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What will nightlife look like after the pandemic?

From German unification to post-Franco Spain, periods of rapid release and liberalisation have often caused Europe’s culture to flourish. Can it do so again?

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“Simply because our generation had suffered so much, we regarded this period of relative calm as an unexpected gift. We all had a sense that we must catch up with everything that the terrible years of the war and its immediate aftermath had stolen from our lives – happiness, freedom, the chance to concentrate on things of the mind.”
 
The Austrian author Stefan Zweig’s portrait of Europe after the First World War in his 1941 memoir The World of Yesterday once again resonates. Zweig described the theatres of Vienna and the nightclubs of Weimar-era Berlin in the postwar years, but he could just as easily have been speaking to today’s coronavirus generation, starved of social contact and desperate to emerge from isolation to make up for lost time.
 
The cultural sector, and the night-time economy in particular, have been hit especially hard by Covid-19. Clubs are enclosed spaces, where inebriated strangers pack together, breathing in stale air thick with droplets of sweat and spit. Social distancing isn’t really the point; mixing in close proximity is. They offer an experience that has been denied to most Europeans for 12 months.
 
Many young people, isolated from their peers and often living in cramped flats that they never expected to use to live, work and play, are desperate to go out again. If vaccines work as effectively as hoped and bring an economic and social recovery, nightlife may be one of the many beneficiaries of months of pent-up demand. “I really enjoy feeling connected to a load of people and feeling able to cut loose. I’m keen to get back to doing that,” says Nina, a 23-year-old student in London.
 
But should we really expect a new Roaring Twenties once the pandemic is over?
 
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The last century’s moments of great cultural development often happened in the aftermath of social and political rupture, when people were suddenly released from years of constraint and collective societal trauma. Zweig’s Europe emerged after the killing fields of the First World War, while Berlin’s famed nightclub scene wouldn’t exist without the spaces left over after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.
 
“It’s like living in a dictatorship,” observes Dimitri Hegemann of today’s German capital, virtually deserted as the country is gripped by another brutal wave of coronavirus. Hegemann, one of the founders of Berlin’s Tresor nightclub, has more personal experience than most in western Europe of dictatorship. He moved from his Westphalian town to West Berlin in 1978, over a decade before the city was reunited.
 
Hegemann lived in close proximity to East Germany’s authoritarianism. And then, when it suddenly collapsed in 1989, he saw young people on both sides adapt to the end of the old world. The collapse of communism wasn’t easy for all former "Ossis". Some older people with jobs and a stake in the system regretted the loss of the order which they had grown up under.
 
But for the young, the new sense of freedom was intoxicating. They flocked to clubs like Tresor to mingle with Westerners. “Young people who had suffered over the years quickly took advantage of their new freedom,” Hegemann says. The unique division of Berlin had left the city with swathes of empty spaces, such as old electricity plants, water purification facilities and factories, which were promptly repurposed as cultural spaces such as clubs and galleries.
 
Hegemann found an old bank vault under a Jewish-owned department store that had been expropriated by the Nazis and then demolished by the new communist authorities after the war. The repetitive pounding techno played in the club, Tresor, would soundtrack the new Berlin: optimistic and sure of itself.

[See also: Remembering the world of yesterday]
 
Other examples of nightlife flourishing in moments of rapid liberalisation – which may find echoes in the end of lockdowns – abound. After the death of Francisco Franco, Spain’s dictator for nearly 40 years, in 1975, the country was gripped by a social movement known as La Movida, an explosion in counterculture. Decades of authoritarianism were followed by a burst of hedonism, as Spainish people got to grips with a newfound sense of possibility (though not immediately, as the long shadow of Francoism took time to clear).
 
“Bless the chaos, because it is a sign of freedom,” said Tierno Galván, the socialist mayor of Madrid, in 1984, describing the anarchy in the city that had been the centre of fascist Spain. Clubs opened at 4am. Punks roamed the streets with their hair done up in dyed spikes; bands formed and broke up on a virtually daily basis. Spanish women, escaping from the strictly enforced patriarchal order of the Franco years, especially enjoyed the new world’s freedoms.
 
“My first films coincided with a moment of absolute, vital explosion in this city,'' Pedro Almodóvar, a film-maker viewed as the leading chronicler of the era, once said. “Madrid in the beginning of the 1980s was probably the most joyful, the most fun, most permissive city in the world. It was really the rebirth of the city after such a horrible period as the Franco regime.”
 
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Beyond the pent-up demand for dancing, music and socialising, the changes wrought on economies by the pandemic, particularly in cities, also give cause for optimism about a nightlife renaissance. Clubs, requiring little more than a sound system, makeshift bar and staff to set up, always thrive in leftover spaces such as warehouses and basements.
 
There are structural reasons to believe that the post-Covid city might feel different – “scruffier, less expensive and younger”, as the urbanist Edward Glaeser wrote earlier this year. Some firms will move out of mega-cities to cheaper locales. Others will embrace hybrid or fully remote working, which may reduce overall demand for office space, though uncertainty remains. (The counterargument is that offices will have to be made more pleasant to compete with remote work, for instance by providing more space per employee, and so aggregate demand won't change as much as expected.)

[see also: Why we should celebrate the demise of the office]
 
There will be more drastic changes to high streets as government support for businesses is withdrawn. Some businesses will thrive in the expected post-Covid recovery; many others will go bust, if they haven’t already. Cities will soon have to think about what to do with spaces until recently occupied by restaurants, cafés and shops.
 
They should consider emulating the German Zwischennutzung, a temporary use authorisation popular in 1990s Berlin that allowed aspiring nightclub, gallery and bar owners to take over the spaces that were suddenly available, says Tobias Rapp, the author of Lost and Sound, an account of Berlin’s club scene. 
 
“Shops are not officially shut down right now because there's a government umbrella above them. But the moment the government removes this umbrella, perhaps a third of all inner-city shops are going to be gone. And the question is: what is going to happen to these empty spaces?” Rapp says, adding that Berlin and other cities may soon be full of premises that could be bars and nightclubs, or used for exhibitions and artist studios.
 
Inner cities and commercial districts that are relatively sparsely populated could be ideal venues for a nightlife renaissance if given the right impetus by cities and governments. “There's emptiness. People can be loud. Why not?” Rapp says.
 
Proposals have been put forward to repurpose a seven-storey former department store on London’s Oxford Street as an arts centre. This could be a model for commercial districts in cities whose economy has been shifted, if not wholly upended, by the apndemic.
 
“The inner cities of large metropolises have become ever-more commercial and about little more than shopping. This crisis may present a chance for cultural life to move back into the inner cities,” says Jochen Eisenbrand of the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, who curated the 2018 "Night Fever" exhibition about club culture.
 
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Clubs are more than places to get drunk and let one’s hair down. They provide opportunities for inexperienced but ambitious musicians to perform to small audiences. They can be among the few spaces where marginalised groups, such as LGBT people living in conservative societies, feel safe, as with the Bassiani nightclub in Tbilisi, Georgia.
 
The night-time economy is also an important part of the wider city economy, the sector argues. Industry group the Berlin Club Commission estimates that the sector generated about €1.5bn for the city annually pre-pandemic, in addition to attracting young people working in start-ups and burnishing the German capital's image abroad.

[See also: Covid-19 and the anxiety epidemic]
 
Talk to nightclub owners, and a sense of being abandoned and overlooked by government dominates. Crusty lawmakers do not properly understand the value of clubs, in both cultural and economic terms, they complain. The sector has already felt under assault for several years now, as rising real estate prices and the noise-sensitive residents of gentrifying districts force more and more clubs to close. 
 
Of course, having been closed for a year, many more clubs are on the verge of shutting for good. Hegemann says that if Tresor does not reopen by the end of the year, it will close permanently, even with government support. But should they be saved? There is a persuasive argument that clubs are not museums but living reflections of the evolution of a city. If some go bust, others will spring up to replace them, meeting an ever-present demand. After all, “clubs have always been kind of ephemeral”, says Eisenbrand.
 
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After a year of diligent handwashing, elbow-bumping and avoiding large crowds, it is almost impossible to imagine mixing, maskless, with hundreds of others. But just as societies adapted swiftly to the demands of the pandemic, there is little reason to believe that, if vaccines suppress Covid as effectively as hoped, we won't return to the old ways quickly too.
 
The end of the pandemic, at least in the rich world, appears within reach. Images from the few places in the world which are virtually Covid-free, such as Australia and Taiwan, suggests that the future of clubbing looks like a lot like its past: maskless, crowded, uninhibited. But the pent-up demand for partying combined with the structural changes that may be in store for cities suggests that talk of a new Roaring Twenties may not be all hyperbole.

[See also: As Germany's restrictions drag on, I turn to gardening to life the ambient gloom]

Ido Vock is international correspondent at the New Statesman.

He co-hosts our weekly global affairs podcast, World Review.