Can New York’s New ‘Night Mayor’ Strike the Right Balance Between Fun and Function?

published Oct 17, 2017
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It sounds like a new Batman character, but New York will soon appoint a “night mayor” to oversee after-hours entertainment in the city that never sleeps.

The director of nightlife, as the position is officially named, will act as a liaison between City Hall and the $10 billion nightlife industry in New York. The Office of Nightlife and accompanying Nightlife Advisory Board are the first of their kind in North America, but based on similar models in Amsterdam, London, and other European cities.

Why would New York need a night mayor? Well, a vibrant nightlife scene can be the difference between a bland big city and a world-class one that draws visitors and new residents from far and wide — but it doesn’t necessarily thrive on its own. As rents climb, smaller and independent venues may struggle to survive. And nightlife in any mixed-use city — where people live right upstairs or next door to bars, clubs, and restaurants — always involves a delicate balancing act.

Residents may love having a bar across the street when they’re in the mood for a drink, but not when noisy patrons keep them up late at night. Left unchecked, a throbbing club or scene can lead to increased drug use or fire safety issues — but clamp down too tightly, and you’ll lose the very vibrancy that makes a city worth living in and the throngs of revelers that make streets feel safe and alive at night.

The new office will try to strike that balance, tackling “issues such as improving conditions for nightlife workers, investigating the effects of zoning laws, managing noise and trash nuisance, and making conditions easier for artists and smaller-scale night businesses,” according to CityLab.

Brooklyn city councilmember Rafael Espinal proposed the bill establishing a night mayor in tandem with a second bill that could also change New York’s late-night landscape for the better.

Bill No. 1652, which has Mayor Bill de Blasio’s conditional support, would repeal the city’s nearly century-old “Cabaret Law” restricting dancing to a few dozen venues that hold a cabaret license.

Established in 1926, in the midst of prohibition and the Harlem Renaissance, the law’s original intent is widely regarded as racist, targeting the neighborhood’s thriving jazz clubs. Legends like Billie Holiday and Thelonius Monk were at times banned from legal gigs in New York over minor drug offenses.

However, it was subsequently wielded to crack down on other undesirable manifestations of the counterculture as well, like folk clubs, discotheques, punk rock venues, and, under Rudy Giuliani, basically any place where people might be having fun rated PG-13 or higher.

If you’ve ever gone out in New York, you’ve likely noticed all the “NO DANCING” signs. Now, I’m a horrible dancer, so they never bothered me much — and to be honest, I thought they must have been a joke. I mean, come on, it’s New York City, for God’s sake, not that Bible-thumping town from Footloose! You can’t stop people from dancing!

But it turns out those signs aren’t just the work of crabby, killjoy bar owners afraid of a lawsuit. They risk getting cited and fined by the city if you and your friends try to shake it off.

At a city council meeting in September, Brooklyn nightclub owner John Barclay called the law “absurd, antiquated, racist, and extremely embarrassing for our city.” He pointed out, says NPR, “that 200 people dancing in a club legally requires more security measures than a group of 1,000 watching MMA fighting at a sports bar.”

Keeping 200 dancing club-hoppers safe sounds like just the job for the Night Mayor, whoever he or she may be. (Ideally, they’ll have an incredibly dull daytime secret identity, right?)

A thousand drunk dudes watching other dudes pummel each other to a bloody pulp, though? Hopefully the Night Mayor knows how to work the Bat-signal.