Atlantic Cities

Europe's New War on Nightlife

Europe's New War on Nightlife
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Milan tried to institute a post-midnight ban on ice cream last month. Part of a clampdown on late-night food and drink sales, Milan’s mayor perhaps feared that crowds outside Gelaterias – I’m struggling here – might go on sugar high rampages through the night. The rule proved too silly to stand, thankfully, but it's only the strangest of a host of attacks on nightlife in European cities to have cropped up recently.

Take Madrid, for example. Long home to one of Europe’s latest-running social scenes, its city center was declared a "low-noise zone" last September, and the city council have been refusing to issue bar and club licenses ever since. Coupled with sales tax increases on drinks, this has led to 60 to 100 nightclubs closing in Madrid since the rules were put in place. This hasn’t actually made the city quieter, however. In a country where the Botellón – people meeting up and drinking outdoors – is already a longstanding tradition, young people are simply buying drinks from street vendors and moving onto the streets, creating a situation that suits no one.

Paris nightlife has likewise been struggling with extremely tight police control for some years, leading Le Monde to call the city the "European Capital of Boredom" back in 2009. Citing the regular rejection by police of one-night only club license applications and the censorious attitude of Parisian officialdom, a study by Paris City Hall itself, referenced in the Le Monde link above, found that staging club nights was far harder in Paris than in London, Berlin, Amsterdam or Barcelona.

Not that things are much rosier in these supposed nightlife capitals either. A report in the Netherlands' Volkskrant last week noted that young Amsterdammers are increasingly giving up on legal nightlife altogether. Instead, they’re flocking to covert underground events after a series of recent clampdowns on alleged public nuisances, including such heinous crimes as people barbecuing in the city’s Vondelpark. Even in Berlin things are looking dicey, though for different reasons. Here at least the city’s sprawling layout and abundance of post-industrial space means that nightclubs mostly have space to breathe and residents have space to sleep. Despite this, the walls are closing in on nightlife in Berlin too, thanks to the devastatingly efficient national performance rights group GEMA, somewhat similar to the RIAA in the U.S. GEMA is currently trying to make German bars and clubs pay a commission on all music they play, a move that could quickly make life impossible for small bars and clubs. Even Berlin’s most celebrated club, Berghain, has cancelled an expansion to free up funds for future royalty payments.

Late-night socializing has been a feature of European cities for centuries. That these clampdown efforts are all happening now may be due to shifting demographics: while Europe’s population is getting older and less tolerant of nighttime congestion, its young people are getting poorer, and are thus more likely to socialize outside. Given high unemployment levels, especially among the young, many also have fewer reasons to wake up early. Al fresco drinking has been a feature of Spanish cities for decades, but there’s been a marked recent move from bars to sidewalks in Athens, for example. Smoking bans have also upped noise levels, pushing smokers out of doors.

Areas in European cities where nightlife clusters have also changed socially. In the past, these once cheapish inner city areas offered enough ex-industrial space for bars and clubs to expand into. Formerly home to working class populations, their numbers have since thinned out by suburban drift, and in the past decade many of these city centers have come to be seen as the height of urban desirability, their populations growing markedly wealthier with each new wave of gentrification. Judging by the Europe-wide rash of anti-nightlife measures, these new populations are also particularly adept at making their voices heard by authority. It’s no small irony that it’s often been growing nightlife scenes that initially makes such areas attractive to wealthier outsiders and developers, who then find they can’t stomach it.

There’s more to backlashes against nightlife than high-end NIMBYism, of course. It’s easy to sympathize with long-term residents of areas like Budapest’s District 7 or London’s Dalston, who have found their once nocturnally quiet neighborhoods newly overrun by late-night crowds. Nightlife is often the thin end of gentrification’s wedge, as bars displace longstanding businesses, creating ugly contrasts such as this new London hipster diner that appeared to replace an Asian women’s advisory service.   

Protesting such crassness still doesn’t answer the question of where people who like dancing and drinking should go. Out to more unused ex-industrial spaces (if they can still find them)? Back in the late 1980s, the police backlash against the British rave scene’s use of far-flung warehouses was even more intense than what’s happening now.

Still, as older European generations are bequeathing young people little beyond unemployment, low pay and disillusion, it’s unsurprising that the wishes of Europe’s younger nocturnal crowds are being given low priority. Much of the debate around night and the city pits "concerned residents" against business owners, the actual people filling bars and clubs addressed as some form of noxious petri dish smear, of concern only for the volume of vomit, urine and stabbings they produce.

But for many city dwellers, nightlife is important as good transit, historic buildings or a lively cultural scene. Nightclubs and late bars are one of the few places where the city’s much-vaunted promises of diversity and social mingling can actually come true. Not just places where people get wasted, they’re also places where communities are made, where new music and ideas get created and spread. Sure, they’re driven by profit and can be elitist and exclusive (just like farmer’s markets, cafés and restaurants, sports clubs, theaters – the list goes on), but for many (especially minorities), clubs offer supportive, safer spaces absent elsewhere. I personally would be a sadder, narrower, less well-informed person if I hadn’t spent my early adulthood in the sort of places Europe’s anti-nightlife war is harassing out of existence. Letting unchecked noise spoil people’s sleep is not the answer, but neither is pressuring bars and clubs until the only places that can keep their doors open are the Walmarts of the clubbing world.

Top image: Maxim Blinkov/Shutterstock.com

Feargus O'Sullivan covers Europe for The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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