Before Mayor de Blasio signed a new law establishing an Office of Nightlife yesterday evening, Anya Sapozhnikova, co-founder of House of Yes, remarked on how strange it was to be hosting government officials and police officers at her notoriously risqué East Williamsburg venue. But then she asked, “Why should it be so surreal to have the arts and culture capital of the world be in support of the spaces that make this kind of arts and culture happen?”
Truth is, the bill signing really was a little surreal. The last time House of Yes had such a notorious brush with the Man, a plainclothes detective was busting it for operating as an “illegal bottle club.” The space reopened as a legal venue last year, but even today, she said, Sapozhnikova worries that it could “get shut down for absolutely no reason at all and it could all come crashing down.” Just look at Market Hotel, which was recently closed for a year after a booze bust. So, yes, it was a little weird to see Mayor de Blasio mingling with Marky Ramone and the people who staged “Ketamine: The Musical.”
Still, de Blasio did everything he could to reassure the nightclub operators present—including the owner of Williamsburg establishments Zablozki’s and Brooklyn Bowl— that times had changed since the Giuliani years, when “there was a policy to harass these venues.” He praised CBGBs and the Stonewall Inn, which became a city landmark a couple of years ago, as examples of places that “changed the way people thought and what they heard and what moved them.”
His administration was “not in the gotcha game,” he assured. Hence last month’s passage of a bill creating a “nightlife mayor“— “one of the coolest titles you could hope to have in life,” de Blasio noted with some envy— who will “help the venues deal with inspections and rules, and address problems before they have to.” (“Nightlife mayor” isn’t the position’s official title, but Director of Nightlife is still pretty cool.) The law also establishes a Nightlife Advisory Board, similar to those in cities like Paris and Amsterdam, comprised of 12 members representing both the industry and the community.
City Council member Rafael Espinal, who sponsored the bill with fellow Brooklyn representative Antonio Reynoso, described growing up as an artist and music lover in Brooklyn and discovering Zablozki’s at the age of 21 (“no one believes you were 21,” the mayor chided). The venue allowed him to “flourish, to mature” into his current role as a public servant, he said.
The city is “really at a crossroads,” Espinal said. “We’ve seen so many iconic DIY venues close their doors in the past few years: Shea Stadium, 285 Kent, Palisades, Goodbye Blue Monday, and many, many more. These types of spaces continue to be on the brink of extinction but today we’re one step closer to coming up with a sustainable solution.”
Reynoso, who described himself and Espinal as “dance outlaws”– a reference to their effort to repeal the dread Cabaret Law— recalled his own beloved venues closing down when he was a young salsa dancer growing up on the Southside. “In a time when Williamsburg was the beginning of something we were building in Brooklyn regarding culture and art, the city did everything it possibly could to drive them out; they found a home here in Bushwick, and what we’re doing is saying, ‘This is your home, you can stay here and we’re going to do everything we possibly can to make sure that that happens,’” Reynoso said.
Jazz legend Ron Carter, bassist for Miles Davis and others, also spoke to the challenges faced by musicians and venue operators, and described the new law as “a way to have this stuff not in B-flat all the time.” Finally, Marky Ramone, reading from a short statement he had scrawled in a notebook, ended the event by telling everyone, “There’s a fine line between becoming a bedroom community or a Big Apple, and the mayor is hoping the nightlife committee will work towards keeping our great city accessible and vibrant to artists and people who want to experience the art that brings so much joy to their lives.”