Last month, New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill to create a director of nightlife. The aptly acronymed DON will oversee the Office of Nightlife with the express purpose of promoting growth of “jobs and wages in the music industry,” according to the mayor. This is an “office that’s really going to work with the various music venues, with the nightclubs, with bars and restaurants,” he said.
This is great news for those of us trying to survive and thrive in the nightlife business. Over the last dozen years Manhattan’s high-rise boom has displaced the bulk of the city’s bohemian crowd, and with them NYC club culture.
The starving artists, dancers, actors, students, and other people who stay out until sunrise on Tuesdays were squeezed out to Brooklyn (where they in turn squeezed out longstanding residents of Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Bushwick).
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Now the yuppies who used to live across the East and Hudson Rivers and Long Island Sound have brought their solid credit ratings and less flamboyant lifestyles into Manhattan proper. Working stiffs need to get up early, so the nimbys sitting on community boards have stopped issuing licenses for bars and clubs to sell alcohol until 4:00 a.m. They’ve decided 2:00 a.m. is the proper time to roll up the sidewalks.
Left unchecked, these regulations will turn the city that never sleeps into a bedroom community. This has devastating potential for industries that rely on late-night lifestyles, and for the very fabric of NYC.
According to a 2015 study commissioned by the office of Media and Entertainment, 20 percent of smaller venues, including clubs and music halls, have closed in NYC in the last 15 years. Heavy losses occurred in the Washington Square and East Village areas, where real estate developments and accompanying rising rents destroyed this traditional nightlife cluster.
Operators looking to open here can no longer get the 4:00 a.m. liquor licenses that were once a hallmark of city nightlife. A 2:00 a.m. close means they can serve until midnight or 1:00 a.m., cutting into valuable business hours.
This makes it impossible to make ends meet. The cost of opening a small joint in Midtown ranges from $500,000 to $1 million. Large venues and restaurants require anywhere from $2 to $5 million upfront. Club owners now have to gamble in hopes that somehow their lawyers and lobbyists will procure them that increasingly improbable late-night license.
They do have the option of going around the board to plead their case directly to the State Liquor Authority in Albany. But most don’t for fear of the swarm of complaints a 4:00 a.m. last call would earn from neighbors upset about the noise and garbage and a thousand etceteras, and subsequent reprisals from the police, the Fire Department, and other city agencies.
It’s easier to get a 4:00 a.m. license in Brooklyn right now but, despite the explosion of partying there, Brooklyn nightlife still doesn’t get the adult bucks or moneyed tourists of a Manhattan nightclub. Brooklyn crowds are younger and mostly come out for bands and DJs. They pay admission but their per-head bar tabs don’t compare.
A nightlife DON could protect a place like Bushwick. Galleries, clubs like House of Yes, and restaurants like Roberta’s have turned that neighborhood into something grand. There is a creative cauldron bubbling. But with more yuppies moving back to the borough, unless a DON steps in, future crackdowns could turn the House of Yes and all of Bushwick into a no.
Those who suffer from NYC becoming a 2:00 a.m. town include small businesses like 24-hour delis and diners, and taxi and ride-sharing drivers. It could significantly impact tourist income. Nightlife generates $9.7 billion, not to mention the tax revenues that spin of that.
For restaurants already reeling from high rents, over-regulation, and the $15 minimum wage, this could be a death blow. When clubs close early restaurants lose their 10:00 p.m. turn, or final seating. Late-night partiers go to dinner around 10:00 p.m. to arrive at clubs around midnight. If those clubs all start closing at 2:00 a.m., these people will not make so many late-night dinner reservations. Wine and liquor distributors will also feel the crunch.
Los Angeles, long a 2:00 a.m. city, is now extending late-night hours to 4:00 a.m. In 2000 Berlin recognized the potential to create jobs and improve its economy through more vibrant nightlife and created its own commission. The Netherlands did the same soon after. London saw music venues decrease from 136 in 2007 to 88 in 2015, and created a nightlife commission to stop the bleeding.
Our new DON should follow suit and return NYC to its roots.
Who should this DON be? Michael Musto suggested the fabulous, as in nightlife hero Kayvon Zand and iconic event producer Sussane Bartsch, a.k.a. Queen of the Night. These folks would certainly be devoted to fun but I doubt they’d want to go toe-to-toe with politicians wearing boring shoes. Besides they’re getting dressed to go to work when the people they’d be dealing with are in their PJs.
In my opinion we need someone with an operators background who understands the dollars and the inner workings of community boards and the city bureaucracy.
The five individual I suggest are: Paul Seres, a nightlife veteran and former president of the New York Nightlife Association. He’s currently a Founding Trustee of the NYC Hospitality Alliance.
Another solid pick is David Rabin. He served as president of the NY Nightlife Association for nine years, founded and led the Meatpacking District Initiative, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of NY Cares. Rabin is also a board member of the New York City Hospitality and Times Square Alliances.
There’s also Ariel Palitz, a former operator and member of Manhattan’s Community Board 3; or Andrew Riggie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance.
Finally Gerard McNamee Jr., former General Manager of Webster Hall, would be wonderful . He’s actively campaigning for the job. All are experienced in the myriad challenges an operator faces and would fight for our right to party.
NYC needs nightlife to stay relevant. Clubs are places where creative people meet and break down barriers. They push fashion, music, and social standards forward. Clubs also provide jobs for artists between gigs and on their way to stardom. If they can’t make it here they can make it elsewhere. If that happens, New York will lose their passions and future artistic legacies to other cities.
Some point out that Boston and Philadelphia make early closings work, but they are vastly different cities. It’s hard to get a decent burger or sandwich at 4:00 a.m. in those towns.
New York is an international city fueled by tourism and a reputation for adventure. Community boards are threatening to take a big bite out of our Big Apple. We need a DON who will stand up to the forces of old and evil, and keep us dancing.