Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Has City Hall Turned its Back on the City That Never Sleeps?

By Gamal Hennessy

National think tanks like the
Responsible Hospitality Institute and local trade organizations like the New York Nightlife Association agree that the most successful relationship between local government and the nightlife industry is a balanced combination of planning, managing and policing. If one element is over emphasized to the detriment of the others, then the industry and the surrounding community suffers. Unfortunately, the recent relationship between New York nightlife and local government focuses on policing to the detriment of the industry and the overall community.

Attacks or Neglect?
City Hall’s position on nightlife can be inferred by the laws that it chooses to enforce and the way it decides to enforce them. There are four major policies that have a stated objective but wind up hurting the industry far more than they benefit society. While a more beneficial policy exists, for one reason or another, the City has decided to act against our industry.

The Cabaret Law: This anti integration law was allegedly revived to prevent overcrowding and conditions that led to situations like the Happy Land Social Club Fire in 1990. In reality, it became a tool of the Giuliani Administration to close venues that didn’t conform to his quality of life plan. The law forced operators to choose between spending considerable dollars acquiring a license, breaking the law or prohibiting a basic form of social expression without actually increasing the safety of patrons. If patron safety is actually the goal, then an increased emphasis on building safety codes and rolling back the law to avoid uneven benefit to venues that ignored the law can go along way in protecting us and recognizing dance as a form of free speech.

The Smoking Ban: A ban on indoor smoking was put in place with the stated goal of reducing the levels of second hand smoke that operators and patrons were being exposed to. While smoke free bars are a worthy goal, the way that the law is enforced increases tensions between neighbors and venues because compliance with the ban leads to an exponential increase in noise complaints. Public health can be protected without animosity between patrons and neighbors by separating smokers from non smokers with physical barrier inside the venue and requiring hospital grade air filtration systems in bars instead of just forcing everyone outside.

Zoning Policies In an effort to increase the amount of housing available for New York City’s growing population, the City has been re-zoing certain areas to allow for more residential buildings. The effect of this plan on nightlife is significant. Operators have set up in areas that were formerly isolated commercial zones like the Meatpacking District and West Chelsea. Their presence helped transform these areas into viable and attractive locations. Then the City changed the zoning law to allow for residences to be built in these areas. This places residential buildings adjacent to venues and increases friction between new residents and established clubs. Added to this is the fact that many new high rises are built without regards to the potential noise, traffic and pollution issues associated with the venues. If the City includes nightlife venues as a part of its long term zoning plans and required new and existing buildings to be built with this consideration in mind, it would go a long way in reducing the tensions between the groups and bolstering an industry that is vital to the city.

Nuisance Abatement Law: The City has always been interested in reducing illegal activity like drug sales, tax issues and violence found in certain venues. Like the smoking ban, the problem isn’t the goal of the policy, it is in the implementation. Venues have regularly been closed on Friday afternoon under the Nuisance Abatement Law. This means that by the time the case goes before a judge, the venue has lost several major days of revenue since the courts are not open on the weekends and it is the weekend where the club makes most of its money for the week. A simple choice to enforce the law in such a way that does not impose additional economic penalties on the operators can serve the public interest without imposing additional punishments on the operators.

The Basic Problem
The underlying issue here is the perception that officials have of the industry. Nightlife is often characterized as a detriment to the city or a necessary evil. It is natural for politicians to focus on policing if clubs are seen in this light. When politicians and officials see the benefits of the industry to New York, then it will be more natural to create policies that focus on planning and management rather than isolation and aggression. When they understand that nightlife is a necessary element of the city, they can plan for a future of the city that includes a strong nightlife industry.

The best way to change the perception of elected officials is to change the perception of the people who vote for them. Nightlife needs to become a political issue for the millions of eligible voters who can sway an election. There are individual elements of the industry that have the ability to have a wide reach through a combination of events, promotions and celebrity endorsements. Harnessing those elements with the goal of changing the perception of the industry and influencing its politics is the most viable way to change the relationship between local government and the industry.

Have fun.

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Mike Clemente said...

The NY Nightlife Preservation finally figured out what you're saying on the voting side. Obviously, on the first election, their voice isn't going to be as strong, but every November, I think it's going to be more imminent who nightlife individuals (industry and party people the same) should be voting for on Election Day.

The way nightlife is treated is kind of like a released criminal with community service. Zoning nightclubs is the same thing as community service where venues are positioned in the outskirts of town, only to fix up and make a neighborhood vibrant again, to only be closed once NYC feels the neighborhood is good enough for residential buildings. In a way, a good amount of nightclubs are being used to bring life to an area.

New York Nights said...

I agree with you Mike, except the part about the NPC figuring out what I'm saying. They didn't learn this stuff from me. A lot of my understanding on the issue came from them. ;)

shevmonster said...

It is amazing to go to a city like Berlin and see a vibrant, exciting nightlife that puts New York, with 7 times the population, to shame. Unfortunately, I am not so sure the Nightlife Preservation group really improves anything, since they are not an actual club with actual meetings that regular people can join, like most political clubs. If it were, I think it could make a real impact. (I personally would join such a group it if existed) Also, the fact that they endorsed Christine Quinn suggests that they are not endorsing people who are pro-nightlife. Quinn is as bad as Bloomberg and Guiliani and has done real damage to nightlife.

In any event, if people want an opportunity to do something pro-nightlife, they should donate to or otherwise support Kevin Coenen for NYS Senate in his primary race to unseat freshman Senator Daniel Squadron. Coenen has some real union support and has a good chance of displacing Squadron. Squadron in his 2 years in the Senate has changed the measurement rules on nightclub and bar locations to make them stricter and wants to give community boards the right to review and veto all liquor licenses in their area every 2 years. This truly would be the end of nightlife in New York.

Squadron is the most anti-nightlife elected official in New York State, from what I can see, and people who want to preserve what nightlife New York has left should be against Squadron, and therefore be for Coenen. (