It’s all very well claiming to be a city that never sleeps but does that actually result in wide-awake venues and services that those burning the midnight oil can access? We visit London, Sydney and Buenos Aires to find out.
Rare is the city hall that doesn’t proclaim its home to be a 24-hour affair – but too often they are focused on bars and young people. The night economy is not all about clubs and teenagers; it’s about life after sunset for all generations. It means bookshops and boutiques that are still open at midnight and public transport that doesn’t stop at about the same time.
It also means a policy on bars and clubs that strikes the right balance for residents and revellers. In Berlin for example, responsibility for soundproofing is on the new arrival; if a developer builds apartments in an area full of bars it can’t complain about the noise. The battle over the night-time is raging everywhere; here we look at the challenges facing three cities and take the pulse in other regions too.
To the enduring annoyance of many of its citizens and the complete bafflement of visitors, London often feels, as midnight looms, like it’s under curfew. Most restaurants start to turn away customers at 22.00 and despite an overdue relaxation of licensing laws in 2005, many pubs and bars still close at 23.00. And pity the poor person who would like to browse in a bookshop at midnight or pick up a magazine at a kiosk at 01.00: they closed around the same time that most people left work for the day.
London’s nightlife is increasingly constrained by difficulties familiar to cities struggling to grasp the double-edged sword of gentrification. The bars and clubs move to a rundown area, attracted by lower rents. New residents, attracted by these bars and clubs, are next. Businesses, attracted by the new residents, follow. Middle-class property purchasers then descend and complain about the noise from the nightspots that started the wheel turning. Soho, once a legendarily dissolute West End district of dives, dens and disrepute, is now a monument to this phenomenon, all upscale chain bars and fauxhemian boutiques.
Paul Daly has lived this cycle. He moved to Hoxton in 1988 when the district was a ruin of abandoned warehouses; he now owns two bars in what has become the city’s most fashionable area. “You can’t move to Shoreditch and expect it to be like Hampstead,” he says. “You have to research a community before you move there but if someone says they have a problem I do my best to deal with it. The whole point of a community is to work together.”
The evidence suggests that London’s communities are struggling to manage that, not least because in recent years residents’ groups have successfully challenged the licences of established nightclubs. “In the past three years more than 10 of the biggest nightclubs in London have closed,” says Alan Miller, chairman of the Night Time Industries Association. “This costs London financially but also culturally.” Miller, who previously helped found the Old Truman Brewery and Vibe Bar, argues that clubs are being held responsible for the behaviour of a minority of patrons. “But if someone is mugged outside Tesco, the supermarket doesn’t get closed.”
One might contend that at least the option of getting mugged outside a supermarket exists; the 24-hour retail barns are among the very few after-hours shopping options available to Londoners. Neil Cornelius, whose eponymous Mayfair hair salon offers appointments around the clock, says he’s quite busy in the small hours (“Everyone from bankers who work long days to engineers from the Crossrail project”) but doubts that the demand is there. “I think people are more likely to shop online.”
Alan Miller, who also sits on the London Night Time Commission, notes that a few museums and galleries have tried late openings and has heard of a couple of Soho bookshops considering it. “We’d like to see and encourage all types of activity in the 24-hour cycle,” he says.
A Night Time Commission was set up earlier this year by then mayor Boris Johnson; his successor Sadiq Khan has announced a new night tsar to protect pubs and clubs, while the long-awaited 24-hour Tube is due to begin in August. The UK’s capital, at last, seems to be coming up with a night-time strategy. “We don’t want to be the same as other 24-hour cities,” says Shain Shapiro, the Night Time Commission’s secretary. “We’ll be London.” That may be so but it wouldn’t hurt to take some inspiration from those who do it better.
Living in Sydney’s Kings Cross used to involve a little more weekend housework than other neighbourhoods. “Locals were having to wash down their steps to get rid of vomit and urine left there by revellers,” says Helen Crossing, convenor of the 2011 Residents Association, which represents suburbs within the 2011 postcode area of Sydney. “The streets were littered with broken glass and people felt like prisoners in their apartments as they feared being assaulted by groups of drunken people.”
But the inner-city suburb that’s historically famous for its nightlife is now sparkling with a new cleanliness and sense of civility. The New South Wales state government imposed a suite of restrictions on inner-city venues in 2014, including shutting the doors to new customers at 01.30 and last orders at 03.00; the impact on Kings Cross and other suburbs has been profound.
“The noise ceased – calm and a sense of safety returned,” says Crossing. “People can once again walk the streets without fear of harm and Kings Cross is a more pleasant place to be.”
Violence in Kings Cross, which Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull described two years earlier as “a warzone”, has decreased by 31 per cent since the introduction of the lockout laws, with 283 attacks in the 10 months after February 2014 compared to 410 in the 10 months before. Where once there were nightclubs and strip joints, yoga studios and health-food stores have sprung up and an evening stroll around the neighbourhood will take you past new fine-dining restaurants and lights burning late in co-working spaces.
But it’s a lonely walk. There has been an 80 per cent drop, with more than 40 nightlife venues shutting down. The slowdown is echoed across the wider Sydney cbd and inner suburbs, where many live-music venues have closed and several hundred jobs have been lost in a night-time economy that employs 30,000 people and is worth au$17.8bn (€11.4bn) a year, according to the City of Sydney. Many citizens believe the spontaneity that made Sydney such a desirable international destination has been lost in a city that now bans the sale of takeaway alcohol after 22.00. “Word is getting out that Sydney is no longer about fun and it’s closed for business after dark,” says Keep Sydney Open campaign manager Tyson Koh.
Koh formed Keep Sydney Open with key cultural organisations, music venues and night-time economy stakeholders to highlight the negative impact that the lockout laws have had on people who work and play in Sydney. More than 15,000 people attended a Keep Sydney Open protest rally in February and in May the group submitted a petition of 10,000 signatures to the nsw parliament that has triggered a fresh debate around the lockout laws.
“The options of being able to go out late to dance, shop or get a meal are diminishing by the week,” says Koh. “We are in state of emergency and policy-makers must act to ensure law-abiding citizens are not shut out of their city.”
Opponents of the lockout laws say Sydney has become a nanny state where even a glass of wine during a picnic or on the pavement at an art opening is now illegal due to council restrictions on alfresco dining. They argue that the relaxed Australian way of life has become a thing of the past due to overly prescriptive rules and regulations, and have successfully called for a review of the lockout laws.
Sydney’s mayor, Clover Moore, has the unenviable task of balancing the needs of residents with the desires of bar owners, as well as maintaining a vibrant night-time culture in a city that has changed overnight. “We’ve had a serious problem, the government has taken serious action and now it’s time to make some long-term decisions,” she says.
Moore fields questions about the lockout laws on a near daily basis, including in March when she hosted an event for international visitors to the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. “I was introduced as the mayor of the best city in the world but a city where everyone has to be tucked up in bed at 01.30,” she says.
An independent review of the new laws will be submitted to the nsw government in August and Moore is optimistic that safety can be balanced with a vibrant night-time economy, which she believes has been damaged by the laws. “We need to keep Sydney safe while ensuring we still support the people, bars and restaurants that make it a great place to be at night.”
A long line of patient customers winds out of Cadore ice-cream parlour on Avenida Corrientes in downtown Buenos Aires. But there’s a cool breeze and the sun isn’t shining. It’s past midnight on a Tuesday and the crowds – including a smattering of grandparents and young children – are queuing to buy thick scoops of dark chocolate and pistachio ice cream atop crunchy waffle cones. Across the street, dog walkers untangle leads while an elderly neighbour patiently waters her hyacinths up on a third-floor balcony.
Night-time activities play as much of a role in the lives of Porteños, the residents of Argentina’s capital, as their daytime pursuits. Dinner reservations are made for midnight; 02.00 cinema screenings are packed. It’s been like this for generations in Argentina – some say they are vestiges of the late lunch and the siesta from colonial Spain, others cite them as a consequence of long steamy summers. But these night-time rituals are coming under pressure.
Music venues have had a hard time maintaining their nocturnal routine due to tougher city regulations. A catastrophic fire that broke out at Cromañón nightclub in 2004 killed nearly 200 clubbers; it became something of a symbol for the government’s failure to improve health and safety regulations. And as recently as April another tragedy – the death of five people at the Time Warp electronic music festival held in Costa Salguero – meant all music venues were at risk of closure.
Stringent laws introduced five years ago to combat noise pollution are additional hurdles. Owners face fines if noise levels exceed 90 decibels, with residential areas limited to 65. Buenos Aires was voted the noisiest city in Latin America last year and among the top 10 globally according to the World Health Organisation. A hot climate means many are forced to leave their windows open, while the frequent but crumbling overground train network leaves little protection from noise.
Plans to move nightclubs further out are underway as the infrastructure fails to cope with the crowds and lateness. But it will be hard to change long-embedded habits. Tuti Gianakis, editor of music magazine Remix, says regulation alone cannot change entrenched habits. “Porteños choose to catch a film screening or sit down to a three-course dinner in the early hours of the morning, not early evening,” he says. “And with each generation it’s getting later.”