I didn’t really get gentrification until September. I knew what it was, knew it was ‘a bad thing’ and ranted accordingly, wrung my hands and nodded when my more informed peers would explain how the spectre of ‘redevelopment’ was creeping over the capital like a pervert’s shadow on a playground during break-time. How another cultural space lost a battle with faceless property developers. How nothing grows in London these days save for ‘Luxury Flats’. Yeah, yeah, I’d say, that’s terrible, but I never got it, you know, not really. Like a serious illness, or a foreign war: it’s always abstract in some way til it hits home.
For me, the blow came with the closing of Passing Clouds, who saw their battle with property developers end in a fifty bailiffs-led eviction, steel doors and windows bolted on to prevent any future squat protest on the premises. This was after a new fifteen year lease three times the current rate was offered to Passing Clouds’ founder, Eleanor Wilson. Two weeks after the eviction, the iconic murals that adorned the front of the building was replaced with, I don’t know what to call it… Money Grey? Redevelopment Grey? Grey.
In the same week Fabric’s licence was suspended indefinitely after two drug related deaths in June and August . The Independent points the finger at Operation Lenor, a lengthy, clandestine council-led campaign to shutter Fabric. The Telegraph says Fabric can only blame itself for letting people take drugs willy nilly. The Telegraph also mentions a wealthy Kuwaiti Businessman dying at The Dorchester from a drug overdose. The Dorchester is yet to face closure. Suites at The Dorchester cost up to £2000 a night.
And the shadow keeps creeping: 50% of London’s nightclubs have closed in the last ten years. Dub Pistols’ Barry Ashworth posted a list recently of the fallen venues and it will sober any raver the hell up. And that’s not even counting the ones not on the list: Silver Bullet, Vibe Bar, Astoria, and many others. The reasons for closure vary: Rising rents, property prices, local council inference, the aforementioned drugs or, my personal fave, angry neighbours, like the ones who almost got Ministry Of Sound closed, or the ones who bought a flat above Curzon Soho and somehow didn’t think the noise from movie screenings below would be a problem. All these symptoms of that serious illness what I mentioned in the starting paragraph. Gentrification, yeah. Not nice.
So yeah, I get it now, Gentrification is a problem because hey, the places I perform as a musician are disappearing faster than Brexit supporters. And like any good city wide problem, there’s no easy solution, at least not to me. Flinging money at the issue won’t stop it, although I’m sure the local councils would ease up on selling off these iconic venues if they weren’t struggling for cash. I don’t think 100% Zero Tolerance On Drugs For Realsies This Time policy would have saved Fabric, I just don’t, because the same police force that led to its closure originally praised the club as a ‘bastion of good practice’, and here we are. I don’t have enough fingers to point at the culprits, honestly: I can blame Racism. I can blame Capitalism, because supporting local businesses at the Brixton Arches is great in principle but could they ever hold a candle to the combined strength of a new rail line AND the ease of a local Sainsburys? I can definitely blame Class, because Lambeth Council wouldn’t even dream of turning Carnegie Library into a gym if it was frequented by the wealthy. Maybe the councils would be a little more careful if they held a spot like Fabric with the same regard as the Royal Albert Hall. You may laugh, but I’m pretty sure some people would rather go to Fabric than the Royal Albert Hall. Probably because Fabric’s a lot more relatable, a lot more affordable, and local. And look at London now: suddenly the boroughs are looking very dull, very same-y, very pale, sick even, like it’s ill. From Gentrification. Here I go again.
I don’t want to sound like some doomed romance, but Passing Clouds was more than just another venue for me. In many ways it’s the reason I’m still doing music: it was the first time I was properly paid for a set – I think every musician can remember that day – it was where I got my first encore, my first case of heckle. melting pot doesn’t really cover how vibrant and energetic Passing Clouds was on an average weekend: sometimes my band Benin City would appear on a bill next to a Eastern European fusion outfit and a seven piece souk collective funk. You had to be there, you never will, now, so trust me, it was lit.
And the audience! that eclectic, diverse, up for it audience, many of whom travelled from all corners of the capital to find something different, some beat they could dance to in this noise we call London. As someone who makes music outside of chart pop or genre-specific (or even just financially successful) the amount of places I can play a gig in London grows shorter by the month. And I’ve been doing this for years: what must it be like for a brand new unsigned band in this day and age to build a live profile, I have no idea. I’m no politician or journalist. I expressed my anger the best way I can: in song, bookending with smarter people providing more depth.
And back to that list of deceased nightclubs: almost half of all the venues I’ve ever performed in have disappeared. Gone. Shuttered or transformed into nice shops and lovely, ripe Luxury Flats. That’s my legacy under grey paint. One day I’ll have a child and I’ll tell her about my time as a musician and I’ll stand in front of a boring building and tell them something beautiful and full of colour once stood here, but now it’s a Luxury Flat, and then we’ll go back to Zone 6 where we live, work, and play and we’ll never come back into London because no one goes to Luxury Flats to have a good time.
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