I Went Out in Hackney to Find the After-Hours Carnage Worrying the Council
But instead of anti-social behaviour, all I found were trendy cocktail bars, some important venues, and a council willing to tear it all down.
All photos by Jake Lewis
It’s almost a year to the day since Mayor of London Sadiq Khan unveiled his 24-hour vision for London – an announcement some hoped would mark a new era for a city that, despite its reputation as a nightlife destination, is actually pretty quiet after dark. “We have stiff competition from other world cities like Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Tokyo and New York,” the Mayor said at the time, “and I want to make sure London is on the front foot by planning for life at night in the same way the city does for the day.”
Granted, this plan was guided by ten vague principles including a pledge to be “strategically located across London to promote opportunity and minimise impact”. In practice though, the Khan administration has made positive steps. The night tube has been rolled out, bringing 24-hour underground travel to parts of the capital on weekends, and the city's night-time economy has been granted a voice through the appointment of Night Czar Amy Lamé.
Long before all this, in 2015, east London's Hackney Council toyed with the idea of imposing strict new licensing laws in the borough. They wanted to force all new pubs, clubs and bars to shut up shop by 11PM on a weekday, and midnight on the weekend, but their plan was abandoned after widespread opposition. But just three years later, similar restrictions have been passed unanimously in Hackney – and despite the fact 75 percent of local residents oppose the changes. Lamé has asked for an urgent meeting with Hackney Council, but it may be too little too late.
In a statement put out by the borough when these changes were ratified last Wednesday, Licensing Chair, Councillor Emma Plouviez explained why she felt it was necessary to ensure new Hackney bars, clubs and restaurants are closed before Question Time finishes. “Hackney has a fantastic nightlife. Our bars, clubs, restaurants and theatres are known across London and the world,” she said. “However, as it has grown, it is becoming more and more difficult to manage and to strike a balance between supporting our late night venues and the needs of residents who live amongst them.”
It takes a while to get to the bit where Plouviez expands on what these “needs” are. Apparently, there are lives being “seriously affected by anti-social behaviour like people shouting in the early hours, litter and discarded take-aways strewn across the streets and people urinating on doorsteps.” All this seemed strange, because over the years I’ve been going out in the borough, I’ve been left a little disappointed. The area? A little quiet. And the venues on offer? A club with a ball pool, another called #Hashtag, and a smattering of cute bars and pubs which turf everyone out by about 2AM had already started to overshadow more progressive venues, many of which had been forced to close down (see: Shapes, Joiners Arms, Power Lunches, Passing Clouds, Dance Tunnel, et al).
Still, maybe things had changed, and with that in mind, I decided to head out after 11PM on a school night to see the horrors of Plouviez’s after-hours Hackney in all its pissy, life-ruining glory.
It’s about 10.30PM when I arrive at Dalston Superstore, an LGBTQ+ venue in Hackney that first opened back in 2009. This iconic venue is open until 2.30AM during the week, and 4AM on weekends – hours which extend far beyond what new venues will from now be allowed.
“These changes could have a huge impact,” Letty tells me, from behind the bar. “It worries me that this culture could be taken away, especially as queer spaces across the city are already disappearing.” Looking around as 11PM hits, there’s no sign of anything kicking off. “We just don’t see anti-social behaviour,” she continues. “We have security who make sure there’s no disturbances, I sweep the whole of the pavement every night at the end of the day which is a few cigarette butts, that’s it.”
After a year working in the area, Letty has noticed that there’s a need for more late night venues. “It often feels like we’re the only place open on this whole strip. I would prefer more spaces to be open, there would be more variety which would mean straight people wouldn't need to come here.”
“It seems a bit draconian really,” Max, the duty manager, chimes in. “There’s not a problem with late night culture, there are just the problems which exist in the area anyway. Sometimes late at night you will see some trouble, but it’s seldom to do with people leaving venues or being too intoxicated. It’s more often to do with petty crime on the streets. I’m not sure why venues are being targeted to fix wider social problems.”
“I am around these streets at all hours and I very rarely see anything like what the council are describing,” Max continues. “But, if [anti-social behaviour] is their main concern, having it so all venues close at the same time will just make it more concentrated. I used to live in a small town, and back in those days every pub would close at 11PM. Then everyone poured out onto the street at once and it was incredibly raucous.”
Stepping outside, I prepared myself to be faced with post-11PM carnage. Instead, Tesco is still open, a fun-young-mum is buying her teenage daughter a falafel, and a group of teenagers are chatting quietly on a bench. A few cyclists pace past, giving the area the feel of a quiet and sanitised holiday resort.
Kingsland Road is the hub of Hackney nightlife: stretching from the boujee pubs of Stoke Newington, to the slightly edgier bars and clubs of Dalston and Haggerston, before opening up into Shoreditch where crowds of visitors can often be found boozing all week long. Just down the street is the Karaoke Hole, and inside there’s a crowd of 30 or so punters singing along to a Destiny’s Child track as their drag queen host grabs a drink. Camp merriment is in abundance, but antisocial behaviour? Nowhere to be seen.
“There’s not a problem to be fixed,” explains Estelle, who works the door here. “There’s not much trouble here at all. The only issue we find is that if we do see anything, nobody answers the CCTV radio - so when you call [through to the borough’s Safer Neighbourhood Team] you don’t get a response. It’s down to the council to fix that. Where are their street wardens? Turfing people out of bars earlier won’t make much of a difference.”
Aware that most of the people I’d been chatting to were under the age of 30, the sight of an older bloke outside Cafe Otto catches my attention. Maybe this was an angry local resident forced into the streets late at night to stop all the pissing and littering and life-ruining fun. “I’m just standing outside Cafe Otto having a drink,” retorts a tipsy Alan Wilkinson, when I ask why he is out and about. “I don’t understand why the Council would want to do this. I’m not a particularly young person, I’m 63 years of age and live in Stoke Newington, and I’m still standing on the street at 11.30PM having a nice time. Hackney is a happening borough and a place where all sorts of people hang out!”
For twenty or so minutes I walk down the mostly empty street. A newly regenerated square in Dalston has a handful of quiet drinkers. Outside a Turkish restaurant a few blokes in their forties are drinking tea and playing instruments, while a group of women are finishing up dessert at the Italian a few doors down. One of those finishing their food, Karolina, tells me she’s a local. “I live just around the corner, and I’ve never seen any of the things the council describe.”
“These new rules piss me off,” says Guilliam one of three guys sat outside Shep’s Bar, a trendy cocktail and Korean bar where they all work. “If all the businesses close at 11PM, people will just be in the street. It’s already hard to get a late licence. It’s such a shame because there are so many businesses who want to open and create a nice atmosphere in the area.”
“Punters come here at 11PM or later looking for food or a drink,” Matt, his colleague, continues. “We already have to turn them away. It’s becoming a regular occurrence. We’re missing out on business that is needed. We’re not a big chain, our boss owns this bar with a few other people. This was a shop before we opened, we’ve turned it into a bar and made it into a success.”
Three young revellers from Camden explain they come to Hackney precisely because there are late night venues. “If places were shut at eleven people wouldn't come here,” says Marley, holding a can of gin and tonic. “The area would lose bare money, simple as.” His friend, Dita, jumps in. “People come to east London from all over, and from all walks of life. It’s what London stands for. There’s a lot of thriving black culture, there are LGBTQ+ venues. This could fuck all that up.”
In the hour it takes to walk down Hackney’s main strip, the bars and restaurants I walk past offer no cause for concern. Shoreditch itself is a little rowdier, where people can be as loud as they want because nobody but Russian oligarchs can afford residential property in the area anymore, and none of them live in their swanky apartments anyway. I speak to promoters, bar staff, drinkers and residents. Nobody thinks changes are necessary or a good idea, although Shoreditch is already an area where strict licencing restrictions make it almost impossible to get new late licenses.
It’s close to 2AM when I decide to leave. The most raucous scenes I’d witnessed through the entire night amounted to nothing more than a few empty beer bottles, two foxes loudly banging, and a couple who looked like they work in digital marketing pushing around a supermarket trolley with their mate inside.
If there’s rubbish on the floor then Hackney should invest in more public bins; if people are pissing on the street (which can happen at any time), then open more public toilets or put up portaloos in busy parts of town. Drunk people stumbling home from parties, clubs or houses are always going to be a little noisy, and shorter trading hours will have absolutely no effect. Of course, issues like crime and littering do need to be tackled in Hackney as anywhere, but treating nightlife as the enemy rather than as part of a solution serves no purpose at all.
On my way home, I walk past Dalston Superstore as the last few punters are leaving. As promised, the pavement has already been swept. My search for Hackney’s out-of-control party scene failed for one simple reason: the council are trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. Given all the issues we could be making a stand about in 2018, it’s a shame that a local authority is forcing this to be what we fight over. Maybe Hackney Council had the best of intentions, but this restrictive licensing policy will harm new, creative and independent ventures. At worst it looks as though property developers, not local residents and businesses, are at the forefront of councillor’s minds.
There’s a protest planned this Friday outside Hackney Town Hall, and there’s talk of local business owners getting together for an emergency meeting. Lives really aren’t being ruined by Hackney’s nightlife or the occasional street pisser, but these licensing changes mean livelihoods in nightlife certainly now could be. This whole sorry episode in Hackney says alot about how nightlife and the culture that it creates are both misunderstood and misappropriated. Bars and clubs aren’t simply rooms in which to get battered: they’re where scenes evolve, communities form, and where people of all ages can escape the increasingly sterile and oppressive public spaces the city now provides – those aforementioned ball-pit bars, or branded experiences in Boxpark, rather than world-beating nightlife.
Hackney is a borough which is thriving thanks in part to the venues it has previously been home to, and the ones that still exist. After trading on the cultural capital created by the scene, it now looks as though the council are willingly going to tear its foundations down. Places like Dalston and Shoreditch are already becoming cleansed of the nightlife that made them so exciting, and they need more venues, not less, to succeed on the global stage – to fulfil Khan's plans of London competing with the likes of Berlin and Amsterdam. If Hackney doesn’t rethink its plans, then London’s slow demise into an endless line of Pizza Express’, Prets and Tesco Metros comes one sad step closer, and another creative community in the capital will find itself without a home.