Research project funded by:

IDEX Univ. Grenoble Alpes (IRS Programme)



Research staff involved:

Mike Foley (ILCEA4, Univ. Grenoble Alpes), Programme leader 

Stéphane Sadoux (LabEx AE&CC), Programme Co-leader

Gilles Novarina (LabEx AE&CC)

Cécile Léonardi (LabEx AE&CC)


Project duration:

18 months (from June 2018 to December 2019)



London, UK

San Francisco, USA



Project description:

Few cities in the world are more closely associated with neoliberal urban policy than San Francisco and London. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, critics have often portrayed San Francisco and London as among the most extreme examples of what David Harvey calls urban “dispossession” (2008) – the marginalization and displacement of a city’s longtime residents by an incoming class of wealthier “gentrifiers.” Over the last few decades, this process has largely been aided by urban policymakers keen to attract financial investment and real estate development.

The plain result has been the disappearance of the diversity and cultural richness that first attracted investment, and shocking inequality. In San Francisco, homeless encampments stand in the shadows of newly built, gleaming luxury and office towers. In London,  real-estate pressure has been pushing out the less profitable activities and the working-class out of the city for decades. This project examines the response and resistance of various stakeholders, including key subcultural actors, tothe dispossession of San Francisco and London. It draws on our expertise as an historian (Mike Foley) and an urban planner (Stéphane Sadoux) to analyse: 

  • how the punk subculture of 1970s-1980s San Francisco – club owners, artists, and fans – both propagated and embodied a radical critique of urban America in a time of scarcity and political instability, 
  • how various stakeholders in London (club owners and managers, DJs, music producers and public sector bodies) are figthing to halt the closure of nightclubs – in particular those playing techno music.

Although cultural studies scholars have long written of the political potency of subcultures, historians and urban planners have generally ignored these political actors. We aim to change that with this project. 

In San Francisco, urban dispossession began in the 1960s, but sustained opposition and resistance arose in the late 1970s when a new administration, led by a landlord mayor, began a systematic transformation of the city defined by close relations with the real estate and tourist industries. In a city most closely identified with the utopian ideals of the Sixties counterculture and 1967’s Summer of Love, punks (not hippies) led the opposition, joining with activists of other marginalized populations to defend neighborhoods, block-by-block, against the wrecking ball. On the one hand, punks took direct action against real estate interests buying up properties to make way for expensive condominiums; they battled landlords and police in defense of elderly tenants and others facing eviction from low-income housing. On the other hand, San Francisco punks also practiced what sociologist Wini Breines calls “prefigurative politics,” by attempting to build a micro-model of the society they hoped to build on a larger scale. They carved out and defended self-run spaces for themselves to share their music and art (which was defined by political engagement), to live communally and inexpensively, and to use these places as staging areas for political action. 

Unlike in San Francisco, in London in recent years, Mayor Saddiq Khan has raised alarm over the closure of techno nightclubs and the negative impact that this has had on the nighttime economy. The same neoliberal forces, driven by real estate development and tourist interests are the culprits. But in what ways has London responded similarly or differently than San Francisco?

This research will examine and analyse the ways in which three main types of stakeholders have been coping with nightclub closures over the past years, and to investigate the various actions they are taking to counter the negative impact on both the city’s culture and economy.

First, the public sector, in particular the Mayor of London, whose contribution is reflected in the evolution of planning policy frameworks which increasingly aim to contribute to the promotion and safeguarding of the night-time economy and to the protection of nightclubs.

Second, we will examine the role played by techno nightclub owners and managers in resisting the trend of nightclub closures. One of the main case studies will be Club414, located in Brixton. This iconic venue has been operating since the mid 1980s and has over the past three years been threatned by a series of planning applications aiming to turn the place into more profitable uses, such as luxury housing or a cocktail bar. 

Third, we will analyse the role played by DJs, party promoters and music producers who, like San Francisco punks, resisted the forces of neoliberalism in a variety of ways. We will in particular focus on the Stay Up Forever Collective, which has been active for a quarter of a century.

We expect to produce new findings on the engagement of subcultures with important questions of urban planning and economic policy-making, information that will be valuable cultural studies scholars, urban planners, and urban activists.


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