Hamburg, Germany – Birthplace of a Great Fortune

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Kykuit, Rockefeller estate
Kykuit, the Rockefeller estate

It can sometimes be interesting to see the birthplace of a great fortune.  I don’t mean Kykuit, the fine mansion that we saw on the banks of the Hudson River near Tarrytown in Westchester County, New York, where Rockefeller spent his old age and where his descendants live to this day. That is not the birthplace of the Rockefeller billions.  It is merely where some of that huge fortune was spent.

Hunts' first oil well the Daisy-Bradford3
Hunts’ first oil well the Daisy-Bradford3
First McDonald's restaurant
First McDonald’s restaurant

Examples of the kind of birthplaces that I have in mind are the first Texas oil well ever purchased by H.L.Hunt and Ray Kroc’s first McDonalds hamburger restaurant.  In other words, the birthplace that one hopes to see is the actual location where the seeds of the subsequent great fortune were first planted.

Hamburg Rathaus
Hamburg Rathaus

Before we visited Hamburg, Germany’s second largest city, I was very much aware that it contained such a birthplace.  Moreover, that fortune had nothing to do with what, in the United States, is called “a hamburger” or with McDonalds or with Ray Kroc. On our visit to Hamburg, there were some splendid sights to be seen.  The City Hall or “Rathaus” is surely one of Germany’s finest.  Other splendid sights include Hamburg’s two large artificial lakes in the city center.  The city stands on the River Elbe, through which its port gains access to the sea.  The Elbe has a tributary called the Alster and, as the Alster flows into the city to join the Elbe, dams have been constructed to create these two lakes, which are known as the Binnenalster  (the inner Alster) and the Aussenalster (the outer Alster).

Harvestehuder Weg House
Harvestehuder Weg House

The Aussenalster is by far the larger of the two lakes and we traveled down the Harvestehuder Weg, which is the road running alongside it. The Harvesterehuder Weg is full of homes like palaces and the contrast with what we saw later was startling.

What we saw later was that district of Hamburg known as St Pauli. This has always been the seedy end of Hamburg.  Centuries ago, businesses that Hamburg did not want within its city limits were forced to go there.  St Pauli is close to the docks of Hamburg and we traveled along its main street, which is called the Reeperbahn.  In German, “Reeperbahn” means the street of the ropemakers.  Ropes for use on the ships in the nearby docks were indeed once made and sold there.  However, the proximity of the Reeperbahn to the docks produced a plentiful supply of seamen looking for sex, which led to it becoming one of the most famous “red light districts” in the world.

Reeperbahn Sex shops
Reeperbahn Sex shops

It was and is full of seedy strip clubs, porn shops and brothels.  Entrance to parts of the Reeperbahn is forbidden to persons under 18 and to women.   Life’s losers hang out on the street corners.  It is not a nice area although, strangely enough, it is an area where the seeds of a great fortune were first planted and this is what happened.

Click on the video player below to see the Beatles during their Hamburg era.

In 1960, four young men in a rock band from Liverpool, England, were unable to find work in their hometown. Their act was not much good. They therefore relocated to the St Pauli area of Hamburg, where there were plenty of gigs for them to play at in the clubs of the Reeperbahn.  Live music was much in demand there. They were paid the equivalent of only about 25 British pounds a week each, but they were thankful for that.  They lived in squalid and unheated conditions and were required to work for seven days a week and to perform for many hours at a time.  As so often happens when one is forced by circumstances to work hard, these young men got lucky.  Their hard work in Hamburg enabled them to improve their musical skills out of all recognition.

This travel website is no place to write a detailed history of The Beatles but, after a couple of years of playing in the clubs of St Pauli, they had a recording contract.  A couple of years after that, Beatlemania had crossed the Atlantic. When appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show to make their first live TV appearance in the States, they attracted an audience of 74 million Americans.  Yet this was shortly after they had been playing to tiny audiences in the clubs of St Pauli.

The Beatles and their agents and managers went on to become one of the most commercially successful acts in the history of popular music. Their combined net worth is today estimated at three billion US dollars. A lyric in one of their most famous hits tells us that “I don’t care too much for money; money can’t buy me love”. It’s probably easy to express such sentiments with a few billion greenbacks behind one.   Yet it all started on the Reeperbahn.  That’s where the seeds of this great fortune were first planted.

In their very early days, Hamburg occasionally deported a Beatle back to England, usually with good cause, but they were all back in Hamburg by the time they rocketed up to fame and fortune.  However, today Hamburg honors the Beatles.

Beatlesplatz Hamburg
Beatlesplatz Hamburg

At the crossroads of the Reeperbahn and Grosse Freiheit, the city has built Beatles-Platz which is a circular plaza paved in black to make it look like a vinyl record.  It includes statues of the Beatles and the names of their many hit songs.  Further along the Reeperbahn, a Beatles museum has just opened.  It plans to attract hundreds of thousands of paying visitors annually.  It is only fair that Liverpool should share the fame of the Beatles with Hamburg.  John Lennon would always say that he was born in Liverpool, but that he grew up in Hamburg.  If only he had settled in Liverpool or Hamburg, instead of in New York City, he would be celebrating his 70th birthday on October 9th, 2010.