Closing Time

 

A chunk of this article, which has some of my favorite collages (check out the pdf!) involves the Nachtburgermeester, which translates to Night Mayor, a quirky, not-entirely official entity that the city votes on each year.  

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ALL WE ARE SAYING IS GIVE BEER A CHANCE

WHILE MANY IN TOWN SLEEP THE NIGHT AWAY, CONTENT WITH THE CLOSING TIMES OF CAFÉS, CLUBS AND PUBS,THE NOCTURNAL SOULS REMAIN RESTLESS.AND THEY’RE BREWING PLANS TO EXTEND THE CITY’S DRINKING HOURS.

BY SUNNY BLECKINGER

The first meeting didn’t go so well. It was just me and a few buddies, longing desperately for a place to go drink beer during those oh-so-lonely hours between 4 and 7 a.m. So far, we’ve found nothing—nothing legal, at least.

But why not? Politicians and businessmen alike are touting slogans that proclaim Amsterdam’s blossoming creativity. They’re continually adding new cultural enhancements to the scene to entice even more tourist money. And they regularly decree our forthcoming membership in the so-called Top Five World Cities.

Yet, at the same time, the great majority of bars and cafés are browbeaten into closing at exactly 1 a.m. during the week. If they miss that cutoff time, then it’s American-style retribution: three strikes and you’re out. Certainly, there are a handful of bars with licences that allow them to stay open till 3 a.m. during the week and 4 a.m. on weekends, but if we’re truly becoming a world city—the message Iamsterdam keeps hammering into our heads—then a mere handful of late night pubs doesn’t do it. And what the hell are we supposed to do after 4 a.m.?

Going deep, falling hard

A case in point: De Diepte, the much-loved little dive bar tucked behind the Dam on St Pieterspoortsteeg, which was shut down two weeks ago, after a day of particularly heinous court decisions. De Diepte tended to blare out raw punk and the nastier roots of rock ’n’ roll from the speakers. It was run by Pyotr, a hard-drinking, crazed-looking individual with dark, sunken eyes, given to slamming tequila and leaping from his bar stool to rock out to the music. To the casual observer, it might have seemed like he was having a nervous breakdown. But they’d be wrong. He always acts this way.

‘See, that’s what I’m talking about, man. That whole place was full of characters,’ says Bjorn, member of eclectic music duo zZz. ‘The bartenders, the DJs, everybody that came in there, they were all so cool. It was one of the only places you could go and just be yourself.’

We’re sitting in a quiet pub and Bjorn is reminiscing. It seems difficult for him to accept the loss of his favourite bar: ‘There was never a problem at De Diepte. They never had to use a bouncer. They didn’t even have neighbours.[The city] really got the wrong place, man. I don’t know where to go now.’

And he’s not alone. Regulars of De Diepte estimate that roughly 2,000 locals had a real attachment to the place. On top of that, a huge international following of artists and musicians knew the bar well, and they always stopped by on their visits in town.

‘The place itself was really like a friend or a family member,’ says Bjorn. ‘You can’t replace that. You can’t rebuild it somewhere else… And the music! Where can you hear music like that anymore? That powerful rock ’n’ roll, ’50s garage, hard punk. It was at De Diepte that I really got to know this music.’

From the city’s viewpoint, however, closing down De Diepte was rather simple: no night bar may stay open past 3 a.m. during the week, or 4 a.m. on weekends, and Pyotr regularly violated that rule. But there are always other aspects to consider beyond the rules, especially when they’re made by suits disconnected from the scene.

‘People always got to De Diepte around two a.m.’ explains Bjorn, ‘just after the early bars would close. So that was Pyotr’s time to make a living. If he has to close at three a.m., then one hour is not enough—especially if the place is still packed. Why throw everybody out?’

DJ Bone would agree. He turned records there on a weekly basis, worked behind the bar for years, made flyers, and painted some of the murals on the walls. Few people know the place better than he does.

‘For late hours,’ says Bone, ‘it was the most happening bar around. It would’ve been nice to get people in there earlier, and we tried that. But people always thought about De Diepte when they’re drunk and want to get drunker.’

This is true, but despite the heavy intoxication and hard music, the vibe was always amiable. This was largely due to Pyotr’s continual presence and generosity. ‘For him, it was very important that you never had to pay an entrance fee. The bands always got as much as they wanted to drink—not just five little beers, you could really drink till you dropped dead. And every band, no matter how small you were, got paid the same amount. Even the DJs just starting out, they’d always get twenty-five euros an hour. That guy’s super generous. And the bar wasn’t making that much money.’

Like most little bars with big attitudes, this was not the first time De Diepte had been shut down. ‘I’ve been to three “Last night at De Diepte” parties,’ says Bone. ‘But this is the first time it was closed for this reason. I think it’s even the first time any bar lost its licence for staying open too late. It’s serious, but Pyotr’s still optimistic. With the help of Chiel van Zelst, he really expects to get the bar back.’

Voices of the night

‘By far, the most common thing people say to me is, “Get later hours for nightlife.” That’s what everybody wants.’ As Nachtburgemeester, Van Zelst spends almost all of his time—unpaid—talking to everybody that has any interest whatsoever in the night. ‘The PvdA is the biggest opposi-tion, and they’re always saying they want a city where you can live. But I think a local bar is part of living. They want all these artists and writers and creative people here. They keep calling it a creative city, using that as a marketing tool. But if you’re a writer and at one a.m. you’ve just fin-ished another chapter of your great book about life in Amsterdam, you’re gonna want to go out and get a beer and tell people about it. Then you’ll get your creative city.’

The opposition, however, argues that extended hours mean Amsterdam will become an unruly party city. ‘But I talk to the bar owners. Most of them don’t even want to stay open later. And besides, why can you have the Uit-markt blocking off streets, or have two big festivals at the same time, but you can’t have a bar open later where twenty people walk out? [The city] wants to be hip and exciting, but hip and exciting doesn’t stop at one a.m.’

Van Zelst is quite confident that these early hours can’t stay for long. ‘It’s a waste of money to promote the city at one end, and close it off at the other. It destroys capital. They won’t be able to hold this forever. It’s gonna have to change.’

Meanwhile, out across the IJ, just next to Robodock, Marc Koolen sits quietly in the newly refurbished home of his performance/party space, the PickUp Club. On meet-ing him there, he regales me with visions of a truly nocturnal Amsterdam: a city where the nightlife would be freed from its 4 a.m. shackles; a city that would actually live up to its progressive liberal reputation; a city that would be for all the people, not just members of the PvdA. It’s a lovely dream, but how would all this happen?

Koolen thinks for a moment, focusing his words. ‘The council needs to give parameters, pinpoint some places. They should say: “If you want to party all night long, please do so in these specific areas.” That would help to isolate the nightlife in a few spots, and leave plenty of areas where people can sleep quietly. They could pro-vide better night-time transportation, and give the [late-night] culture a chance to grow. But that’s not what they’re doing.’

He recalls the fire on New Year’s Day 2001 in ’t Hemeltje, a third-floor café in Volendam, where 14 young party-goers died, and 250 more were injured. ‘Since then, the city really started controlling nightlife: adding new rules, and stricter and stricter regulations. I think that’s really wrong. It’s important to feel your own decisions. You know what I’m saying?’

You mean, instead of letting others decide for you?

‘Yes. People are losing a feeling of responsibility for themselves. They think the city will take care of them in every way. Of course, it’s good to feel safe with your government. But, where will it stop? Are they going to put fences around the canals because people will say, “You let me fall in the water.” If I fall in the water, it’s my own fault. I should not be able to complain to the city about that. But one person complaining can block the party time of hundreds of people.’

That’s a good point. What happened to the idea of letting the majority decide?

‘Well, we need someone who has a vision, who is will-ing to take risks. The people who govern our city now, their decisions are based mostly on fear: fear of people complaining, fear of noise violations, fear of lawsuits. But there’s nothing to be afraid of. You know, in Groningen, they have no limits on drinking hours. The bars stay open all night. And there’s no problem.’ [See ‘Goody goody Groningen’ below.]

That’s interesting. Why we can’t do it here?

‘That’s something you’re going to have to ask the politicians.’

A talking suit

After an awkward encounter with a humourless security guard, I am pinned with a dated bezoeker badge, and allowed into the electronically locked doors of Stadhuis Centrum. Upstairs, Rob van Binsbergen, an advisor to Mayor Job Cohen, is waiting.

He offers a warm handshake, a cup of coffee, and then goes straight into the talk: ‘Closing hours have always been a political issue here. The last time we spoke of it was in 2004. We had a political debate. Traditionally, the VVD wants to abolish closing hours and [they] assume that public order will settle itself. The PvdA however, is more preventative. They’re concerned with the balance of living, working and recreation—which is a delicate balance. They don’t want to let any one culture grow bigger than the others.’

How do they know that extending bar hours would have that result? It’s seems to work well in Groningen.

‘Some people look to Groningen, or to Utrecht. But others look to Tilburg, which also had twenty-four-hour drinking, but it didn’t work. They went back. You can’t compare the cities on equal terms.’

Right. The only way to know how it will work in Ams-terdam is to try it in Amsterdam. So why don’t we try it?

He smiles. ‘That’s the question: do we want to experiment or not? After the 2004 discussions, we granted late night cafés and discotheques additional day-time hours so that they could do more with their space, rather than only incorporating night-time entertainment.’

Why aren’t we trying to use later night-time hours?

‘We feel that most of the bars will decide to stay open later, and most of the people that normally go home will stay out later. That will cause disorder in the streets. The Mayor says that the streets are his responsibility, and he does not want to put more police on the streets.’

But how do you know this will happen? Do you have someone specifically studying it for you?

‘No, there is not an actual group that studies that for us. But did you follow what has happened in England?’ [See ‘Across the water’ below.]

Yes, violence and crime actually went down with the extra drinking hours—though, some say it had to do with the extra police force they added.

Now Van Binsbergen gets excited. ‘See. That’s exactly what the Mayor doesn’t want: more police on the streets.’

Right.

‘So, you have to find a balance between those who want to stay open later and the interests of the inhabi-tants.’

Sounds like PvdA. What about—

‘The Mayor did make it possible—in some areas, like Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein—for pubs to stay open one hour later. We call it an afkoel uurtje [“cool-down hour”].’

Sounds great.

‘In that hour, no new [alcoholic] drinks can be served, and no new people can be let in.’

That sucks.

‘It’s actually good for the public order outside. People can cool off for an hour inside. Then there’s less tension.’

Could this be a step towards later hours?

‘Well, I’m certain that the PvdA will say that it’s the limit, and the VVD will say that it is only one step. We’ll have another discussion in 2007 to see where we want to go next.’

CASE 1: GOODY GOODY GRONINGEN

Groningen has allowed 24-hour liquor licenses for almost 15 years now. Talking to Eric Mooij, who specialises in horeca for the Groningen Gemeente, one gets the impression that all-night permits are as sensible as placing traffic signs by the road.

‘Before we had [24-hour opening times], we noticed that there was a rush hour when all the bars closed. This created an extra effort for the police. Now, things are much more moderate.[For example], at 3 a.m. there is not suddenly 6,000 people on the streets. So we don’t have to concern ourselves with crowd control.’

What about noise violations? Do you get many complaints from people living close to the bars?

‘Not really. Everyone’s used to it. Of course, like every city, there are always people who complain. But if you compare our relative numbers [of noise violations] with cities like Amsterdam or Rotterdam, there’s not much difference. In fact, in places with [mandatory] closing times, the problems are usually bigger. Here, it’s spread out over the night.’

How many bars/cafés does Groningen have?

‘About 800.’

And how many stay open the entire night?

‘The all-night bars are mostly in the centre. And there’s about four or five of them.’

Why so few?

‘Well, the thing is, there’s all kinds of bars [with] different themes. They like to have different hours and cater to different kinds of people. After 4 a.m., you get the really die-hard drinkers, and a lot of business owners simply say, “I don’t want to deal with them.” So, it becomes a natural selection, and the entrepreneurs are free to choose. The advantage is, you know where the die-hard drinkers are going, so if you need to, you can control them more easily.’

CASE 2: ACROSS THE WATER

The case in England and Wales is a bit more extreme. During WWI, Parliament introduced the Defence of the Realm Act, which allowed no pub to serve alcohol past 9.30 p.m. The War ended, but the law remained pretty much intact for 90 years, and when it was modified, the limit was only extended to 11 p.m.

Then, in November 2005, the government brought in a new act that made it possible, in some cases, for pubs to stay open 24 hours. This was in the midst of extreme levels of alcohol-related violence and binge drinking. People were racing to beat the clock and flooding out onto the street—heavily intoxicated—at 11 p.m. It was hoped that the extra opening hours would calm the drinking public and slow them down. But not everyone agreed it would work—many even feared disaster.

‘There was a great deal of controversy,’ says Neil Williams, spokesperson for the British Beer & Pub Association in London. ‘People were saying that [24-hour drinking] would contribute to public disorder. But the evidence has shown that this hasn’t been the case. The only real noticeable change is that people tend to go out slightly later. And they don’t drink as fast.’

Another concern was that every bar would suddenly become a 24-hour bar. ‘That was another myth that was perpetrated,’ says Williams. ‘The reality—though all pubs could apply, most of them applied for only one or two extra hours, and then only for two nights of the week. For example, Friday and Saturday. There simply has not been a wholesale shift.’

Beyond that, the permits for extended hours are not easy to attain. For example, in Leeds, 2,400 establishments applied, but only 700 applications were granted. And in Central London, it’s still difficult to find a late-night drink. A notable difference is that English and Welsh (Scotland has always had its own laws) city centres used to get crowded during drinking hours. But now, according to Williams, ‘many people stay at their favourite local bar.’

Also important: the amount of alcohol-related violence actually dropped since the new laws. However, some people claim that this was a result of extra money being dumped into the police force. Williams acknowledges the extra policing, but, he says, ‘that was in the heavy Christmas season. Since then, there haven’t been substantial problems. When we had the World Cup, which of course is a very big event over here, there were no additional problems.’

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