How do you react when half of a city's clubs close within a decade?
It's a strange time for LGBT nightlife in the UK's biggest city. On the one hand, you've got a burgeoning drag scene, the usual crammed smoking area outside Heaven and the sorts of rainy queues outside Dalston Superstore's lesbian nights that make you – if just for a second – immediately regret leaving the house.
On the other, the scene feels as though it's contracting, shrinking back from the sudden blow of rising rents, revoked licenses and redevelopment plans to clear the way for cafes and luxury hotels. It still feels like a statistic you need to repeat to yourself a couple of times for it to really sink in, but half of London's clubs really have closed since 2007, and in recent years many of the LGBT scene's beloved late-night institutions have shut their doors.
From east London's George & Dragon, Chariots Roman Spa sauna and the Joiners' Arms to the Black Cap in Camden and Madame Jojo's in Soho – though perhaps not for good – safe haven venues for the queer crowd have recently taken a beating. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern bucked the trend last September, teetering on the edge of closure before being saved by a Grade II listing and a campaign backed by people like Ian McKellan, Graham Norton and current London night czar Amy Lamé.
But all this may be about to change. Lamé has announced mayor Sadiq Khan's plans to pump £10,000 into research on both why the capital's LGBT venues have been closing, and what could be done to keep them all from going under in the future. University College London is conducting the research in collaboration with Queer Spaces London.
Speaking at a Q&A session in Soho, Lamé – who has run LGBT space Duckie for the past 20 years – touched on the trend we've seen, of property prices and real estate development creating a knock-on effect for the nightlife industry.
"It's a difficult one," she said. "I think property values in London going through the roof has definitely had an impact, not just on queer venues but also live music venues." She continued, noting that developers could build a block of flats in a trendy area near a club, "and then someone moves in and they realise people are making noise outside their window at 3 o'clock in the morning. They complain – and then the club is shut down."
UCL has already published its interim findings on the impact of LGBT venue closures on London's communities. Its perspective sounds similar to Lamé's: optimistic, but wary.
Director of UCL Urban Laboratory Ben Campkin, who led the Queer Spaces London and UCL project, said: "Our research evidences, for the first time, that there has been a recent intensity of closures of the most longstanding LGBTQI nightlife venues. Spaces directed towards women and BAME LGBTQI people have been disproportionately vulnerable to closure. Many venues remain at risk, including those the London LGBTQI community deem to be of most value – as places to socialise, be entertained, make art or find mutual support."
Ben Walters, Queer Spaces London coordinator, also supported the report's findings. "This report confirms the vital historic and ongoing importance of London's spaces of LGBTQI community and culture," he said. "The scale of the challenge we face in defending them from rapacious redevelopment; the eagerness within the community to reinvent them for the 21st century; and the necessity that all levels of government step up to support that evolution.
"More than that, UCL Urban Laboratory's report is a wake-up call to all Londoners who value independent, alternative and underground life in the capital. Unless we champion it now, London will become a wilderness of luxury and alienation."
(Thumbnail image: Ewan Munro, via)
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