Perspective: What Happened to the ’24-Hour City’?
Following the closure of fabric, Luis-Manuel Garcia, dance music academic and Lecturer in Ethnomusicology at the University of Birmingham, explores how other cities in Europe have been moving towards recognising the significance of club culture, while London appears to be lurching backwards.
On the evening of 6 September, the Islington Council ruled to permanently revoke the operating license of fabric, a nightclub that has become a central institution of London’s dance music scene since its opening in 1999. The club’s management is appealing the ruling, but as they wait for a chance to contest the decision, the club remains closed, leaving about 250 employees without their jobs, hundreds of artists with cancelled bookings, and London’s dance community without a flagship venue.
Following the ruling against fabric, London Mayor Sadiq Khan expressed his disappointment with the decision, noting that in the past few years the city has lost 50 percent of its nightclubs and 40 percent of its live music venues. He warned of a decline in the city’s nightlife sector, which runs counter to the city’s plans to become a ’24-hour city’. This initiative was behind the recent launch of overnight underground services in the city, but what good is a night tube if there’s nowhere to go at night?
"At the moment, London only seems to tolerate anodyne middlebrow entertainment, the kind that is convenient and unchallenging and profitable"
The review of fabric’s license was initiated at the request of the Metropolitan Police after two deaths that they had linked to drugs bought on the club’s premises. But doubts have been raised about the motivations behind this request, based on its timing (especially in relation to the club’s success in overturning the results of a licensing review seven months earlier), the contents of the documents released by the Islington Council after the final hearing, and revelations about an undercover police investigation at the club dubbed ‘Operation Lenor’ (get it? a fabric softener; yes, seriously). To many commentators, the two deaths were a convenient excuse for a longer-term plot to shut down the club.
It’s hardly a coincidence that fabric is located just north of Farringdon Station, in a former industrial zone in Islington that has seen intensifying gentrification over the past years. Nightlife venues are often caught up in the dynamics of urban gentrification. Scholars have learned from historical examples that nightlife establishments often serve as part of the avant-garde of gentrification, but they’re also some of the first to be pushed out once the neighbourhood gentrifies. Nightclubs initially flourish in disused and overlooked corners of the urban landscape, but once their visibility rises, they contribute to the attractiveness of the ‘up and coming’ district; they become caught in a feedback loop of hype and speculation that attracts waves of increasingly monied, privileged, and conservative residents, and come to be seen as nuisances rather than an attractions. Notably (and tragically), in most of the examples of urban gentrification – like New York in the 90s – concerns for health and safety are often used as a proxy for pursuing grievances about nuisances (noise, litter, the ‘wrong’ sort of people hanging about) and clearing out potentially profitable property. And so, London’s nightlife communities can be forgiven if they see more than a concern for the safety of young people at play in fabric’s closure.
On September 12, not even a week after the Council ruling against fabric, another ruling in the tax courts of the Berlin-Brandenburg region legally endorsed the status of the city’s Berghain nightclub as Kultur, a cultural institution in the same category as theatres and concert halls. This reversed a decision by the city’s tax authorities in 2009, which classified the club as Unterhaltung (entertainment) and applied a tax rate that was nearly three times higher. As part of its appeal case, Berghain commissioned a report by prominent nightlife reporter and essayist Tobias Rapp, who argued that the majority the club’s clientele go there primarily for the music, much like a concert. But the club also diversified and intensified its cultural offerings in the years leading up to this ruling, including experimental music programming and workshops throughout the week. In a sense, Berghain tactically transformed itself into a ‘cultural institution’ that was legible to the city’s political and judicial authorities. And yet, the court decision as well as the local media response reflect a wider set of attitudes in the city that accepts and values nightlife as an indispensable part of Berlin’s cultural landscape.
One of the guests invited to speak at a September 20 panel on fabric’s closure was Mirik Milan, the nachtburgermeester (‘Night Mayor’) of Amsterdam. The city’s nightlife community has been electing night mayors since 2002, but it was only in 2014 that the role was formalised as a non-profit organisation with a direct advisory link to the mayor and the city council. Since then, 10 new 24-hour operating licenses have been issued to clubs and bars, and a pilot programme has extended opening hours in the city’s central entertainment district. While 2016 has seen the opening of promising new electronic music venues with 24-hour licenses like De School, Shelter, and Claire, London nightclubs are shutting down one after the other.
"Berlin accepts and values nightlife as an indispensable part of Berlin’s cultural landscape"
But perhaps there’s hope yet for London nightlife. Since his arrival in office, London Mayor Sadiq Khan has been calling for a ‘Night Czar’, based on the Night Mayor system in the Netherlands. Islington MP Emily Thornberry pointed out that, although the mayor cannot intervene directly in Council matters, he does have influence on policing strategy for the whole city. So, there is also some hope there. In the meanwhile, the city’s nightlife community has been galvanised around fabric’s closure; a lot of clubbers are taking an interest in municipal politics. But will it be enough to push back against the forces in London that would rather turn the city into a playground for investment capital and hyperwealthy elites?
Last weekend, after a dance event in Hackney Wick closed at 3 a.m., DJs and dancers alike were looking for an afterparty. I tagged along and found myself in a basement underneath a terraced house somewhere in East London, flanked on either side by disused buildings. There were maybe 40 people in total down there. No security. Scant ventilation. Cramped. Thick smoke. Overdriven sound system. Drug use out in the open. Relaxed atmosphere. There was certainly something very romantic to this sort of venue – and it also gives hope that London’s scene will continue to survive underground – but this is hardly what local law authorities and council members imagine when they shut down clubs like fabric in the interest of ‘public safety.’ A robust and vibrant nightlife scene – like Berlin or Amsterdam – needs a diversity of venues. From illicit underground dives to large-scale, professionalised, ‘above the board’ clubs. At the moment, London only seems to tolerate anodyne middlebrow entertainment, the kind that is convenient and unchallenging and profitable. If the city wishes to re-establish itself as a bastion of nightlife culture, it has a lot of work to do.
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