the political system around it crumbled. A giant Ferris wheel was erected in October 1989 as a gift to the people on the event of the 40th anniversary of the foundation of the socialist state. Yet only a month after the patriotic big wheel began to turn, freedom- and souvenir-seekers began chipping holes in the Berlin Wall. The borders were opened, and the whole of West Berlin became the preferred playground of the colour-hungry East Berliners. Spreepark seemed a passé copy of the pleasure parks of the west.
As the GDR and West Germany merged their political systems, many of the former state-run industries and institutions were tendered away to private interests, Spreepark among them. When the entire theme park was put up for private bids, Pia Witte, Norbert’s wife, was among the interested parties. The authorities, unaware of or unconcerned by Witte’s manslaughter conviction, awarded the pair the contract. As he opened the gates to the park in 1991, Witte must have felt as though his rollercoaster carriage was ascending.

Berlin in the 1990s was a city full of energy and opportunity. Artists and businessmen alike were breathless with excitement about the possibilities that had been opened up by the fall of the wall.
Witte was among those who took hold of the potential of the era. He dreamed of Spreepark becoming one of the primary attractions in the new city, a rival to the great theme parks of the world. He set about installing new rides and attractions – some of them without proper building permits.
His gamble began to pay off. Visitor numbers were up. They came in their thousands, mostly on weekends, driving in from across the region to experience the new thrills Witte had brought to the park.
It was his success at attracting the crowds and their cars that led to the park’s downfall, for Spreepark had no public parking space to speak of, having been constructed in an era when private vehicle ownership was rare. Before long parking inspectors began circling Spreepark, furiously scribbling down infringement notices. To this day, Witte blames the failure of Spreepark on the intransigency of the city authorities, although to be sure there were other factors at play.
In 2001, as the park’s fortunes began to descend, Witte made the acquaintance of a Peruvian expatriate who casually reflected on the dearth of decent fairground attractions in his home country, not knowing that Witte might take his conversational chatter as the basis for a new business plan. Overnight, Witte formulated a way to save himself from financial ruin: He would pack several amusement rides in shipping containers and slip away to Peru to start a new theme park, far away from his chequered history, the inflexible city authorities, and his looming bankruptcy.

Escape to South America

“To Lima with the rollercoaster!” screamed the headline in the Berliner Zeitung newspaper on January 22 2002, the morning that Witte’s flight came to light. The city was furious that its beloved theme park had been stripped bare of its rides and left with a €15 million debt.
Meanwhile, in Peru, Witte was discovering that the land of promised opportunity was merely a mirage. The salty air rusted his machines. Local technicians were in short supply. His family was isolated and depressed. Debts began to mountain.
In a desperate bid, Witte turned to local drug dealers to provide him with cash. The idea came through a former Spreepark electrician who had connections to the Peruvian drug world. A plan was laid out: He would return to Germany as he had departed it, with his amusement ride ‘The Magic Carpet’ in shipping containers. Only this time, the ride would be a little heavier – the metal support beams would be packed with 167 kilograms of pure South American cocaine.

In the weeks before the shipment was due to depart Peru, Witte suffered several heart attacks. Was it the stress of the deal that brought on the attack? Was it a psychosomatic escape from an unseemly situation? In any case, Witte raced back to Germany for medical treatment. From his recovery bed in Berlin, he continued to coordinate the cocaine deal, and coaxed his son Marcel to take his place at the head of the operation.
Marcel was then 21 years old. He had traipsed around the world with his outlandish father, enduring the financial ups and downs, his parents’ marital strains, and the uncertainty of what might lie around the next turn of the track. He was taken aback at his father’s request, yet was eager to help restore his family’s success.
It wasn’t Marcel’s plan. Neither was it his fault that one the drug dealers was a police informant. Yet when police swooped on The Magic Carpet in November 2003, it was Marcel’s wrists that were slapped in handcuffs.
Back in Germany, Norbert was also arrested, although the authorities had less with which to charge him. He was convicted of drug trafficking and given a lenient sentence that allowed him to leave the prison each day from 9.30am until midnight. He accepts he was largely unpunished, save for the excruciating guilt of having sent his son to jail.
Marcel remains in Sarita Colonia, one of Peru’s most notoriously dangerous, overcrowded and corrupt prisons. He has been there for six years. The family has mounted several unsuccessful attempts to fight for his release, including attempts to bribe politicians and judges. Their hopes now rest on diplomatic negotiations to have Marcel serve his sentence in a German prison.

Urban oddity of the East

Meanwhile Witte’s other begotten creation, Spreepark, withered away in neglect. It became an urban oddity of East Berlin, attracting curious locals who would peer through the wire fence. Daring youths made a game of trespassing, exploring, and running away from security patrols. Closed under bankruptcy orders, the park remained in limbo as various creditors attempted to claim their stake. Eventually, by a quirk of contract law, the ownership deed returned to the hands of Pia Witte – saddled this time with several million euros worth of debt. Unable to restore the park to a workable condition, Norbert Witte decided to install himself as a living exhibit in the derelict museum of his failures. He moved a trailer onsite and took up residency in Plänterwald Spreepark.

It is a cold day in Berlin. Norbert Witte stands beneath the giant Ferris wheel looking tired and ruffled, yet his eyes sparkle with an inviting energy. Even on a chilly Sunday morning, he exudes charisma that makes one want to engage with him, and despite of all he has done, to trust him. A short conversation with Witte is all it takes to understand how he manages to find supporters and investors willing to give him fresh chances after every setback.
“He can impress people with his charm, but he does things no-one can approve of. The audience must find a position for themselves for this character,” says film-maker Peter Doerfler, who filmed Witte and his family for several months for his acclaimed documentary Achterbahn.
Despite its decrepit state, or more likely because of it, Spreepark has again become somewhat of an attraction. It was recently hired out as a music festival location; for two days at the end of summer, thousands of techno fans danced around the ruins of the park.
Speculation abounds over the future of the park. Every few months the local press produces a new story about imminent development – a new investor, a new rescue plan – yet nothing ever transpires.
“There are many who would wish that it would stay like that,” says Juan Linares, an artist who in 2009 conducted a performance of sorts in the park. “It has the slight feeling of the mythical landscapes of Arcadia, where something built in the past has been taken over by nature. I would say it is a cliché, and I like that. There is this space where people project themselves into it.”
Linares’ performance was to restart the old Ferris Wheel, after nine years of dormancy. With Witte’s permission, and the help of a pair of former Spreepark technicians, Linares restarted the Ferris Wheel, creating an eerie sight for just one foggy afternoon. Witte stood by as the wheel turned.
“Well, my heart beat faster, but I knew it would run,” Witte said as he watched.
It is Witte’s dream that the whole park will one day be so revived, that his son will be released from jail, and that he will again be at the crest of the rollercoaster of his fortunes.
Against all odds, Witte is plotting his next come-back. He is starting small, dismantling several of the theme park’s buildings to build kitschy wooden huts to be used as carnival food stalls.
Whatever transpires, it seems impossible that Berlin has heard the last word about this gregarious character or his enchanting forlorn theme park.