By Gamal Hennessy
This article is based on sections of the recent book Seize the Night: The Business and Culture of New York Nightlife.
In spite of the global popularity and reach of New York nightlife, local politics has a direct effect on the viability of clubs in the city to remain open. The main players that determine what happens in districts, neighborhoods and individual blocks are the local community boards or CBs. Natives who attend a liquor license hearings at regular CB meetings or the events like the nightlife discussion group at the recent Community Convention would experience a lot of animosity from local residents directed at the industry. To understand where this anger comes from, it helps to know what the CBs are, what they want and think about how the industry and residents can work together instead of being enemies.
What is a Community Board?
Community Boards are meant to provide a voice for local residents as to how their neighborhoods operate. Created by the New York City Charter in 1963, each of the CBs is supposed to consult, assist and advise government officials about any matter that relates to the welfare of the district or its residents. CBs normally deal with service delivery (such as sanitation or road repair), the city budget as it relates to each district, land use, long range planning and community advocacy. CBs also have a voice in zoning changes, since any application for a change in - or variance from - the zoning resolution must come before the Board for review and which is part of the final determination. Finally, CBs have the ability to initiate their own plans for the growth and well being of their communities based on the needs of their particular residents.
Who Sits on the CBs?
New York City has 59 individual CBs in total, 12 of them located in Manhattan. The CBs are technically autonomous from the city government, but the CB members are appointed by the Borough President, can include city employees and each board member is considered a city officer. Board members are selected from people who reside in, have a business in, or have some significant interest in the community. Nightlife operators, who clearly have an interest in the community where their business is located, can also serve on CBs.
While the CBs are designed to give local residents a voice in the operation of their communities, critics point out that many of their decisions and actions are made without due process or accurate representation of the community. It is primarily the people who attend the meetings who have the most influence in the decision making process, whether or not they represent the general views of their specific area. These “squeaky wheels” might be few in number, but if they are the only ones to speak on a particular issue, then they become the defining voice of the community. The phenomenon is analogous to voting in local and national elections. If only a small number of eligible voters participate, then their votes have more impact on the election than the silent majority has.
What is The Agenda of The CBs?
There are dozens of issues that each CB has to deal with - from sidewalks to community services, to traffic, to budgets. Each CB has its own particular needs based on the people who live in the respective communities. But when you look for the common thread among all the things that CBs deals with, what you find is that they are striving to improve their quality of life as they define it. For some, a better quality of life comes from traffic free streets that are more accessible to pedestrians. For others, it’s continuously increasing property values for their condos and co-ops. In relation to nightlife, increased quality of life translates into the desire for clean, quiet streets that are safe to travel at night. The problem is that active members of many CBs do not feel that nightlife venues are conducive to their quality of life.
Many CBs feel that nightlife venues are magnets for noise, crime and vandalism in their communities. The main grievance of local residents is the noise from the areas around clubs and bars. People report finding urine, vomit, used condoms or even unconscious people in their doorways. There are anecdotal instances of local residents being harassed as they passed a club at night, having food or other objects thrown at them or being threatened by knives, bottles or hypodermic needles. They feel their neighborhoods have two personalities: during the day they are the envy of urban living, at night they become almost unlivable.
The CBs are not in the business of protecting and nurturing nightlife as a cultural environment. They are not tasked with generating revenue, tax dollars or tourism from a healthy hospitality industry. They are not guardians of New York’s reputation as a nightlife capital. While all CBs recognize the need for businesses in their communities and many of them understand the benefits of nightlife in the city, their main obligation is to their residents and the quality of life these residents want. The thought process is, “New York needs nightlife, but not in my backyard (NIMBY).” If the residents want change, it makes sense for them to use the CBs to affect that change.
While the relationship between CBs and nightlife is often contentious, there are areas where they can find common ground. If noise and safety are the major concerns of CBs, then it would be in their best interest to support operators in the attempts to convince the NYPD to monitor the areas outside the venues that need it. CBs and operators in each district can work together to create more separation between residential and commercial areas. The density of New York prevents any major segregation of residential buildings, but including venues in the future planning of districts - instead of pursuing an agenda of removing them in favor of other types of business - is ultimately better for the CB and the nightlife industry. Speaking with a common voice in terms of new construction can also improve the quality of life, if both groups urge the use of soundproof windows and other measures to reduce noise in all new construction. Finally, if the CB and the operators work together to educate residents about the benefits of nightlife in their communities, there would be less of a NIMBY mentality associated with nightlife. There would always be “squeaky wheels” unsatisfied with the presence of clubs where they lived, but those voices could be tempered with more moderate positions.
Who Makes the Choices?
Of course, none of this cooperation can take place until each group sees the other as necessary to the overall prosperity of the neighborhood. Part of this means that more vocal anti-nightlife members of the CB need to see that nightlife is a vital part of both their community and New York as a whole. It also means that they might have to accept the economic reality that removing nightlife from their neighborhoods may reduce their quality of life and increase their taxes as vacant buildings attract higher crime or higher property taxes. Finally, it means that people who enjoy clubs need to stand up and say so. CBs have influence and political will to close venues. Until nightlife natives gain and use political will and influence to nurture and sustain our culture, New York nightlife will continue to suffer.
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