By Nathan Domon | Metro City | November 27, 2022
Cover Illustration: People Dancing in a Club. Jerome Govender/Pexels
Metro reporter Nathan Domon goes into the struggles that economic activities dependent on nightlife have been facing: lease contracts, the city’s expansion, bureaucracy, tourism and cultural recognition.
It was a tough pill to swallow for partygoers – in July 2022, the popular techno club Marktkantine in the West had its last dance. When its lease ended, one of the last alternative dance clubs near the city center closed its doors to make way for new housing. Since 2015, creative nightclubs in Amsterdam have been dropping like flies: Trouw (2015), Studio 80 (2016), Sugar Factory (2019) and Claire (2019) are some examples. As lease contracts of Skate Café and Garage Noord are set to expire in Spring 2023, there is no sign that this trend will end soon. Concerns are rising about the state of night culture in the city, to the point that nachtmakers (nightmakers) – people working in the nightlife industry – are now raising the alarm. On October 19, the campaign Nacht=Leven (“Night=Life”) was launched in collaboration with the Night Mayor Foundation, an independent foundation that represents and helps develop the city’s nightlife, to raise awareness about the creeping degradation of the alternative nightlife in the city. The campaign is increasing pressure on the municipality to take more measures to “save the night.”
In the last five years, the city has changed in ways that threaten alternative night culture: the city is expanding, rents are too high and suitable locations for night culture are becoming scarce. Venue space has become precious; nightclubs need to fight against other businesses for each square meter. Sabine Scharwachter, the initiator of Nacht=Leven and former chairman of DWARS, the youth wing of the Dutch political party GroenLinks, is worried about the current situation. “The night culture, and in particular the creative and non-commercial places, are pushed away from the city center to its edges. This is a new problem because, in the past, new places would open up as others closed. We see now that more and more places are closing, but there is little perspective for new creative places to emerge and develop. This is worrying because creative havens are disappearing, and if this goes on, we might lose them for good”. Because the city keeps expanding, most clubs can only settle outside the center where there is more space, like Skate Café and Garage Noord in Noord. This creates logistical problems: “Transport is a problem when things happen outside the city, which affects safety: do you feel like going home alone in the middle of the night from the outer city?” wonders Isabel Wiltenburg from the Amsterdam Night Mayor Foundation at a panel discussion about the night culture in the city. “Nice things happen in Bijlmer too. There is a lot of creativity, a lot of talent, but how do you go there if there is no metro running after midnight?”
According to Scharwachter, physical space is not the only problem: “It is important to guarantee not just physical space, but also financial help, legal protection and less bureaucracy.” The question of financial help is especially crucial in the current context of huge nightclub staff shortages and rising energy prices. The present situation makes nightclubs extremely vulnerable – there is a great risk that only rich investors will be left standing. For dancer and political scientist Veerle Klok, this situation disadvantages less profitable businesses: “People keep saying that there is no space for clubs, but the city center is full of big business clubs for tourists. The clubs that do well in the city center all belong to the same people because the only people who can afford to open something there are from big business.” This is worrisome as these clubs tend to look the same and target the same people. “This leads to more uniformity and does not improve diversity,” she added during the panel discussion. Many nachtmakers regret that the Amsterdam night culture is more and more driven by profit rather than passion. An example is the transformation of Claire on Rembrandtplein into a “dinner and dance” venue in 2019 to generate more money. Mass tourism certainly does not help. “It’s a problem when clubs in the city center only serve tourists instead of the locals. You now need to be mainstream to be a club in the city center, but it’s important to have a certain diversity”, said Scharwachter.
Paul Kuilboer, former production manager at De Marktkantine, explained the precarity created by the issue: “There is a great lack of places in Amsterdam where you can work long-term with real security.” Nightclubs in Amsterdam are not recognized as cultural institutions but as part of the hospitality sector, like hotels and restaurants. This makes the bureaucratic aspect more complicated, for instance, to receive subsidies, licenses or tax breaks. A solution to keep creative nightclubs afloat would be to give them the status of cultural institutions, as is already the case in Berlin, where clubs are in the same league as high culture sites such as museums or art galleries. Taking this step would require a change of mentality to reconsider the social and cultural roles of nightclubs. Scharwachter notes that “The night is a place for freedom from the daily grind and freedom to be whoever you want to be, for equality –everyone’s equal on the dancefloor, and for fraternity –a place that brings strangers together. This is what you experience on the dance floor.” Night culture is an indispensable element for the well-being of a city and its residents. As the first Amsterdam Night Mayor Mirik Milan wrote in the recently published book Geen dag zonder nacht (“No Day without Night”): “a nightclub is a breeding ground for creativity, a meeting place for informal networks.”
Night culture has always been a vital part of Amsterdam’s identity. The city has long been known as a place where new talents emerge and experimentation and creativity thrive. Scharwachter fears this might soon not be the case anymore: “Everyone looks at Amsterdam as the city of nightlife and yet we live up to it less and less.” The municipality has recognized the importance of night culture for the city. In an interview with NRC, Mayor Femke Halsema said, “Commercialism is driving out the eccentric souls, the underground clubs, the studios. Everything that makes the city unconventional and a bit raw is being pushed out.” However, this talk does not turn into practice: “many things are happening, but concrete actions are somewhat missing”, deplored Wiltenburg. And the clock is ticking. “Our generation could not go out for two years because of COVID and now clubs are shutting down,” regrets Sabine Scharwachter. “There is a sense of urgency, yet the municipality is only making plans for ten years from now. But we are not young forever.”
Nathan Domon is a university student in Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer.