Strip Clubs, Heroin Clinics and Hipsters in Frankfurt's Red Light District

How speakeasies and boutique hotels are thriving in between injection rooms, and what that means for Bahnhofsviertel.

Travel Features Germany
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Strip Clubs, Heroin Clinics and Hipsters in Frankfurt's Red Light District

Photo by tetedelacourse, CC BY-SA

“When I first moved here, my parents told me to avoid this area,” said Lisa, a student at Frankfurt’s Goethe University.

“During my first year living in Frankfurt, I never came here, and that’s how it was for everyone I knew.”

Walking through Frankfurt’s Bahnhofsviertel, the city’s red-light district, feels a little like stepping into the film Trainspotting; except, rather than encountering heroin addicts that look like Ewan McGregor, it’s toothless meth-heads throwing beer bottles at strip clubs.

“Is it always like this?” I asked, as we passed pink-lit bordellos, sex shops and groups of men stumbling, yelling and smoking anything but cigarettes.

We tip-toed over junkies sprawled out on the sidewalk like children stepping over friends at a sleepover. This sleepover, though, involves heroin and bolus. We watched a woman, who couldn’t have been more than 26 or 53, inject what I presume wasn’t an EpiPen into her stomach, and then escort a man to the aptly named “Sex Inn,” all in the matter of 20 seconds.

Photo by Guilhem Vellut, CC BY

“I don’t even notice it,” she said.

Lisa, like many 20-something Frankfurters, is witnessing the transformation of a heroin-haven into a heroin-haven-with-some-cool-shit.

For every shabby BYOH (Bring Your Own Heroin) clinic, there’s a new, trendy restaurant located in an apartment complex serving uber-hipster dishes like cheese-stuffed halibut with Burmese Buffalo sauce. “The hip new spot” is almost certainly a nondescript basement between a shabby kiosk and a 1980s-style strip club. It’s this jarring juxtaposition, especially compared to the rest of prosperous, finance-bro-riddled Frankfurt that fuels this area’s appeal.

The transition could have been inadvertently made possible by the injection of government-owned “injection rooms” that give “clients” clean needles and a safe space to inject street-bought heroin or cocaine. Thus far, the rooms, implemented in the early 1990s to get users off the streets, have curbed the city’s drug and HIV epidemic, saved hundreds of lives (not a single death had occurred at one of these clinics in their 20 years of operation as of 2014, according to a German newspaper), and reduced the number of overdoses tenfold

Photo by Martin Krolikowski, CC BY

On this evening, as those with withdrawal symptoms descend upon 49 Niddastrasse, one of Frankfurt’s injection rooms, crowds begin to assemble just down the street at Bar Pracht. Opened in 2014, the wooden-trimmed, black, paint-splattered hole-in-the-wall has become a gathering spot for locals in dire need of craft beer and a familiar face.

Bar Pracht, along with neighborhood Chez Ima, has been pegged among Frankfurt’s “places to be,” an odd recognition for two businesses located literally five steps away from, at the moment of documenting this, a woman nodding off in the grass.

“Stop staring,” said Lisa. “This is nothing new.”

We continued next door to Chez Ima, a lounge-y restaurant and bar that specializes in slightly overpriced gin cocktails and pretentiously named dishes: “Lukewarm Pulpo Salad.” At least, that’s what I initially thought, not knowing that “Pulpo” meant octopus—not “Pulp-O” like a knock-off Sunny Delight—and that “gin cocktail,” based on the pour, meant an entire bottle of Tanqueray.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Chez Ima isn’t in the eclectic menu but rather what the place itself is. Simultaneously operating as the main floor of the 25hours Hotel by Levi’s (yes, the denim brand), Chez Ima is sort of a meeting point for travelers, local trendsetters and artists. Upstairs is the hotel, cleverly decorated with denim and, at least in one of the rooms, a framed photograph of bare-chested, porn legend Ron Jeremy. On the roof is a kitschy bar reminiscent of industrial Brooklyn. The basement is an Andy Warhol-inspired art and music studio, designed for local artisans, touring musicians, or, if you can convince the owners better than my own attempts, a drug-fueled romp like something out of The Factory.

Though, in Frankfurt’s case, a drug-fueled romp like something out of The Factory can just as easily happen at the Sex Inn or any of the half-dozen bordellos down the street. It’ll probably be just as sticky but, taking the place of celebrities like Madonna or Mick Jagger will likely be a chunky Turkish man and a crackhead.

Photo by Thomas Onascht, CC BY-NC-ND

Stepping out of Chez Ima feels eerily like leaving a warm house and walking to your car on a cold, winter night. You exit, immediately regret the decision, and run to safety. Instead of a winter night, though, it’s urine-soaked streets, and, instead of a car, it’s Kinly Bar, a speakeasy basement hiding next to the Drogenotdienst, another injection room, and across the block from two bordellos. As if it weren’t obvious enough, Kinly keeps the friendliest company on the corner.

We rang the bar’s buzzer—because … speakeasy—and were led, by a stoic hostess, to a basement that couldn’t fit more than 50 people—probably 30 comfortably. The bar was packed standing-room-only and resembled something between a dimly lit underground NYC bar and a Hungarian cave.

“What type of flavors do you like? Sweet? Strong? Fruity? Bitter?” asked the hostess.

“Is cheap vodka a flavor?” I asked. “How about ‘strong?’”

Kinly Bar doesn’t exactly have a menu (it does but few use it), rather the bartenders freestyle a cocktail catered to your tastes. In my case, it was something whiskey-based.

The whole experience felt like something out of Portlandia crossed with Boardwalk Empire. The bar’s extensive collection of liquors—including homemade liquors like bourbon infused with peanut butter—was beyond impressive. The clientele, like much of the trendy bits of the Bahnhofsviertel, was chic, and it’s impossible to ignore that this hip Brooklynization is at odds with the decades-old debauchery.

Underground supper club Club Michel hosts rotating chefs and special dinner parties open to those “in the know” and who signed up on their website’s mailing list. These parties are held in a secluded apartment off Münchenerstrasse, and the food is unbelievably tasty. Seemingly not welcome: Most locals.

Kinly Bar is hidden, hidden from the rest of the city, hidden from the dozens of junkies who sit outside the bar’s doorsteps. It’s a separate world, one in which those people aren’t exactly welcome. One of the latest hotspots, a New York-style Jewish deli, brings a taste of Bubbe/Katz’s to an area that, 70 years ago, was a Jewish ghetto. But are 15€ Reubens a solution to revitalizing the area, especially when it makes longtime residents feel unwelcome?

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Photo by Patrick Meier, CC BY-NC

That’s what the strip club is for. Across the from Kinly Bar is Pik Dame, one of the few remaining locales where the gentrifiers and the junkies collide. Translated as “the Queen of Spades”—or “dick lady” if you’re Dutch—Pik Dame is a strip club. It’s the type of place where you pay a fortune for watered down gin-and-tonics to watch strippers with C-section scars flop about the stage. It’s the type of place where someone is smoking crack out front and, in the back, Nuri of Pracht Bar is DJing deep into Saturday morning. Thanks to the lechery, it’s the type of place that brings the neighborhood together.

But when the DJ stops playing and the bars close, normalcy returns—the reality that these streets inhabit the lost, the mad and the coked out. Like with any neighborhood revitalization, whether that is good or bad depends on whom you ask.

“The Bahnhofsviertel may be safe,” said Lisa. “But I still don’t feel comfortable here alone late at night.”

Tom Burson is a travel writer, part-time hitchhiker, and he’s currently trying to imitate Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? but with more sunscreen and jorts.