Activists marched through East London on 17 September to protest the latest episode in a troubling trend. The colourfully dressed and ethnically diverse crowd was demonstrating against the closing of ‘Passing Clouds’ – a nightclub in the Dalston area of Hackney. Once considered a deprived inner-city area, in the last five years Dalston has become one of the most desirable locations for young professionals moving to the capital.
Passing Clouds has been a cornerstone of Dalston life since opening in 2006. Initially a free-entry venture, it began charging in 2008 to fund a variety of community projects. Despite being run on a not-for-profit basis, it managed to link the traditional African Caribbean community of the area with newer residents, by curating music and performances from local artists. Live reggae, Afrobeat, and even Turkish or Middle-Eastern music were regular features, along with house DJs to keep crowds entertained until the early hours. Roots Manuva, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and Dawn Penn are just a few of the artists to have graced its stage. Besides music, the venue also held cultural and community events, such as Palestinian solidarity film screenings, self-development workshops, and music or dance lessons.
Gudrun Getz, the Passing Clouds events manager, explained to The Canary that problems began when the building was sold to a company called Landhold Developments in September 2015. This was done without the club management’s knowledge. The following spring, when the collective applied to extend its lease, it was told the site was to be developed into office space and/or luxury apartments.
On 16 June 2016, before the summer season in which 10-year anniversary celebrations had been planned, County Enforcement Group (a bailiff firm) took forced possession of the building. It placed steel shutters over windows and doors, with 24-hour security guards on patrol.
Negotiations since have been difficult, involving several visits to court. Landhold’s only offer has been a 15-year lease, on a threefold increase in rent. While the local property market might now sustain such numbers, for a not-for-profit community venue, this was impossible to bear.
A growing trend
Sad though it may be, particularly for those who enjoyed its unique vibe, the Passing Clouds affair is not an isolated case. It closely follows the much-publicised closure of Fabric, in Farringdon, whose licence was permanently revoked by police on 6 September 2016.
Iconic venues such as The Brixton Fridge, Canvas, The Cross, Turnmills, Herbal, The Hannover Grand and Home have all closed in recent years. It is estimated that as many as 30 major nightclubs have disappeared from the city in the last decade, along with countless smaller ones and live music spaces going the same way. Denmark St (once known as Tin-Pan alley), in the West End, was home to several iconic small venues. It became a base for The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and others in the 60s, yet is another recent victim of redevelopment. According to figures from The Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, there are now 1,733 clubs in the UK, compared to 3,144 in 2005.
Getz doesn’t feel that culture is valued at all by the present government:
There’s no respect for grass-roots or community based projects at all.
She goes on to explain:
In places like Berlin and Amsterdam there are measures in place to protect these sorts of cultural hubs, but not here. And of course, it’s elitist. If it’s arts and culture that the rich, white elite are interested in, that would be different matter. The Royal Opera House is never going to be bought up by property developers is it? At Passing Clouds, all were welcome, any race, religion, any sexuality. We were one of the most inclusive venues around.
Property in London has risen in value exponentially over the last two decades, with the average price of a house now £600,000, up from £70,000 in 1993. Many areas of the capital have large numbers of vacant, luxury properties bought by foreign investors for high potential yield. This feeds into a vicious circle whereby every inch of space becomes a commodity and no building has value beyond its price, regardless of what goes on there:
Local people can’t afford to live in Hackney any more… And it’s happening all over London, Walthamstow, even Tottenham, hipsters are moving in and prices are going crazy. That means the soul of these areas is being lost.
For places like Dalston (and, indeed, London and the country as a whole), the stripping away of cultural identity presents worrying questions. The capital has long traded on its reputation as a vibrant, creative city. But where does this process lead? And what will the London of 2030 look like if it continues?
For anyone interested in a new approach, there may be a chance, in the form of promised arts funding by the current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. After successive New Labour and Conservative governments implemented cuts while allowing concessions to the wealthy, it is perhaps the only hope. Failing that, our once effervescent nation appears set to become a sterile, profit-focused wasteland.
– Join the campaign to save Fabric here.
– Email Landhold Developments, who have since bought other music venues here.
– Email Sadiq Khan, mayor of London at [email protected].
Featured image courtesy of Gudrun Getz