As another London club closes, Amsterdam shows why we need a “night mayor”

A DJ at work – albeit in Singapore, not Amsterdam or London. Image: Getty.

If you like going dancing in London, you’ve probably heard the bad news already. Dance Tunnel, the intimate Dalston club that has hosted DJs like Prosumer, Tama Sumo and Ben UFO, will close in August.

In an announcement on Facebook, the club said that “the licensing climate in Hackney has made it impossible for us to get the hours we need to make Dance Tunnel sustainable in the long term”.

Their problem is that te club fills up at midnight, and its license only extends to 3am – and three hours of bar take isn’t paying the bills. (The door money usually goes to outside promoters.) A 5am license would allow it to earn enough to continue; but aside from occasionally using Temporary Event Notices (TENs), which are difficult to come by in Dalston’s Special Policy Area, that’s just not going to happen.

At first glance, this seems like a cut-and-dried case of a local council putting their foot down on a thriving, well-regulated business that brings worldwide renown to their borough, whilst paying business rates and employing young people. But it might not be as simple as that: Hackney council released its own statement, defending the decision and noting that Dance Tunnel “has not applied to extend their opening hours for over two years”.

The club then issued another statement, in which it said that its “future lies elsewhere” – and that it would “look further afield to find a space where we are subject to fewer compromises”. So it looks like they’ve decided to pick another battle – or at least another battlefield.

Dance Tunnel is just a 200-capacity venue – but news of its closure was trending on Twitter within hours and was even covered by the BBC. More is at stake here than just a few clubbers’ good times (though one wonders where Hackney Council thinks these people will go, if they keep losing legal venues to party in). The recent spate of club closures are an attack on exactly the kind of entrepreneurship London should be encouraging.

One possible solution to the problem – one the mayor’s office got behind late last year, via a recommendation by the Music Venues Taskforce – is to create a “nightlife champion”. This could be an individual (a “night mayor”); or a committee, like the Club Commission at work in Berlin.

Alan Miller is chair of the Night Time Industry Association (NTIA), a lobbying group established last year. He argues that such a group could “act as a conduit between business and policymakers, and understand the cultural ramifications, as well as the economic benefits, of what happens in nightlife.

“There’s a big gap of understanding in Britain and especially in London about the cultural, economic and social benefits of nightlife,” he continues. “It’s not only about national insurance, business rates, employment and generating 6 per cent of Britain’s GDP – I’m talking about ourselves as a brand, how we find artists like Adele and Tinie Tempah and Mark Ronson, but also somewhere people get inspired by new fashion trends, art, or by tech.”

In Amsterdam, night mayor Mirik Milan – formery a club promoter of 10 years’ standing – has been in office since 2012 (the year Dance Tunnel opened). He heads an independent, non-profit foundation, whose job is to ensure the city’s nightlife remains dynamic. Last year, he told Time Out what that means:

“We try to build bridges between the mayor and city council, small business owners like nightclubs, venues and promoters and city residents. Nightlife is a world which is difficult to penetrate, and I always say: ‘How can you maintain a culture if you don’t have any clue what’s going on?’”

Milan’s biggest success has been the introduction of 24-hour licenses – for example at De School, the new venue from the group behind Trouw, which closed last year. As he told Time Out, “Clubs benefit from it because they can go on longer, and the surrounding neighbourhood benefits because it’s not like at four in the morning a thousand people suddenly hit the street, all at once.”

Amsterdam’s new 24-hour venues are mainly out of town – unlike London’s venues, which often exist in increasingly residential neighbourhoods. (The Music Venues Trust has recently won a big legislative victory here.)


But the Dutch example can still be of relevance. Amsterdam’s Rembrandtplein, an area which Milan likens to Leicester Square, is now part of a three-year pilot project to reduce the 300 odd violent incidents that were formerly reported each year. This involves taking an approach more like running a music festival: “There you’ll have, like, 20,000 people,” Milan told the Guardian last month. “Maybe two get pick-pocketed, and there’s one fight. It’s because you have easy-on, easy-off access, clear routes around the site, a programme and rules that everyone knows and understands, soft security … Basically, a pleasant environment.”In other words, Amsterdam treats nightlife destinations as events – and the people in them as informed participants, not potential criminals.

The mayor’s Night Time Commission is still looking into what can be done to save London’s battered but unbowed night time culture. It’s due to report its findings in the autumn, after a six-month study that was announced in March.

Those findings can’t come soon enough. As Miles Simpson – promoter of Thunder, one of Dance Tunnel’s most popular events – points out, just because there aren’t legal parties on offer, that doesn’t mean that people will just go home quietly.

Venues like Dance Tunnel are “professionally run by people dedicated to delivering a high quality and safe environment where people can enjoy themselves,” he says. But legal restrictions mean they are getting “squeezed out of existence, leaving people to party in dangerous, unlicensed firetraps, in shop basements and disused warehouses.

“It’s a sad loss to London nightlife, but it certainly isn’t the first in recent times,” he adds. “And I fear it won’t be the last either.”

 
 
 
 

The Thessaloniki dig problem: How can Greece build anything when it’s swarming with archaeologists?

Archaeological finds on display in an Athens metro station. Image: Gary Hartley.

It’s fair to say that the ancient isn’t much of a novelty in Greece. Almost every building site quickly becomes an archaeological site – it’s hard to spin a tight 360 in Athens without a reminder of ancient civilisation, even where the city is at its ugliest.

The country’s modern cities, recent interlopers above the topsoil, serve as fascinating grounds for debates that are not just about protecting the ancient, but what exactly to do with it once it’s been protected.

The matter-of-fact presentation that comes with the many, many discoveries illustrates the point. Athens often opts to display things more or less where they were found, making metro stations a network of museums that would probably take pride of place in most other capitals. If you’re into the casual presentation of the evocative, it doesn’t get much better than the toy dog on wheels in Acropolis station.

That’s not even close to the extent of what’s available to cast an eye over as you go about your day. There are ruins just inside the city centre’s flagship Zara store, visible through the glass floor and fringed by clothes racks; Roman baths next to a park cafe; an ancient road and cemetery in an under-used square near Omonia, the city’s down-at-heel centre point.

Ruins in Zara. Image: Gary Hartley.

There is undoubtedly something special about stumbling upon the beauty of the Ancients more or less where it’s always been, rather than over-curated and corralled into purpose-built spaces, beside postcards for sale. Not that there isn’t plenty of that approach too – but Greece offers such sheer abundance that you’ll always get at least part of the history of the people, offered up for the people, with no charge attached.

While the archaic and the modern can sit side by side with grace and charm, economic pressures are raising an altogether more gritty side to the balancing act. The hard press of international lenders for the commercialisation and privatisation of Greek assets is perhaps the combustible issue of the moment – but archaeology is proving something of a brake on the speed of the great sell-off.

The latest case in point is the development of Elliniko – a site where the city’s decrepit former airport and a good portion of the 2004 Olympic Games complex sits, along the coastal stretch dubbed the Athens Riviera. With support from China and Abu Dhabi, luxury hotels and apartments, malls and a wholesale re-landscaping of several square kilometres of coastline are planned.

By all accounts the bulldozers are ready to roll, but when a whole city’s hovering above its classical roots, getting an international, multi-faceted construction job off the ground promises to be tricky – even when it’s worth €8bn.


And so it’s proved. After much political push and shove over the last few weeks, 30 hectares of the 620-hectare plot have now been declared of historical interest by the country’s Central Archaeological Council. This probably means the development will continue, but only after considerable delays, and under the watchful eye of archaeologists.

It would be too easy to create a magical-realist fantasy of the Ancient Greeks counterpunching against the attacks of unrestrained capital. The truth is, even infrastructure projects funded with domestic public money run into the scowling spirits of history.

Thessaloniki’s Metro system, due for completion next year, has proved to be a series of profound accidental excavations – or, in the immortal words of the boss of Attiko Metro A.E., the company in charge of the project, “problems of the past”.

The most wonderful such ‘problem’ to be revealed is the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue of the Byzantine city – complete with only the world’s second example of a square paved with marble. Add to that hundreds of thousands of artefacts, including incredibly well-preserved jewellery, and you’ve a hell of a haul.

Once again, the solution that everyone has finally agreed on is to emulate the Athens approach – making museums of the new metro stations. (Things have moved on from early suggestions that finds should be removed and stored at an ex-army camp miles from where they were unearthed.)

There are other problems. Government departments have laid off many of their experts, and the number of archaeologists employed at sites of interest has been minimised. Non-profit organisations have had their own financial struggles. All of this has aroused international as well as local concern, a case in point being the U.S. government’s renewal of Memorandums of Understanding with the Greek state in recent years over protection of “cultural property”.

But cuts in Greece are hardly a new thing: lack of government funding has become almost accepted across society. And when an obvious target for ire recedes, the public often needs to find a new one.

Roman baths in Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Archaeologists are increasingly finding themselves to be that target – and in the midst of high-stakes projects, it’s extremely hard to win an argument. If they rush an excavation to allow the quickest possible completion, they’re seen as reckless. If they need more time, they’re blamed for holding up progress. 

Another widely-told but possibly-apocryphal tale illustrates this current problem. During the construction of the Athens Metro, a construction worker was so frustrated by the perceived dawdling of archaeologists that he bought a cheap imitation amphora in a gift shop, smashed it up and scattered the fragments on site. The worthless pieces were painstakingly removed and analysed.

True or not, does this tale really prove any point about archaeologists? Not really. They’re generally a pragmatic bunch, simply wanting to keep relics intact and not get too embroiled in messy public debates.

It also doesn’t truly reflect mainstream attitudes to cultural capital. By and large, it’s highly valued for its own sake here. And while discoveries and delays may be ripe for satire, having history’s hoard on your doorstep offers inconveniences worth enduring. It’s also recognised that, since tourists are not just here for the blue skies, good food and beaches, it’s an important money-maker.

Nonetheless, glass malls and shiny towers with coastal views rising from public land are good for the purse, too – and the gains are more immediate. As the Greek state continues its relentless quest for inward investment, tensions are all but guaranteed in the coming years. 

This is a country that has seen so many epic battles in its time it has become a thing of cliché and oiled-up Hollywood depiction. But the latest struggle, between rapacious modernity and the buried past, could well be the most telling yet. 

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