London's Nightlife's Not Dead, It's Just On the Move

As two of Dalston's most iconic venues close, and Hackney gets increasingly hostile towards new venues, we just need to look slightly further afield.

by Tom Usher; photos by Jake Lewis
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Sep 4 2018, 10:46am

All photos from the last ever karaoke night at The Alibi. 

At the end of August, two of Dalston's most iconic and longstanding late license venues, The Alibi and Visions Bar, announced they would be closing their doors for good. Across east London, people who spent their teens and twenties sweating in basement bars and throwing up on Kingsland Road mourned two great losses.

The statements came as kickers to more recent bad news for the area: the announcement, in late July, that Hackney Council is going to be implementing a midnight curfew for all new clubs and bars, meaning any new venues opening in the borough will have to argue against an 11PM closing time during the week and a midnight curfew on weekends.

Reactions to the curfew were understandably heated, given the fact that Hackney has – for years – been the epicentre of London nightlife. Want to get plastered until 1AM? Bardens. Fancy dancing to genuinely not-shit music until sunrise? Oslo. In the mood for the worst night of your life, drinking espresso martinis with a load of recruiters in a multi-coloured ballpit? Shoreditch's Ballie Ballerson.

Many criticised London Night Czar Amy Lamé for her apparent inactivity and silence on the issue, as well as Hackney Council for their flagrant disregard of their own consultation process: 73 percent of the 680 Hackney residents they consulted about the curfew were against the plans.

Speaking to the owners of both Visions and The Alibi, this move – a token of Hackney's increasing hostility towards the bars and clubs that so many developers have used as bait to entice potential buyers to the area – seems to have played a role in both closures.

"We closed voluntarily due to noise and anti-social behaviour outside the venue," explains Joel Evans, co-owner of Visions Bar. "There has been a increase in anti-social behaviour around Dalston, a decrease in policing budgets to tackle this and a long-term plan by the local council to bring better housing and business into the area. Clubs, by definition, operate at anti-social hours and so are caught in the middle of all of this."

"In essence, our crew got priced out," says The Alibi co-owner, Deano Jo. "We were still going to ride it out and invest even more cash, because we love Dalston and the bar so much, but after the council announcing there would be no new late licenses granted, we realised that people and businesses like us just weren't welcome in Hackney anymore."

I contacted Amy Lamé's office for her thoughts on the club closures, but she didn't get back to me. Twenty-four hours after Hackney council's policy announcement, she tweeted that she had "demanded an urgent meeting" with Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville, who responded by tweeting: "Odd given she's been consulted throughout the process."

When I asked Glanville about the closures of Visions and The Alibi, he responded: "These are two important venues familiar to me from nights out in Dalston, but the council's new licensing policy doesn't affect current much loved businesses like Alibi and Visions Bar, who have already been granted late licenses. Instead, it aims to support new, well-managed businesses to enter the borough's nighttime economy. It's always sad to see a business go, but this is a decision by the bars themselves. But we fully expect these spaces to continue to serve Hackney and its nighttime economy under new management."

After speaking to many club owners in Hackney, and London-wide, however, it's clear that Glanville's optimism for the future of Hackney's nightlife isn't shared.

"Much of Hackney's nighttime economy was built around a group of people who just aren't there anymore," explains The Alibi co-owner Mark Shaffer. "Hackney Council is somewhat of an easy target at the moment, and I don't want to add to the chorus, but without getting into the possible reasons why, there appeared to be a complete lack of strategic thinking during the rapid growth of Dalston and the equally rapid decline. We all failed to manage the situation, and here we all are – but I'm not convinced that Hackney council was equipped to make any kind of a difference."

He adds: "They offered little or no support and were consistently obstructive with their licensing policy, and rather than channelling the extra resources and solidifying the area's reputation, they failed to sustain and protect it. However, in all fairness, Hackney council is simply exhibiting the flaws of any large organisation impeded by its own systems and bureaucracy."

One Dalston-based club that still seems to be going strong is The Nest. It used to owned by The Columbo Group, which also runs other clubs, like XOYO, Phonox and Jazz Cafe, but has recently undergone a revamp under new ownership and is re-opening as UNDR.

"We've entered a new cycle of youth culture and music," UNDR owner Matt Wells tells me. "People who went clubbing four years ago have now moved on, and it would be interesting to analyse how these clubs have worked to attempt to reinvent themselves and be a part of the new generation. This is true not just for venues in Hackney, but is something that can be noticed across London in general."

One area of the capital that seems to be thriving at the moment is Tottenham. It's already become a cliche to say that "Tottenham is the new Dalston", but its nightlife is booming in the same way Dalston's was ten years ago, thanks to a range of late license clubs like Five Miles, The Cause and Grow.

"I'm not convinced at all that nightlife in London is declining, I think it's just changing," says Paul McGann, owner of Grow – which, as the name hints, is a community garden as well as a venue. "Nightlife is constantly reinventing itself, and location is part of that. The night tube and 24-hour Overground at weekends is reconfiguring the map, and it's opening up new territories for people to explore. A few years ago, Tottenham would have been hard to get home from on a Friday or Saturday night if you didn't live locally, but now the transport links are amazing."

And what of this trope that anywhere that has a spate of successful nightclub openings must be labelled "the New Dalston"?

"Tottenham will never be like Dalston – Dalston is a traditional London high street, with everything crammed together along one stretch of road, with clubs in basements, shops at ground floor level and people in flats living on top," says Paul. "The new venues in Tottenham aren't opening up in basements on a high street, they're mostly opening up in old industrial spaces that aren't surrounded by housing. In many ways it's a better area for people to enjoy themselves at night without causing problems."

When I went to The Alibi last Monday for their final karaoke night, the feeling among the crowd was that, regardless of how booming nightlife may be in other areas of London, The Alibi would still be impossible to replace.

"I feel nostalgic for it already, because even though it could be hit and miss, it was one of the first clubs I went to when I first moved to London at 18," Alibi explained regular, Victoria.

"The Alibi was important to London because it was free to get in, and everyone in east London was already paying an arm and a leg to live there in the first place," added her friend, Rachel. "We trust it, because the only things that are constant in life are: death, and The Alibi being the only place open where you could get a drink."

Despite the flint-coloured clouds hanging over London's nightlife at present, there are reasons to be cheerful: there have been a load of great clubs opening recently, with late licenses, impressive sound-systems and consistently inventive line-ups, just slightly further afield than what we're used to. And as London grindingly transitions to more of a 24-hour city, with better transport links and all-night trains, more Zone 1 and 2 clubs will close, and more spots will open in Zones 3 and 4.

"It's sad that Hackney is being slowly wound up," says former Shapes, and now FOLD, owner Seb Glover. "For many years it has been the epicentre of vibrancy in the capital, thanks to its diversity and affordability. But saying that, London's boundaries will continue growing, and new epicentres will be created. It feels that London is in a new paradigm and is transitioning into a 24-hour city. With all the negative press for venues and beyond, it feels that an opportunity has been created to create something new and fresh in a new area and brand new space."

London is an incredibly dynamic city, and areas of interest are constantly moving, evolving and shifting. Think about it: when your parents were young, the King's Road was the coolest place in the capital. Now, it's where acquisition managers buy £70 cardigans for their five-year-olds. Essentially: nothing lasts forever. That said, what can people do to ensure nightlife isn't continuously pushed further and further out of central London?

"Businesses should speak to each other openly, and people should hold councils accountable for bad decisions that are against the feelings of the majority of local residents," says Alibi co-owner Deano. "And if you hear someone sneer about late-night industries, correct them. They're important."

"Maybe people should come out and party at said small business venues instead of complaining when they're starting to shut down one by one," adds Joel. "Start a club night about a particular sort of music you like but don't hear being played in Dalston. Follow the club nights, gigs and DJs you've heard play live. Be passionate about nightlife again. Visions as a venue may be closed, but there's nothing stopping people from following the path and contributing to the future of Dalston."

It's a great point. We seem content to mourn the loss of all these great spaces, but is the anger many of us feel really anything more than sadness over a distant memory? If we truly want to change what's happening to London's nightlife scene, we need to get out and party.

@tom_usher_

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