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Redevelopment projects threaten to close the iconic Islington venue, but there's more than one way to skin a cat, explains programmer Matthew Cook
By Molly Long on 30 Aug 2018
In the last ten years, 35% of London’s grassroots music venues have shut down amid soaring rents and pressure from property development. Among those facing closure is the Garage, the Islington venue that sits on land earmarked for the redevelopment of Highbury & Islington tube station.
The threat first appeared back in February, Matthew Cook, appointed programmer for the venue last November, explains. An “ambiguous” letter was sent from Islington Council, suggesting the venue could be demolished to make way for redevelopment, though no timeline was given.
“It was basically a letter from the council saying, ‘We can do whatever we want, whenever we want,'” Cook says.
In the near half-year since the letter was sent, there has been no communication between the Garage, Islington Council or Transport for London (TfL). When locals got wind of the news, a campaign was started on behalf of the venue. Supporters created a petition with the intention of getting the venue recognised as an ‘asset of value’ to the local community, a status that would strengthen its case for remaining open.
“Having to jump through these hoops seems slightly ridiculous considering we have been an iconic Islington venue for the last 25 years,” Cook tells IQ. “But we are boosted by the amount of people who are behind us.”
It’s the “ghosts of past performers” that makes a venue what it is.
The community response prompted a vow from TfL and Islington Council, reported by the Islington Gazette, that the venue would be “protected or re-provided”. But, calling on the example of the Marquee Club, whose relocation away from Soho proved unsuccessful, Cook explains it’s the “ghosts of past performers” that makes a venue what it is.
The grassroots club, bought by DHP Family in 2016, has been a staple of Islington nightlife since it opened in 1993. World-renowned bands have played the 600-capacity venue, including Arctic Monkeys, Oasis, Blur and Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Tracing the footsteps of such bands is an important experience for emerging talent, says Cook. “People use the Garage as a way to get their career from A to Z.”
“We are encouraged to hear the positive news that they [Tfl and Islington Council] are considering the Garage now, but we would like some direct communication,” he adds. “We need these promises fleshed out and an assurance that the love we are putting into this place is worthwhile.”
Beyond the immediate threat from developers, Cook is keen to point out that grassroots venues like the Garage are just as threatened by the rising cost of operating as they are by redevelopment. “There’s various ways to skin a cat, and there’s various ways to get rid of businesses,” he says.
“Our business rates have gone up 70% since 2016. You don’t need bulldozers to demolish a venue”
“Our business rates have gone up 70% since 2016. You don’t need bulldozers to demolish a venue.
With constant pressure, the psychological effect on venue staff can be severe, Cook adds. “We [DHP Family] took on the Garage knowing the current hostile climate for grassroots venues. We knew it was a challenge, but we rebuilt and refurbished it completely.
“But with this threat constantly looming, it is hard to maintain the level on enthusiasm needed to operate a small venue. We don’t know if things will happen in a few months or a few years, or at all.”
In recent weeks, staff have upped the campaign to safeguard its future. The campaign seeks to keep local residents informed of the Garage’s fight against closure, and encourage registered voters to continue to sign the petition that will give the venue its ‘asset of value’ status. “We’ve helped to set up a Friends of the Garage Facebook group for the local residents to express their support of this iconic venue.
“We would urge anyone wanting to show their support to join the group where we will be posting regular updates.”
November will see the venue celebrate its 25th anniversary. To mark the milestone birthday, a series of shows have been planned in partnership with the charity WarChild UK.
Those wishing to keep up to date with developments in the campaign can visit the Friends of the Garage Facebook page.
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