Anyone following electronic music in the past month has been aware of the battle to "Save Fabric": House and techno DJs are putting on free shows and podcasts to draw attention to the cause; petitions are being drawn up; politicians are taking jabs at each other.
All this is over a nightclub.
It is an important and interesting nightclub, yes, but the emotions are high because the deeper issues are much larger: This is a battle over gentrification and wealth, over the role of the bohemian and wild in a large city, and over what happens to the great cities of the world when they become just too damn expensive for anything interesting to happen in them.
Fabric, the club, has existed on Charterhouse Street in Islington, London, since 1999. It is a big place (a capacity of 2,500) with three separate rooms, including one with a physically throbbing dance floor (they called it a "bodysonic" floor). It gained a reputation as a home for underground dubstep, house and techno, and attracted the world's top DJs.
A part of this underground street-cred came from its "Wetyourself" Sundays, for an LGBT crowd. The club used to release its own recordings, too, as Fabric Records, hour-long mixes by its star visitors that were always innovative. The CDs came in metal boxes and they were cool.
Of course, electronic music culture comes with its dark side – the overuse of stimulants for dancing – and big clubs are always at risk of being blamed for the behaviours of their patrons. Security at these established places is always tight: Everybody is searched on entry, and guards patrol the dark dance floors with flashlights, seeking out furtive joints and pill-exchanging. But you can't stop everything, as it turns out: This summer two young people who had been dancing at Fabric died of MDMA overdoses. The local council decided they had had enough of such risk-promoting venues, claimed that Fabric encouraged a culture of drug use, and took away Fabric's licence to operate.
Fans and producers all over the world were outraged. Fabric seemed sacred – and no more druggy than any other techno club, especially smaller ones. Had anyone checked the overdose rates of clubs with far fewer patrons passing through its doors? Had anyone proved that Fabric's mortality was unusually high for its numbers? Even the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, made a statement saying he thought the action was unnecessary.
The Independent, a newspaper, ran a story suggesting dark conspiracies: The club was not closed for safety reasons, the article stated, but in order to make way for more tax-revenue-generating properties for a financially strapped council – in other words, for gentrification. Everyone sees something symbolic in this story.
The right of somewhat sketchy clubs to operate in London has long been a fraught issue – ever since the days of rave in the late eighties, when local councils instituted all sorts of tortuously worded bylaws to prevent pop-up dance parties. (One such law prohibited "repetitive beats," prompting the English band Autechre to release an entirely arrhythmic album.)
This year, the newly elected mayor announced he would be appointing a "night czar," an official who would monitor the health of this important sector of the city's economy. Apparently 50 per cent of that city's nightclubs have closed since 2008. Office buildings and condos take their place. Even the non-club-going bureaucrats and politicians of the city have had to come to terms with the fact that although techno clubs seem like drug-heavy, unsafe places, their contribution to tourism, to culture at large and to the reputation of London as a place of sophisticated fashion and music, is too weighty to curtail with draconian bans and closures. The Islington council's actions seem ham-fisted in the contemporary moment.
Meanwhile, in Berlin, the notoriously dark techno club Berghain has just won a court case deciding that it is indeed "high culture" – as opposed to "entertainment" – and will be taxed at a lower rate designed to encouraged the arts.
The London controversy coincides with an interesting initiative to preserve bohemia there: The new deputy mayor for culture, Justine Simons, has announced a proposal to create dedicated "artist zones" in hip and rapidly gentrifying areas (such as Hackney Wick and Peckham). These would be districts in which artists would have access to capital (presumably government loans or grants) to enable them to buy property in an otherwise utterly inaccessible market. The idea is to stop the economic migration of the creative class, the very people that make districts fashionable in the first place. "If you look at the average salary of an artist," she told the Evening Standard, "it's about £10,000 [just over $17,000cdn] a year. The average property price in London is about £600,000 [$1.03-million] a year. There is real pressure on affordability. We're predicting we'll lose 30 per cent of artist spaces in the next five years."
This is a problem plaguing every successful city: Cities have always been centres of art and when they grow too expensive for artists to live in (as Vancouver and Toronto are, increasingly), they risk devolving into gated communities lacking all diversity. You will notice a distinct absence of contemporary art and culture from central Paris, for example: Paris is just too expensive for anyone but business people to live in, and has become basically a high-end resort. People go to Berlin for Berghain; they go to Paris for museums. A sad end for a place that was the European capital of culture for a couple of hundred years.
This is what the emotion over Fabric is about: a sense that if a city wants genuine cultural health, it can't be too clean and orderly.