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New York City’s Office of Nightlife: Boon or Bust for the Scene?

The first American city to adopt a nightlife office could be a 'taxpayer-funded party pooper.'

Nightlife By

Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill creating a new city agency—the Office on Nightlife—on September 19 at a popular Brooklyn nightclub and circus-arts space House of Yes. He was joined on stage by punk icon drummer Marky Ramone of The Ramones and the most recorded jazz bassist in history, Ron Carter. The place was packed with dance activists, city employees, club owners and DJs. The new office will serve as a liaison between the nightlife establishments, residents, and government.

New York is now the first American city to adopt a nightlife office, which is modeled after European cities, such as Amsterdam and London. In Amsterdam, a similar agency helped reduce crime by 25 percent and decrease noise complaints by 28 percent.

The Office of Nightlife will have an annual budget of $407,000, including $370,000 to pay a yet-to-be-named director and deputy. There will also be a 12-member Nightlife Advisory Board. Four members will be appointed by the mayor and eight by the speaker of the City Council, and they will each serve a two-year term.

For some, the creation of such an office in New York City might sound preposterous. Why would the “city that never sleeps,” that has a worldwide reputation for throwing the best parties in the world, waste money to create such an agency?

Will it cater to the club industry and upset families with small children who complain about loud noise? Or on the contrary, will this new office bring order to the $10 billion NYC nightlife industry that employs more than 100,000 people? After all, several hundred thousand dollars is just a drop in the bucket, considering the city’s $85 billion budget.

But the problem is much deeper than it sounds and de Blasio’s signature has come after decades of advocacy efforts. It is important to differentiate between giant corporate nightclubs and independent entities.

Over the past 15 years, more than 20 percent of the city’s smaller venues have closed amid noise complaints, licensing issues, and skyrocketing real-estate prices, especially in East Village and Williamsburg. For local musicians, fewer venues mean fewer performance opportunities and more competition for the slots that are available.

If you go to dance clubs like Marquee or Lavo, you probably never even heard about Cabaret Law. But if you’re someone who likes to enjoy an IPA at a local bar in Brooklyn or East Village, you might have noticed the “no dancing” signs at some spots. Those signs still hang at some bars because dancing is technically illegal in New York City unless the venue has a cabaret license, which is extremely difficult to obtain, according to nightlife professionals. There are no legal community spaces to dance in most neighborhoods in NYC and out of over 25,000 bars and restaurants in NYC, currently only 104 places hold the cabaret license.

The law was created in 1926, during the prohibition era, with an intent to break up black jazz clubs in Harlem. The enforcement of the law was the most severe under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s term in the ’90s. Squashing nightlife was part of his broader initiative to reduce crime and his MARCH (Multi-Agency Response to Community Hotspots) task force raided bars and clubs looking for infractions that caused fines and could lead to closure.

The council member who drafted the bill to create the Office of Nightlife, Rafael Espinal (D-37), also introduced bill No. 1652 that proposes to repeal the racially motivated Cabaret Law. Espinal connected with various groups, like Dance Liberation Network, Let NYC Dance, NYC Artist Coalition that have advocated for the law’s repeal.

DLN member @vdvm lobbying council members for @rlespinal cabaret repeal bill. #letnycdance

A post shared by Dance Liberation Network (@danceliberation) on

Even Mercedes Ellington, the granddaughter of jazz legend Duke Ellington, testified in front of the New York City Council on Sept. 14 in support of No. 1652. “The freedom to be beyond category, to explore and express, through music and dance, is our human responsibility. The current cabaret laws were designed to restrict, curtail and separate those freedoms,” Ellington said.

On Oct. 14, several nightlife professionals—John Barclay, Paul Seres, Erica Ruben, and Council Member Rafael Espinal—spoke on the panel, moderated by AdHoc founder Ric Leichtung, about NYC Cabaret Law at the Brooklyn Electronic Music Festival Record Fair and Talks.

Council Member Espinal said that historically, the Cabaret Law has affected the bars and clubs of marginalized communities, whether it would be artists, Black, Latino, or LGBTQ communities.

A lot of focus has been put on the fact that the Cabaret Law has racist roots and should be repealed—just like the Confederate statues are being removed. But John Barclay, a bar owner and a member of Dance Liberation Network, who has worked in the nightlife industry for the past 10 years, pointed out that marginalized communities continue being targeted. “It’s still happening, it might be even worse today,” he said.

He brought up the names, obtained by DNAinfo back in June, of 36 businesses that were fined by the State Liquor Authority for allowing patrons to dance without a cabaret license between January of 2016 and April 2017.

“If you look at the names of the spots that are being fined—they’re almost entirely Latino and Caribbean spots,” Barclay said.

Bars and restaurants hold names such as Fogon Latino Bar, Tradiciones Latinas, Las Nuevas Delicias and others. The spots were spread out across the city, but with concentrations in Jackson Heights and Corona and Ozone Park. Many of the businesses that paid the fines have since closed.

“How do we stop the bleeding of our cultural spaces, how do we stop the bleeding of our cultural nightlife? And one way is to get rid of this law,” said Espinal.

On October 17, chatting at a coffee shop on the Lower East Side, Ariel Bitran, currently a booking agent at Mercury Lounge, shared his experiences of working in New York’s music industry. He said while he was working at Sunnyvale, a venue in Brooklyn, every time they would host a hip-hop show, at least two police cars would show up and hang out the entire night right outside the venue as if expecting for something bad to happen. “The hip-hop police is what they’re called,” he said.

Bitran was also the main booking agent at Palisades, a venue in Brooklyn that in a short period managed to achieve international underground music esteem and hosted artists from all over the world and the U.S. It was shut down for building code violations in 2016 after a couple of years of business. Bitran said that Palisades was raided three times by MARCH, and fined every time. After each time, they made some improvements, but it was not enough. They had to pay thousands of dollars for fines and lawyers.

“There was a cyclical nature to it that once you paid off the most recent fines, that’s when the next inspection would come,” he said. And after the third time they got raided, he said, “that was it. We really didn’t see a way out.”

He also thinks that another reason why Palisades got shut down faster than other venues is that their music attracted a diverse crowd. “It wasn’t like chill, indie rock shows that ended at 1 a.m. We had club nights with hip-hop and club music that attracted a very multi-racial crowd. Cops hate hip-hop shows. They will do anything to stop you from having a hip-hop show,” he said.

Bitran agrees that club owners have to be responsible and follow the laws, but with so many layers of bureaucracy, following the rules is difficult and you need a lot of capital. For those reasons, he has decided against opening up his own music venue.

Apart from obtaining the cabaret license, club owners have to go through other layers of bureaucracy: approval from the Department of Buildings, Department of Health, Fire Department, State Liquor Authority, commercial insurance companies, community boards, and other agencies.

Bitran is hopeful for the new Office of Nightlife.

“It’s nice to know that you can have someone at the city you could actually talk to and who serves as your liaison between the other departments, that are less interested in your survival and more interested in either shutting you down or collecting fines,” he said.

But not everyone is a fan of the new office.

Reclaim New York, a nonprofit organization, made the following statement against it:

“This position amounts to a taxpayer-funded party pooper, and a distraction from fixing the red tape, hefty taxes, and high costs that really make it difficult for small businesses to thrive. Worse, it adds to record personnel head counts that are a big part of the city budget’s unaffordable, 22 percent increase in spending over the last four years. New Yorkers created one of the most vibrant, lucrative nightlife cultures in the entire world without the help of a government chaperone. It’s insulting to pretend they need one now. The city should just get out of the way, and then the party will really start.”

And Community Board 3, which represents nightlife’s popular spot East Village, said they’re concerned the new office will cater to the club industry. The board passed a resolution in July, criticizing the bill, saying  “Community boards are generally the front line in receiving complaints resulting from nightlife establishments and work with city agencies” to address them.

Bitran emphasized that giant corporate dance clubs and independent music venues are “two separate worlds that cater to different audiences,” but he said he understands that some people might fear the new Office of Nightlife is going to represent the interests of corporate dance clubs.

“Maybe they could be lobbying with them and giving them a bunch of money and then suddenly Office of Nightlife caters to their interest and has bottle service in their office,” Bitran said. “I wouldn’t be surprised because that’s what normally happens—you try to do something good and then some people with money go in and mess it all up.”