In 2013, a construction team from Britain’s railway maintenance showed up at Cable—a nightclub nestled under the arches of London Bridge—and cut through its metal shutters, forcibly taking possession of it to make way for new station development. The club’s devastated owner, Euan Johnston, had been assured that the planned redevelopment would not affect his venue. But he says, Network Rail “simply changed their minds,” and that was that.
The image of Network Rail forcibly slicing their way through the doors of a beloved club is a perfect encapsulation of the brutal treatment London’s nightlife has endured over the years. Local councils, noise complaints, and greedy developers have forced multiple closures. London lost over half its clubs in the ten years between 2005 and 2015. The problem is so dire that the charity organization Nesta even created an interactive map for keeping track of the closures.
Unfortunately no one, including London’s Night Czar, will take responsibility. The general line is that the changes are inevitable in an overcrowded, gentrifying city. Yet in Berlin, the city identified as 2017’s world capital of rocketing property prices by property consultancy Knight Frank, world-famous nightclubs like Berghain, Tresor, and ://about blank, have managed to remain largely unchanged since they first opened. At the end of November, Berlin’s local government released a ring-fenced fund of up to 1 million euros to soundproof these venues in a bid to ensure their survival. London could do the same, but the problem, it seems, is desire.
Once London had a nightlife scene to rival Berlin’s. Berlin might be Europe’s techno capital, but during the 1990s in London, rave culture exploded and drum ‘n bass was born. Classic cult films like Human Traffic, document an extremely vibrant time for club culture across the U.K. time; it follows a group of friends as they lose their inhibitions partying through the weekend. Yet, watching the film today feels like looking at archival footage. The only thing that hasn’t aged is the disdain as authority figures tut and wag their fingers at a culture they view as utterly delinquent. This disdain is much like the attitude toward nightlife in London today.
Take the 2018 decision by the local council of the diverse and hipster-filled East London borough, Hackney. The council unanimously voted in a curfew on new bars and clubs in the borough, in spite of a public consultation that saw 73 percent of respondents opposing the measure.
Hackney, which the Guardian reports was once referred to as “rave’s spiritual home” by photographer Gavin Watson, is now home to bars and clubs that close at midnight on the weekend. Writing in The Guardian, Hackney mayor Philip Glanville failed to mention the clear local opposition to the curfew, instead citing anti-social behavior as grounds for the curfew, and characterizing club-goers as “revellers vomiting [in residents’] front gardens.”
As well at citing concerns about safety and the well-being of residents, authorities have also reasoned that nightlife is suffering because young people just aren’t going out as much as they used to. While true in part, this logic fails to explain why the number of illegal raves being held in London nearly doubled in just a year.
The concerns Glanville expressed—stretched public services and litter—have some validity, but his words display an all-too-prevalent lack of regard among city officials for the value of London’s nightlife. In the absence of a belief that nightclubs have an important role to play in the city’s culture, London’s clubs don’t stand a chance. Those who determine the fate of London’s pubs, clubs, and bars simply don’t care enough to fight for their survival, nor find workarounds to any issues that clubs might cause.
By contrast, in 2016 a German court ruled that Berghain—the city’s most famous club—was a “cultural venue” for tax purposes. The club’s lawyers argued that the pleasure derived from listening to Berghain’s world-class techno isn’t inherently different from enjoying the music of an opera, and the court agreed. As commentators have rightly pointed out, the ruling was more about Berghain seeking lower taxes than anything, but the case is symbolic of the respect accorded nightlife in Berlin. When faced with a growing population in combination with noisy nightlife, Berlin came up with solutions like soundproofing, that protects ravers and residents alike.
This isn’t to say that all Berlin’s local authorities are in agreement; in 2018 a Berlin district council member from the right-wing Alternative for Germany party (AfD) group suggested revoking Berghain’s license to tackle the city’s multifaceted drug problems. However her proposal was swiftly shot down by the official Berlin AfD. The language she used to describe the club, suggesting that “it can’t be healthy” for revelers to spend time in was widely lampooned on social media. Closing this iconic venue was never really an option.
This positive attitude towards Berlin’s clubs is by design. “Awareness” is one of three main focal points for the Berlin Club Commission, an independent association that promotes and protects the nightlife sector in the city. It has been around since 2001—much longer than London has had a Night Czar—and played an instrumental role in securing the €1m grant for Berlin’s clubs. The volunteer-run body was formed at a time when raids were being carried out on clubs in the city, many of which didn’t have licenses and were hosting parties that got out of hand.
Lutz Leichsenring, the Commission’s press officer, said that the group emerged out of a meeting between club promoters and owners and a conservative Berlin senator, who suggested that they organize themselves officially. Since then, he explains, they’ve developed a “very close relationship to the government,” who view the group as “an important partner for solving their problems.”
The Commission promotes the view that “club culture is more than a bunch of kids partying and taking drugs,” with Leichsenring pointing out that club culture “is developing our cities, [and] building communities for minority groups.” The Club Commission’s permanence and independence is key to its success in lobbying for the city’s nightlife. Its very presence in Berlin indicates that club-goers and owners are viewed as a legitimate group with needs of their own, rather than just troublesome revelers.
The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has repeatedly expressed a desire to make London a “24-hour city.” And he has made some attempts to salvage London’s nightlife. Although her effect is debated, in 2016, he appointed Amy Lamé as Night Czar, and unveiled the night tube; an extended underground service to ferry Londoners around after hours. Yet this was the same year that popular club Fabric closed (it has since reopened), a paradox that was not lost on Londoners.
Leichsenring—who says he was consulted during the process of appointing Lamé—believes the lack of an independent body like the Club Commission is partially to blame for the generally lackluster approach to preserving nightlife in London. He notes that cities like London and New York are driving people out by not having enough venues: “they’re causing lots of people to leave to go elsewhere because people don’t have access to communities where they can connect to each other.”
This, above all, is why London’s mistreatment of its nightlife is such a tragedy. A city without clubs is a colorless place, and allowing them to disappear means marginalized communities vanish; young people flee the city, and arts and creativity suffer. With London fast becoming a playground for developers and a city that only the rich can afford it would do well to replicate Berlin’s example.
*Clarification: An earlier version of this post did not note that the London nightclub Fabric reopened in 2017.