Part 2: What's happening to London Clubbing - Gentrification

Posted By: The Wild Times

Following on from the opening article that highlighted a number of effects that London licensing laws have had on independent venues and the knock on consequences for promotors and events, another prominent factor is shaping the dynamics of running dance/electronic parties - gentrification.

The ever changing urban landscape poses another challenge for the Capital's party starters. Once again our WT contributor Peggy Whitfield investigates...

“Basically venues close for two reasons; either they lose their license, because they are not managed properly or something awful thing happens, or, because the real estate they occupy becomes worth more as flats, they get sold and they knock them down or develop them.”
George Hull, Autumn Street Studios.

Where are those dancefloors of crazy years gone by? What happened to the hallowed corridors of the Cross, the Key, Turnmills, the End and so many other venues? Whether the decision to close these doors was their own choice, or forced upon them by local councils and rapacious developers, these spaces that brought joy and superlative music to so many partygoers are now shopping experiences, rubble, or boarded up, waiting to be developed into offices and luxury flats. Why? In a word, gentrification.

If you spoke to your average new arrival in Hackney these days, they would probably be stunned to discover that back in the ‘90s and early 2000s some of the best clubs were in central London, and E1 and onwards was considered a poor, rough area, with nothing much going on. The picture in 2014 is very, very different; Central London is a veritable electronic music desert, and East London is the centre for parties, although areas like Brixton, Vauxhall and Peckham also have a lot to offer the discerning music lover. So what happened? Back in the ‘90s, drawn to the cheap living and empty, spacious buildings that no longer existed in Central London, artists, DJs and promoters started moving into the area, and began to do their thing, as the authorities didn’t much seem to care what went on east of the city. Nathan Coles, behind one of London’s longest running club nights, Wiggle, was there in the early days:

“Some of the first parties I organised 25 years ago now with my good friend, Mr C, went under the name of Release. We started off doing them in a photographer’s studio in a loft space of a five storey building, on the one way system of Shoreditch. Back then the area was completely different, and nothing much was going on other than businesses and office premises. I also remember playing at a party over 16 years ago in Shoreditch in a deserted bank, and we had to climb through a window to get into the party. The area was a bit of a ghost town even then, and now look at it around there; the speed at which it grew is astonishing.”

The Cross site: photo: Tom Kihl

By the early 2000s, Shoreditch was an electronic music lover’s playground. Everyone who was anyone involved in the scene seemed to live there, or at least put club nights on in the area. There was a real feeling of freedom; this was the era of weekly Sunday daytime parties, illicit rooms under cocktail bars earmarked for bad behavior, urban beaches, silly door knocks to gain entry to unlicensed afterparties, and too many more wild, ridiculous and probably illegal things to mention. But then things changed. Isis Salvaterra, the founder and promoter of Toi Toi explains:

“Shoreditch had this village feel back then, artists mingling in with the Bangladeshis, local shops, the community, markets and so on. That whole picture is ‘interesting', and what is interesting attracts attention, and attention gets more and more people drawn to it. As such, the high demand means prices go up, then property prices skyrocket, new buildings start rising, the local shop goes from Turkish to organic and whole food cafes, the artists are gone as they can no longer afford rent, to give way to property developers, the bankers in the neighbouring City of London move into ‘cool’ warehouse conversions, that guy that used to go to the Ministry of Sound is now going to a warehouse party, complaining the toilets are horrible, as he can barely pin down the meaning of why these came to be in the first place – gentrification.”

Of course, as soon as an area becomes ‘cool’, everyone and his dog wants to live there, but blaming gentrification on people who move to new areas because it’s cheap and their friends live there, or they want to be in a creative environment, is a little simplistic. It’s big business and the developers who want to cash in and brand a postcode and its contents who really crash the party. Although the introduction of temporary events licenses (TENs) in the mid 2000s opened up hundreds of new potential spaces for promoters, it was not long before property owners got wise to the amounts of money they could charge for one night’s rental of a mere four walls. Higher revenues could be generated from hiring out spaces for corporate events, and again promoters started to be priced out from many spaces in the area. The incredible and sorely missed T Bar was an early casualty of the gentrification of Shoreditch and the subsequent unfortunate side effects.

When an area’s popularity explodes, inevitably the beady eye of the authorities comes to rest upon it. Thus, the death knell for electronic music nights in Shoreditch was sounded when Hackney council decided to introduce the Shoreditch Special Policy area, which was basically a blanket ban on granting any new late night licenses in the area. This had a catastrophic effect on promoters who wished to put on parties in the Old Street/Great Eastern Street/Shoreditch High Street triangle, as Yarda Krampol, the man behind the multi-media event space, Red Gallery, explains:

“Being in the middle of the Shoreditch Special Policy area meant we had to change our programming to live music and move out completely from the late night industry. There was no way to get a full premises license for another DJ/late night venue in Shoreditch.”


Whilst Yarda relished the challenge of working around this issue, especially as his plans for Red Gallery involved many other projects, ranging from art installations to street food markets, other promoters and businesses in the area, for whom electronic music was the lynchpin of their plans, faced a very bleak future. Flushed by their “success” in Shoreditch, in the last few months Hackney council arbitrarily decided to put the same policy in place in Dalston, even in the face of petitions and overwhelming disagreement from residents and businesses in the area. These policy areas have had, and will continue to have, a disastrous effect on electronic music culture, and are also very unfair, as Dan Jury, one of the team behind the CTRL SHIFT party told me:

“If there's nowhere for young people to break new music, things stagnate very quickly, and you end up with a very bland and commercial environment. Areas like Shoreditch, that were so often associated with the arts, have become mass-market watering holes populated with morons on Friday and Saturday nights. Ironically, those types of environments are responsible for most anti-social behaviour in the UK at weekends, yet local authorities in London still often associate that type of nonsensical crime with all-night dance events. Hackney Council making Dalston a Special Policy Area is a prime example of this lack of understanding. In that instance, trying to change perceptions through working together and lobbying was seemingly impossible. The fact that 84% of respondents to the council’s consultation opposed the plans, and were just simply ignored, is a worrying indication that authorities don’t really have much interest in the views of the public.”

At the end of the day, local councils were the ones who granted the licenses willy-nilly to whoever came asking when the nightlife centre shifted eastwards. If you wanted to be cynical, you could say that initially they were happy to cash in, and neighbourhoods where local residents, creatives and club venues had co-existed reasonably happily together were rapidly transformed into West End style ghettos. When residents started to complain, anti-social behavour levels rose to almost intolerable levels, and the streets became awash with vomit and petty crime, the authorities' implantation of blanket late night licensing bans can be seen as an admission of their own failure to regulate development and properly manage businesses operating in the area on a case by case basis. The council states in its own Special Policy area document for Shoreditch that they will now only grant a license in exceptional circumstances, which do not include the following representations:

“The quality and track record of the management; the good character of the applicant; the extent of any variation sought.”

So electronic music parties, which had generally operated in these areas with limited trouble and with good relationships with their neighbours, are just another casualty, with the authorities unable to differentiate between a club night with a fantastic reputation and just another generic, corporate bar, where people go to drink ten pints and have a fight on the weekend.

There has been one other major factor that has affected East London disproportionately, and thus the electronic music scene. Andrea Guidice, the founder and promoter of the ELM party explains:

“So East London, from Shoreditch to Hackney, was less commercial than now; less buildings, cheaper rents, more liberty on the street, Brick Lane was more a place where you could have fun without so many people from other parts of the town. Once they granted the Olympic Games to London, they started building new flats, making it harder to put parties on and sell alcohol until late, they clamped down.”

Photo: ELM (Credit: Nick Ensing)

The Olympic legacy for electronic music has not been a happy one. Areas deep into Hackney who had quite happily been doing their own creative thing, which had previously been pretty much ignored by local councils and the police, were suddenly plunged into the spotlight. Hackney Wick, where more than half of housing is social rented, and locals include many artists and musicians who rent live/work spaces in old industrial warehouses, suffered a lot; street art was painted over to make way for Olympic sanctioned artists, green spaces were built over, and the greedy eyes of developers now rest on the area, itching to “regenerate” what is now considered prime real estate. So much for an Olympic legacy.

All of the aforementioned factors have had a detrimental effect on the availability of venues for promoters. As Dan Jury says:

“Not only have the larger, more established promoters struggled to find suitable spaces in the capital, it has also affected small promoters like us. It’s difficult to find intimate venues, which are well equipped and have a late license. Many small clubs & bars in East London are restricted to closing between 2 – 4 am, so competition for venues with later licenses is fierce, and it makes life very tough for new promoters to establish themselves on the scene.”

Also, costs to hire venues have risen exponentially in east London. Established owners have faced huge increases in rent, which added to increased licensing costs and other running costs, mean that to keep their business viable, entry charges are increased, and promoters have to pay much more to use these spaces. Whilst TEN licenses have opened up the amount of venues available to promoters, many owners are now asking for unfeasibly high prices for a mere four walls, which smaller scale promoters just cannot afford to hire, and they are being pushed further and further out.

But it’s not just smaller promoters who risk falling by the wayside, as big established clubs are also not immune to the vagaries of gentrification. The Ministry of Sound came out fighting strongly against a development of luxury flats that were proposed to be built opposite the club. They rightly feared that as residents moved in, noise complaints would be made, and even though the club was there first, they would end up having their license revoked. After impassioned pleas to the electronic music industry for support, as well as an open letter to Boris Johnson, the club scored won the battle when they got the developers to agree to have flat purchasers sign a compulsory agreement that they would not complain about noise from the club on weekends. This was a rare and important victory against the rising tide of gentrification, and hopefully it will set a precedent for other clubs who come up against the same sort of situation in the future.

Often it seems like clubs and electronic music are just seen as a nuisance for the authorities. It can be easy to forget that the people behind them are just trying to put on nights of beautiful music for nice people. The best clubs try to have good relationships with their local council, and work hand in hand with the local community, as the team behind the successful Oval Space told me:

“Tower Hamlets have been cautiously supportive of our business and objectives, we employ more than 50 people full and part time. Local businesses have been very supportive, for example most of our printing is done by Calverts Coop printers next door to us.”

In spite of the negative press the electronic music scene often gets, at its best it can be a force for good in the communities it operates in, not just for the people who go to events, but also for the people it provides jobs to and the local businesses it supports and gives opportunities to.

Photo: Bussey Building

But gentrification's effect on the electronic music scene is not all negative; it can force people to be creative in the ways that they run their nights and it also means that new communities, musical ideas and creative spaces can develop in other areas. Because of the threat of special policy areas and licence revocation, venues like Netil House in Hackney are diversifying and using their space for markets, food and exhibitions. Down in Peckham, venues like the Bussey Building, with its stunning panoramic views across London, have opened and host some great electronic music nights, spanning a wide variety of genres, as well as being home to numerous film, theatre and dance events. Nights like Rhythm Section have put Peckham squarely on the musical map, and have made Canavan’s Peckham Pool Hall a destination that partygoers from all over London will venture south of the river for. In East London, as stray parties travel further into Hackney, in search of a good home, many have found shelter in the warehouses of Hackney Wick, in what is currently the most artistic neighbourhood in London. Of course, the unique history and population of an area creates music that puts it own individual stamp on the venues, club nights and music that emerges from it, which can only diversify the electronic music scene. Also, in the wake of the hyperspeed gentrification and the resulting special policy areas, people and businesses are becoming a lot more wary and protective of their neighbourhoods. Thousands of people signed a petition to extend the Hackney Wick conservation area, to ensure that social housing and historical industrial warehouses, and the long time locals and artistic community that resides within these buildings, cannot be snapped up by developers and turned into soulless, luxury flats. Hackney Council’s response was to extend the consultation period, and hopefully they will recognise the wishes of life long residents, the importance of the area in London’s history, and the contributions to culture the neighbourhood makes, and grant conservation status all the way down to the River Lea.

And, of course, it’s not just venues that are affected by gentrification, it affects us as well, the people who organise, play music at, and attend parties too. We are leaving London, forced out by high rental prices. There has been a mass creative exodus in recent years to other electronic music hubs, such as Bucharest, Barcelona and especially Berlin. When it’s cheaper and easier to put on parties in other European cities, and when the price of a small room in a cramped shared house, somewhere in the depths of zone 2, will allow you rent a spacious one bedroom flat in Gracia or Neukolln, is it any wonder that people are reluctantly packing their bags and moving elsewhere?

It’s important to remember that, by their very nature, cities grow and change and new areas spring up and develop. If they don’t, they stagnate and die, and stop becoming culturally relevant and exciting places to be. We are fortunate in London that every day sees a new influx of people from all over the world, wanting to make their mark on this city we call home. And many people already here are willing to fight to preserve what they have created, in the area that their project came into existence in, as Isis Salvaterra explains:

“A lot of promoters had to give up putting on parties, other moved to other areas. However, for me, the core identity of my project is East London, taking it away from here would lack the drive of why it came to exist in the first place.”

Photo: West Central Street: Credit: Tom Kihl

As a scene, we have been slow to unite, but people are beginning to sit up and take note of the damage gentrification is doing to the venues and music that we love, as well as the communities that we live in. As the Ministry of Sound have shown us, and hopefully Hackney Wick will succeed in doing, if we get organised, we can protect our neighbourhoods and our right to listen to beautiful music on sweaty, dark dancefloors in one of the greatest cities in the world. And we have to fight against it, because one day we will run out of zones to go, and if London turns into one big homogenised, bastardised version of Carnaby Street, it will be to the detriment of all of us.

Next up we look at another major factor that has rocketed the economics of running electronic/dance events into another stratosphere - Commercialisation. The costs for putting on events for both venues and promoters has skyrocketed. As electronic music continues to flow into the popular realm, we conclude this series by looking at some of these consequences on London's electronic/dance scene and beyond.

Words: Peggy Whitfield blog / twitter

Main Image: ELM (credit: Nick Ensing)

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