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The Secret Urban History Of Nightclubs

The stories behind three legendary clubs show how they added to the economic and cultural wealth of their cities–and in the process, gentrified them.

From the late 1960s to early ’70s, the Electric Circus was a beacon of pleasure in the East Village–a nightclub where flamethrowers and jugglers plied their art amidst a backdrop of strobe lights and grainy home movies that were projected on the walls. But while the glory days of New York’s famous nightclubs from those years are long gone, the impact the club as an institution has had on the city is far from over. That’s because clubs aren’t just a place to dance the night away. They also play a role in the economic and cultural wealth of cities, woven just as deeply into the urban fabric as more highbrow cultural institutions.

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According to Jochen Eisenbrand, the curator of a new exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum that chronicles the history of clubs from the ’60s through today, that’s partly because boundary-pushing nightclubs–like artists–are harbingers of gentrification. “If you look at New York, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it was, of course, the artists that moved into lofts in Soho and made that a neighborhood that people wanted to move to,” he says. “But I think clubs played a similar role. The interesting club scene in New York was downtown at that time. For some people going out, going to these clubs was some of the first times they discovered these neighborhoods.”

Volker Hinz, Grace Jones at “Confinement” theme, Area, New York, 1984. [Photo: © Volker Hinz]
Eisenbrand points to the Mudd Club and Area, both in TriBeCa, as examples of countercultural icons that became harbingers of gentrification as wealthier people began to move into the area–now one of the most desirable in Manhattan. Even today, some of the city’s most popular clubs, like House of Yes, are located in Bushwick, Brooklyn, a neighborhood that is rapidly gentrifying. 

Interior view of Haçienda, Manchester. [Photo: Courtesy of Ben Kelly]
New York isn’t the only city where nightclubs are tied to gentrification. In the ’80s Manchester, one of the city’s main industries–textile manufacturing–was on its way out, with manufacturers moving to Asia. The exodus left the city, which was the U.K.’s manufacturing hub, in bad shape. But with the new glut of plentiful, affordable space, clubs like the famous Hacienda sprang up. The Hacienda–which was open from 1982 to 1997–found a home in a former textiles warehouse and facilitated the rise of acid house and rave music in the U.K. Its designers, Ben Kelly and Peter Saville, told Eisenbrand in a conversation at the exhibition opening that the club and its popularity helped the city transition from an industrial to a post-industrial city. “It was a major agent in the gentrification of the city,” Eisenbrand says. “It was a magnet for tourists. People came from other places to see it.”

Martin Eberle, Tresor außen, Berlin, 1996. From the series Temporary Spaces [Photo: © Martin Eberle]
The clubs, which embraced the fringes of culture and gave marginalized people a place to be themselves, existed on the literal fringes of the city, too. It’s a theme that comes up again and again in the exhibition–these clubs have a way of finding homes in the cracks of urban space, in places few would think to look. Take Tresor in Berlin, a club that’s still alive and well, that got its start in 1991 after the fall of the Berlin Wall. After the fall, there were many buildings in East Berlin with no clear owners and others that were set to be demolished. Clubs could move in temporarily, bumping jams in the ruins of the city. Tresor began when its founders discovered a series of bank vaults beneath a bombed department store that was likely dangerous to inhabit. “They just used it as it was, with the open safety deposit boxes that had been broken up adding to this ruined atmosphere,” Eisenbrand says. “It befitted the music in a way.”

And similar to Hacienda’s influence in Manchester, Berlin’s club scene was able to bring visitors to the city–a trend that continues to this day. “These clubs became a factor in tourism and in the city economy,” Eisenbrand says.

While gentrification can spur change in cities by bringing money into run-down areas, it can have negative impacts as well. As clubs contribute to economic growth, they also help raise real estate prices, which often pushes people out of neighborhoods and deepens inequality in cities.

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In fact, culture-shifting clubs like Hacienda and Tresor sprang up when their cities were in periods of transition. But today, cities like New York, London, and Berlin have grown into extremely expensive metropolises, making it difficult for these countercultural spaces to survive at all–like artists, they become victims of the gentrification they helped spur. However, cities have started to recognize the importance of clubs both when it comes to culture and to economic growth. The latest trend in city government is to appoint a night mayor, someone to oversee the city’s nightlife (and often mitigate conflict between clubs and their neighbors). New York, for instance, appointed its first night mayor earlier this month. “On the one hand it speaks to city governments discovering that nightlife is important for a city’s economy, but it may also speak to how nightlife is somewhat endangered,” Eisenbrand says.

OMA/Rem Koolhaas, Isometric Plan Ministry of Sound II, London, 2015. [Image: © OMA]
That’s primarily because of exorbitant real estate prices. In London, space is so expensive that clubs are looking to designers to find inventive new ways to use their space. The Ministry of Sound, an influential club in the city, commissioned the architecture firm OMA to design a new club for the 21st century. The architects designed a mixed-use building that would be used 24/7, with offices and retail. It was never built.

Despacio Sound System, New Century Hall, Manchester International Festival, July 2013. [Photo: © Rod Lewis]

But club creators are adapting to the increasing challenges of maintaining a countercultural space in a city. In metropolitan areas where having a permanent location may no longer be feasible, secret pop-up clubs that exist for only a few nights before moving on are a way to escape both expensive rents and hordes of tourists. These clubs depend on new technology, some of which is featured in the exhibition. There’s the Despacio Sound System, developed by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem. Inspired by the renowned sound system of the ’70s New York club Paradise Garage, the Despacio is meant to be similar in quality but can be moved from place to place. The Detroit-based architecture studio Akoaki created a mobile DJ booth called the Mothership, designed to highlight the city’s musical claims to fame: Motown funk and techno. Also on display is “The Club,” a modular sound system created by architecture firm Bureau A that has a DJ booth, bar, and loudspeakers that can be arranged depending on what kind of party you’re hosting. Even Ikea is getting into the mobile party game, with a series of products aimed at being able to throw a party anywhere scheduled for release in 2019.

As clubs find new ways to go underground, evading tourists, dodging expensive rents, and continuing to find the fringe, they’re also cultivating an intangible but invaluable feature of today’s cities–the next counterculture.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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