Who Will Be New York’s First Nightlife Mayor?
“You gotta think of nightlife as your gene pool. The more diverse, the better it is for everybody,” says Brendan J. Sullivan, a writer, producer and DJ best known for being Lady Gaga’s tour DJ.
Sullivan is one of the final candidates for New York City’s first-ever nightlife mayor. It’s the opportunity to branch out and connect with people through a mutual interest that Sullivan wants to promote in the new position, he said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
Hundreds have applied for the coveted position since Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill to create it, sponsored by City Council member Rafael Espinal, in September. The city was expected to announce the result of final interviews by the end of last year, but the announcement is still forthcoming.
A new Office of Nightlife, with the Night Mayor at the helm, is charged with acting as a “liaison between businesses, the community, and the city” to promote an New York’s city nightlife “culturally and economically.”
The Nightlife Office will be housed in the same building as the Mayor’s Office of Media & Entertainment (MOME). In addition to the mayor, it will have a Nightlife Advisory Board that will craft policy on what the city should be doing to address the issues affecting nightlife.
The appointment of the Night Mayor will come at a key time: back in October, the city repealed the 91-year-old Cabaret Law, allowing the people of New York City to legally put on their dancing shoes in any nightlife establishment selling food and drink.
The movement to focus on nightlife in New York City has been championed by Espinal, who sees it as important to the city’s culture and identity as the city that never sleeps.
“Nightlife really shaped who I am today,” says Espinal, who was born and raised in Brooklyn. He represents District 37, which includes Bushwick, and believes that there are people today who should have the same opportunities nightlife gave him, such as new experiences and spending time with like-minded individuals. “In order to prevent the bleeding out of our culture and of our younger generation we can do something to support other things that play a major role in their lives.”
Repealing the Cabaret Law was such a thing. The antiquated law, which dated back to the Prohibition Era, banned dancing in any venue that offered eating and drinking that didn’t possess the required cabaret license, but it was also used to halt interracial dancing in jazz clubs. Prior to the repeal, only about 100 out of the 25,000 or so nightlife venues in New York City possessed the license.
Espinal also sponsored the bill to repeal the Cabaret Law, which the City Council passed on October 31. It was signed by Mayor de Blasio on November 27 at Elsewhere, a new music venue located in East Williamsburg.
A particular focus for the new office will be to help small, underground and DIY venues find a path to legality by helping them navigate through the bureaucracy that may keep them from being fully up to code.
“I think the DIY scene is one of the most important aspects of our nightlife culture,” says Espinal. “The first thing we need to do is start building relationships with those venues and the community.”
“This city’s approach to nightlife is absolutely horrifying,” says John Barclay, who operates Brooklyn’s Bossa Nova Civic Club. He believes that regulation can be “excessive” and fines “nightmarish”, but controlling this would help venue owners in New York City. “Something drastic has to be done and I think this appears to be a great step.”
Over the last decade, New York City has seen many popular DIY venues, including Death by Audio and Steel Drums, close their doors. Supporters of these venues say that the city’s current policy and enforcement operate at the expense of spaces and the people they serve.
“Right now we have an adversarial relationship between the nightlife community, the neighbors, the city and it just doesn’t have to be that way,” says Sullivan. One of his goals as Night Mayor would be to change what he calls “predator management”: he sees current nightlife as a prey-and-predator relationship between vulnerable communities and the city’s Multi-Agency Response to Community Hotspots (MARCH). “They’re treating us like rats, instead of treating us like a positive part of our city’s ecosystem.”
“The system is designed to drain all of your energy, time and money,” says Barclay. To him, having to deal with the city is difficult and actually discouraging to those working in nightlife. Along with his concerns that the Office of Nightlife will only serve wealthier parties, Barclay has identified the way the city treats marginalized groups as a major problem. “I would like to see an effort to acknowledge that and perhaps rebuild the cultural movements.”
“We really want some transparency and some accountability,” says Olympia Kazi, an organizer of the New York City Artist Coalition, a group that’s had a role in getting people together to discuss issues affecting nightlife.
When neighborhood residents have noise and other complaints about bars and clubs, they now end up calling 311, which can eventually trigger MARCH to come in. Espinal says the new Office of Nightlife will be able to guide the venue in solving problems with the purpose of being better neighbors, rather than getting the police involved.
“We’ve been red-flagged by the community affairs officer,” says Rich Awn, referencing the noise complaints that his Greenpoint venue, Magick City, has received. “It’s too popular and too important to be a prosecuted thing.”
With the creation of the Office of Nightlife, New York City will become the first city in the United States with a night mayor. It will follow in the footsteps of European cities such as Amsterdam and London, whose own efforts have thus far been successful.
According to Espinal, Amsterdam witnessed a 25% to 30% drop in noise complaints after establishing a night mayor. However, Sullivan says that Mirik Milan, Amsterdam’s night mayor, taught him that the success of nightlife plans is based on how much they help the underground solve problems.
“Honestly, it’s very time consuming and very expensive to get all of these regulations in place,” says Luis Nieto Dickens, a photographer and founder of the blog NoSleep.co, speaking on the challenges that venues face in obtaining the correct permits to be able to operate. “If you have a group of people that care about nightlife and put their time into making these establishments genuine, and facilitating issues, it would be amazing.”
Affordability is a big issue for small nightlife venues, Kazi says. Since most of these spaces are informal, she says they often don’t qualify for philanthropic and governmental support, making it even harder for them to fund repairs and other necessary things in order to successfully stay in business. As Espinal says, rising real estate costs are a threat to nightlife as landlords hold out to get higher paying renters. However, in order for there to be an environment in the city that would breed the next big artist, he says, the DIY scene needs to exist.
DIY advocates see a risk that the Night Mayor may act against the wishes of the city’s DIY community by choosing, for example, to add even more regulations.
Sullivan would like to implement an “agent of change” law similar to that of San Francisco. With this law, the burden of soundproofing a building is placed on the neighbor who came first. This means that if a music venue is built in a pre-existing neighborhood, it is the duty of the venue to ensure that it’s soundproof, and vice versa. “I think the nightlife mayor should be going out a lot specifically to be hearing from the largest number of people as possible.”
“I’d love for there to be some more transparency with the noise complaint stuff and with MARCH,” says Awn. He hopes the new Night Mayor has experience as a venue owner, since he feels like that’s the type of candidate who truly knows what running a venue is like behind-the-scenes. “I’d love for there to be somebody who’s got my back who can offer a little bit of inside muscle.”