independent school for the city

Column by Jonasz Dekkers

For Independent School for the City's school party - 23 June 2023

Rotterdam is a musical city. We were and still are the jazz capital of the Netherlands. Of course, the famous North Sea Jazz Festival is taking place next week, but more importantly, from the fifties up until the late eighties, Rotterdam was infamous for its jazz scene. Chet Baker, the legendary jazz trumpetist and singer, performed his last show ever in jazz cafe Dizzy on the ‘s Gravendijkwal. He went on stage, this small, cozy, dark Dizzy-stage, as a surprise act on a random Tuesday in 1988 and did some two or three heartfelt songs, which apparently, he performed very badly and out of tune. This however did not withhold Rotterdam poet and jazz musician Jules Deelder to be completely starstruck. He read Chet Baker his two lined poem “Chet Baker // Where art thou”. Deelder replied to his own question: “Now I know, thou art here.” If you happen to be a romantic it’s not hard to convince yourself that these were the final words Chet Baker ever heard, because two days after, on Thursday, Baker fell out of a window in Amsterdam while playing his trumpet and died on the pavements of the Dutch capitol. 

If you go to jazz cafe Dizzy in 2023 however, you would be lucky to find musicians playing there, live on stage. It’s actually a miracle that Dizzy is still up and running. Dizzy has known a lot of ups and downs – went bankrupt twice and closed its doors most recently between 2011 and 2015. But, thank the music gods, Mustafa Cingoz, a well-known local entrepreneur bought Dizzy in 2015 and reopened its doors. Luckily, he wanted to bring Dizzy back to its former glory. Well, I am too young to judge if he succeeded and fulfilled his wishes, but what I do know is that Rotterdam is since then, again, the proud hometown of the oldest jazz podium in The Netherlands. I am not sure if that’s true, but it makes a nice story.

And that is all owing to one courageous entrepreneur: someone who goes against the stream, an individual who defies the current, disregarding warnings against venturing into the nightlife industry in Rotterdam.

I have no idea if that’s true, if Mustafa indeed was advised not to take over Dizzy, I don’t even know Mustafa, although the Turkish omelet he makes at Dizzy is amazingly good. But attributing the return of Dizzy to one brave individual would make this romantic, not entirely factual story, even more romantic right? I guess so. Anyway… This was my attempt to make a little bridge to the rest of my story of tonight.

So, the little brigde: Nightlife industry in Rotterdam is a challenging sector. It is has undergone some fundamental changes in the last couple of years, and will change even more in the coming years. But before we dive into that, a story about rotterdam nightlife would always be incomplete without the only really unique subculture that arose in the Netherlands: hardstyle gabber culture. In the nineties, skinheads were dancing their asses of on remnants of huge concrete structures, old factories and desolated warehouses. Bands like Rotterdam Terror Corps, dj’s such as Speedy J, and venues such as Parkzicht, made Rotterdam the cradle of hardstyle electronic music. Funnily enough, the Chet Baker story took place in 1988 – and it’s hard to imagine a greater musical difference than the difference between the slow, sweet, romantic Chet Baker jazz and this ultrafast, hard, and rough gabbermusic. But this precisely captures the identity of Rotterdam music and nightlife industry for me: it’s by everyone, for everyone, and it’s edgy as fuck. 

Maybe I should say, it was edgy as fuck. Or, it wants to be edgy as fuck again – and I am sorry for the number of fucks given. But unfortunately, fuck is the term I would use to describe the current state of Rotterdam nightlife. One big fuck up actually. 

And that’s a shame, because we have had some great, iconic nightclubs. From the earlier mentioned Parkzicht to Nighttown, Watt and NOW&WOW, and in more recent times, BAR, Perron and Maassilo. During the first years of my ‘party life’, so let’s say 2015 to 2018-something, people were calling Rotterdam ‘small Berlin’, because of its raw, rough and edgy techno music scene. Rotterdam dj’s were playing all over the world and were proud to be from Rotterdam – they literally used this city as a playground. There were lots of empty buildings turned into temporary nightclubs, such as Bahn and Pink Pank, and almost every weekend there were huge illegal raves with the squatting crew Move Around Sound who threw parties on the streets with their moveable bicycle sound systems. People from all over the world came to our city to party. 

How is it possible that only five years later, we are here? 

And I mean that literally, like, really here. In het Schieblock. Perron, Reverse, Annabel, Poing, Time is the new Space, Biergarten, they are all uncertain if they can stay when the Schieblock is being redeveloped. And also a couple of blocks down the road, towards ZOHO – the area with MONO, Mooie boules, Reingoud is also at risk of being redeveloped without a place for nightlife to return. Then you have the M4H area, also very tricky – Weelde has to leave, BIT is being tormented by noise complaints from neighbors living in the Lee Towers and the Keilecafe is only a summer location. So, worst case scenario: ten out of twenty local night clubs will disappear in the coming five years. And we were already the city with the steepest decline of nightlife venues in the Netherlands over the last five years. 

There are a lot of reasons why this is the case in Rotterdam. Firstly, nightlife is, as many other creative industries, an all or nothing business. There is this theory in arts and culture studies called the ‘superstar theory’. Some will live, most will die. If one bar or club is trendy – everyone goes there and the other bars and clubs die out. It’s a tricky market. And sure, we have to admit that there is a darker side to nightlife – pun intended, of course. People go out to let go, let off steam, lift the lid of working life. People tend to abuse substances and drink like there is no tomorrow – so of course there are accidents, fights and trouble happening at night. Humans beings crave transgression, and so municipality is strict with handing out new licenses to start nightclubs in Rotterdam. But these things happen in every city. So why is the situation in Rotterdam more fucked than, lets say, in Amsterdam? 

Well, the main reason why local, Rotown nightlife is dying, has to do with the way nightlife is being conceptualized and treated by policymakers at the city hall. Policy wise, nightlife is almost always regarded as a branch of the catering industry – just one that happens to be open at night. The prevailing idea is that nightlife is nothing more than going out for drinks and if there is a dj playing, that’s nice. But nothing more. Music, art, performances and installations in nightclubs and other night venues, are seen as a mere background, a context within which people enjoy themselves. That is why nightclubs are in the same policy making category as lunch rooms, diners and restaurants. But it’s of course the other way around: people go to night clubs to dance, to listen to music, to experience art, to wonder at installations and performances. It’s a deeply cultural experience. 

Alright, in short: a nightclub in Rotterdam is not part of the cultural sector. Therefore, when a nightlife entrepreneur knocks on our mayor’s door for subsidies, our mayor doesn’t answer. That is also why during the pandemic, Rotterdam night clubs were really struggling – of all the extra money flowing to the cultural sector, not a single euro went to nightlife precisely because of the lack of subsidy relations with the municipality. 

From this also follows that a new nightlife venue is always first and foremost a possible threat to the city’s safety and order, and only thereafter might it have possible value to our cultural sector. So, when a new nightclub like for instance BIT in M4H-area, opened its doors in 2022, it was shut down after a couple of weeks due to noise complaints by neighbors living in the Lee Towers. There was literally a guy from the municipality going to almost every party with a decibel meter, just standing there and taking note of every decibel that exceeded the sound limit. Instead of checking the cultural, societal and psychological relevance of BIT, especially after the pandemic, the municipality decided that BIT was too noisy and shut it down. The only way to open up again: isolating the building. Which some 80,000 euros, that BIT, of course, couldn’t afford. And the municipality didn’t want to help them out. 

Next to having subsidy relations with the government, it’s paramount for nightlife to have some sort of regulation system in place. We must recognize the importance of supporting the music and artistic communities. Investments in infrastructure, education, and financial programs are essential to nurture talent and ensure the sustainability of our nightlife ecosystem. By empowering artists, providing accessible platforms for emerging talent, and fostering collaboration between established cultural institutions and new grassroots initiatives, we can cultivate a flourishing creative scene. Which is very important for a big city like Rotterdam which aims to be a 24-hour economy city. 

So, there is a need for recognition that nightlife is culture, not just another branch of the catering industry. The good news is that there really is a shift in mindset happening at the city hall. Some people in the municipality really are trying to turn things around: there is a night vision in place, all kinds of plans and regulation systems being constructed as we speak. Nightlife is being seen more and more as a part of the cultural sector rather than part of the catering industry. And that is a good thing. 

However, this could also create a new problem. 

The thing is, I would say that nightlife also blooms on the edges of society, in shadows of empty buildings, ruins and desolated areas. Important societal values of nightlife such as being a hub for creativity, innovation, renewal, self-expression and bringing people from different backgrounds together, blossom especially when there is no ‘political room’ for nightlife in a city. Just think about the gabbers in the nineties, the illegal raves on the streets and the popularity of dark bunker like clubs such as Perron and Maassilo when Rotterdam was nicknamed small berlin. If it is the case that nightlife is most creative, innovative, and culturally valuable when there is no regulation whatsoever, then it wouldn’t be a stretch to state that more regulations, even though they are meant to improve local nightlife, would actually inhibit the creative blossoming of this very enterprise.

Therefore, thinking and discussing the future of Rotterdam as a 24-hour economy city, and thus discussing its nightlife, we have to consider and be aware of the precarity of this balance. 

On the one hand municipality and urban planning involvement on maintaining or attempting to uplift nightlife, is very much necessary, especially with grand scale redevelopments of nightlife hotspot area’s such as M4H, Schieblock and ZOHO. And on the other hand, when there is no room for nightlife, nightlife will against all odds, always blossom. Even more so, I would say, since nightlife thrives in the shadows and in crises. 

So, how to reconcile this? 

Well, to be honest, I don’t know. 

But since I am talking to a room of urban planners, architects, and ‘city-enthusiasts’, I want to make a plea for thinking about the ways in which a symbiotic relationship between cultural nightlife and urban planning can be remade. When redeveloping areas such as M4H, or Schieblock, nightlife should be seriously considered as a force which is able to nurture potential cultural hubs, able to foster creative, social and informal networks of people who innovate and renew existing societal structures. This is important for tomorrow’s city landscapes, because there is a rising societal need for more communal spaces, for places where we can come together, share experiences and feel free. Nightlife venues are such places, if properly integrated in this city landscape. That means: balancing on the line between on the one hand rules and regulations, policymaking and subsidy infrastructures, and on the other hand having enough room for edginess, creativity, and freedom. 

My question is: can we find a golden mean in which nightlife can flourish without being suffocated by rules and regulations, and instead be freely supported by municipal subsidies and cultural plans? Taken by the hand but never hugged to death? I think there is an important role to be played by city landscapers, architects and urban planners to make this work. 

So I would like to leave you with some food for thought. How do we design and plan our urban landscape so that there is room and space for edginess, for transgression and creativity, but within the framework of policy infrastructures like subsidies and cultural regulations? How do we keep the balance between a raked, yew-hedged garden and a wild, biodiverse ivy-garden, so that everyone enjoys its flowers? This is important on a societal level because a vital element of a vibrant, 24-hour city is a blooming nightlife. So, let’s all work to restore Rotterdam’s former glory and make Ro-town again into Night town.

Thank you so much, enjoy the night and go taste that omelet at Dizzy – it’s really good.