image by Christian Jonas, via Flickr (licence CC 2.0)
by Jack Layton
It is now cliché to open an article on cities with the obligatory reference to the fact that over 50% of the world’s population now live in cities (54% in 2015 according to the World Bank, for the UK 83%). But I raise this not to draw attention to global pressures on resources and housing, but to underscore the idea that over 50% of everyday human experience takes place in cities. This makes cities incredible focal points of life. Places of romance, adventure, and laughter, but also loss, despair, and loneliness. Places where friendships are made and ideas about the world formed. However, the opportunities for diverse forms of social experience are by no means guaranteed.
On Friday 12th August, Islington borough council suspended Fabric’s license to run as a nightclub. This was a temporary measure in response to two deaths of 18 year-olds during two months of the summer. The deaths were drug-related, and the local council took the action in response to what it perceived as “inadequate” security at the venue, “it was abundantly obvious that patrons in the club were on drugs”. On 7th September 2016 the venue was closed permanently.
For the electronic dance music (EDM) community this was a tragedy. Not only for the sad loss of life but also because Fabric had something of an iconic status. Fabric attracted world class DJs, and provided a venue for talented musicians; it was a focal point for the UK EDM scene. Mike Rugnetta (YouTuber and Podcaster) produced a great podcast on the EDM community and the unifying effect moving in sync to hypnotic beats has in a crowded room of strangers (http://www.infiniteguest.org/reasonably-sound/2015/04/the-drop/).
The closure of Fabric appeared to align with a pattern of gentrification in London. Where the kinds of activities and kinds of people that are accepted in the city are narrowed and tightened. Where alternative activities that risk eroding local rents and house prices are discouraged and clamped down upon.
However, the decision to revoke Fabric’s license was not the end of the story. A petition to stop the closure (https://www.change.org/p/save-london-s-nightlife-stop-the-closure-of-fabric) has attracted over 160,000 signatures; whilst Fabric has started a campaign, #savefabric, to appeal the decision and has crowdsourced over £300,000 so far. The closure has also attracted the attention of the national and international press, as well as vocal celebrity support including Paul McCartney and Irvine Welsh. All of this activity prompted newly elected Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, to appoint a “night tsar” who’s job it will be to promote the night-time economy and ensure that London’s internationally renowned nightlife continues to thrive.
Cities do not change uniformly or unidirectionally. The configuration of resources and spaces in the city is a process of constant negotiation and contestation. Negotiation over the kinds of institutions that people want to protect, and the kinds of activities that people want to encourage. Fabric may be a significant enough feature of London’s landscape that if, with a lot of hard work, popular support, and political endorsement, it may yet be saved. But this raises important questions about which features of London’s landscape grab the public’s attention.
In February 2013 plans came to light that Southbank Centre would be displacing the undercroft skate space as part of a process of refurbishment and extension. In order to fund their project, retail units were to be introduced to the site to help secure a bank loan. Whilst an alternative skate space was going to be built 120m upriver at the Hungerford Bridge. The undercroft, like Fabric, is iconic to its community of users and the plans were vehemently opposed. Long Live Southbank (LLSB) formed as a campaign to save the skate space, a rare space to practice skateboarding in a sheltered and freely accessible environment in the centre of the city.
The plans and LLSB’s opposition to them attracted a lot of media attention, and LLSB were able to secure 150,000 signatures in support of their cause. They also submitted a record number of planning objections to Lambeth council and gained the endorsement of then Mayor of London Boris Johnson in the process. On 18th September 2014, after 18 months of hard campaigning, Southbank Centre and LLSB released a joint statement announcing that the future of the undercroft skate space would be secure.
For me, the interesting and hopeful moment in this example is the process of mobilisation, where loose communities of shared use and values are sparked to engage in politics and planning. But part of what made the LLSB campaign so successful, and is promising for Fabric, is that they are exceptional examples. They are examples that are internationally renowned, and in turn, support their own specific economies – be that professional music DJs, or professional skateboarders and brands. Not every local library, or pub on the high street with a single gig room, will attract the same kind of mobilisation.
What I want to highlight is that these diverse venues for social life, be it a nightclub or a skate space, facilitate the formation of communities of shared interest. Communities that if exposed to pressure, may be able to solidify as a political community and engage in everyday local politics. The buildings, legislation, funding, and culture that facilitate everyday life are not just important for the joy they give to people, but because they potentially plant the seed for a politically concerned public to arise.
The diversity of opportunities for social life in cities is what make them a joy to live in, and if curated properly, can make them areas of engaged and concerned city-zens.