Can You Love a Love Parade?

Berlin's legendary -- but embattled -- Love Parade makes a San Francisco debut. But will thousands dance to its beat?

On the other hand, if the locals don't buy in, Love Parade San Francisco could be a terrific failure with the potential for international ridicule.


No one in Berlin is more excited to come out to San Francisco for the Love Parade than Matthias Roeingh (aka Dr. Motte), the bubbly, 44-year-old DJ/producer who sports giant spectacles and shaggy Monkees-era hair and is universally credited as being the founder of the Love Parade.

After leaving the semipopular Berlin-based punk band Tote Piloten, Dr. Motte began making electronic music in the mid-1980s. Recording for German electronic labels such as Low Spirit, Space Teddy, and Tresor, he made a few well-received trance anthems in the early '90s, but none became widely popular on stateside dance floors. He's since achieved enough fame in Germany via the Love Parade to warrant selection as an Olympic torch-carrier (alongside such sports luminaries as world figure skating champion Katarina Witt) when the flame passed through Berlin this year.

The first Love Parade in the summer of 1989 was meant to celebrate love, peace, and unity via acid house music, Dr. Motte explains. The inaugural event, he recalls, drew 150 people to the ritzy West Berlin Avenue Ku'damm, just prior to the fall of the nearby Berlin Wall in November. "We wanted to stop fighting against something and dance instead to build up our own dreams," he says. "We didn't want to change the world like the hippies or destroy the world like the punks."

Aside from being a demonstration, the Love Parade happened to also be a celebration of Dr. Motte's birthday. That party has grown from 150 people to more than 1 million at its peak in 2000. "When I think about it I have goose bumps," he says.

The fall of the Wall brought thousands of East Berliners, anxious to party with their western brethren for the first time, to subsequent Love Parades, and after a few years of exponential growth, the event had clearly outgrown the Ku'damm location. In 1996, the festivities moved to the Tiergarten, Berlin's majestic central park. The parade took on a symbolic route of East/West reunification, passing through the Brandenburg Gate, which once sat between the halves of the divided city, and ending in a grand party at the Sieggesäule, or Victory Column, in the middle of the park.

To put the early Love Parades in local perspective, it was as if a viciously guarded wall down the length of Divisadero Street had just been breached, and children near Ocean Beach could finally commune with the kids downtown for the first time in their lives.

And so they did in Berlin, in great numbers.

Although beloved by ravers, the Love Parade also acquired its haters, the loudest of whom have always been the adherents of the Fuck Parade, an event started in 1997 as a direct protest to a Love Parade policy that excluded hard-core techno from its musical lineup. Fuck Paraders were also steamed that the Love Parade continued to receive political demonstration status -- meaning the city of Berlin paid for cleanup and other related costs -- when the Fuck Paraders didn't see much politics being practiced among the Love Parade's whistles and Ecstasy pills.

In 2001, the Berlin city senate handed down a shocking decision: Neither the Fuck Parade nor the Love Parade deserved to keep political demonstration status. This ruling hamstrung both parades financially (though, naturally, less so for the much smaller Fuck Parade). It also neutralized the Fuck Parade's main criticism of the Love Parade, bringing about a truce that was not quite a Crip and Blood reunion, but was surprising nonetheless. (The Fuck Parade continues each year, now focusing on issues of local concern, including racial tolerance.)

But even as the Fuck Paraders were mollified, there was, Kill Bill style, another enemy ready to pounce: In hopes of forcing a cancellation of the event, environmental activists blocked the Love Parade's use of the Tiergarten on the traditional weekend in July, a huge blow to folks from other countries who had planned their Love Parade vacations far in advance. Ultimately, though, the date change had only a small effect on 2001 attendance, estimated at 800,000.

In 2002, the Love Parade continued to face complaints from environmentalists and neighbors. Also, the Berlin minister of tourism began loudly criticizing parade organizers, complaining that declining attendance was bringing less money into town. Then, in June, German intelligence detected a terrorist threat to the Love Parade. Quickly deemed fraudulent, the threat doubtless reduced turnout nonetheless.

Organizers estimated 2002 Love Parade attendance to be 750,000; police figured it to be nearer half that amount. Everyone agreed it was the smallest crowd in several years. The next parade attracted similar attendance, and the event's debt grew as organizers struggled to fund costs once paid by the city.

This year brought a shocking announcement: Due to the inability to secure enough sponsorship money, there would be no 2004 Love Parade in Berlin. (The electronics giant Samsung announced that it was prepared to step in as a title sponsor -- and will do so if the event returns to Berlin in 2005 -- but by April, even with Samsung's support, there wasn't enough money to move forward this year.)

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