This weekend I went to a gig at the George Tavern in Stepney (pictured), not too far from where I live. This pub has a long history – it’s mentioned by Chaucer and Shakespeare and claims that at least some of its brickwork is 700 years old. In the latter years of its long history, it’s become well-known as a music and culture venue, largely because of the work of artist landlady Pauline Forster who bought the pub as a derelict building in 2002.
A few years ago the George Tavern faced closure as a developer’s plans to build a block of flats near to the site would affect its ability to host live music nights, one of its most important sources of income. The George Tavern was saved, thanks in part to a high-profile campaign and the backing of a number of celebrity supporters, from Amy Winehouse to Justin Timberlake.
However, the venue is once again under threat. Plans have been proposed to replace nearby studios with, once again, a residential building. “[The George Tavern] is a vital community asset and must be protected at all costs,” said the George Tavern’s management in the text of a letter they recommended fans of the venue send to the borough council. “Experience across London has shown that introducing residential uses in close proximity to noise sources inevitably leads to complaints of noise nuisance which can result in curbs on the established activities at the site and ultimately closure.”
What they’re referring to is how noise restrictions and development pressures are now having an effect on iconic music and clubbing businesses in many parts of the city. In recent years London has seen the closure of a significant number of iconic venues, in part because of these kinds of factors. These include legendary Soho venue Madame JoJos’s, nightclub Cable located under the arches of London Bridge station, and Dalston club and historic centre for black music Four Aces.
In Hackney, the part of London where I live and where Four Aces and many other closed venues were located, the closure of and restrictions on nightlife businesses is such a keenly-felt issue that a campaign has been set up to oppose this. Fittingly, it was launched last year with a party that attracted over 600 people. One closing East End venue even held a New Orleans-style jazz funeral.
Nightlife in New Orleans could be slowly and picturesquely dying too. This city as well has seen many beloved places to listen to music, dance and socialise close and, despite the differences between the two cities, they are doing so for the same reasons that they are in London. And as in London feelings have coalesced into campaigns similar to the London ones both to keep individual venues open and on behalf of the city’s music scene as a whole – MACCNO deserves a special mention here.
When thinking all this, it is important to remember, however, that the places we live in have always changed. Venues of all kinds have always closed and been replaced by new ones, and it’s especially in the nature of the bars and club world for this to happen, where being new can be a significant selling point,
But it does feel like something different is happening now. The centres of our cities are becoming hollowed out by gentrification, as living somewhere urban is becoming more fashionable for the affluent middle-aged than the suburbs. People are living in areas once rich with nightlife who think they want to be somewhere lively but who actually don’t, so end up loudly complaining about bars or clubs. Meanwhile, in part because it’s now harder for them to live in city centres and in part because of other economic and social pressures on them, young people are going out less.
So while we should all campaign about individual venues in our neighbourhoods that we care about and our cities’ nightlife as a whole, we should also think about how the ways in which people, money, music and noise are ebbing and flowing across our cities are part of a bigger social picture too.
Image: Ewan Munro