Great turnout to support small cultural spaces in New York City !

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There’s a new (Night) Mayor in town, or at least there will be soon. On August 24, City Council member Rafael Espinal’s bill to establish an Office of Nightlife and Nightlife Advisory Board was passed by the council, then signed into law on September 19, in a ceremony that included even Marky Ramone. In light of this, some wondered about what this “night mayor” would actually do. Last night, the soon-to-reopen venue Market Hotel was flooded with artists, partiers, community members, and politicians for a town hall on what the people want from the Office of Nightlife.

The town hall was spearheaded by the NYC Artist Coalition, a local group that has gone from holding small meetings about the future of DIY spaces to being instrumental in advocating for legislation like the Office of Nightlife and the cabaret law repeal, which would strike down a Prohibition-era ban on social dancing without a license. Now, the Office of Nightlife will become a reality and the cabaret law repeal bill has 23 co-sponsors.

Some speakers had attended prior hearings or town halls, such as Secret Project Robot’s Rachel Nelson, Local 802’s Christopher Carroll, and NYC Artist Coalition’s Jamie Burkart and Olympia Kazi. There were also new faces from a diverse array of local art and nightlife spaces. Representatives from City Reliquary, Dance Liberation Network, JACK, Abrons Arts Center, WBAI radio, the Loisaida Center, Silent Barn, Sunnyvale, and more asked the Office of Nightlife to value smaller, DIY spaces instead of caving to the interests of developers and the wealthy.

Rafael Espinal addresses the crowd (photo: Cassidy Dawn Graves)

Elected officials were there to hear them, too. Council Members Rafael Espinal, Antonio Reynoso, and Stephen Levin all spoke. All three have sponsored or co-sponsored the cabaret law repeal and Office of Nightlife bills, and talked openly about their support for small DIY spaces and desire to stop the “erosion” of such scenes. As House Coalition DJ Ali Coleman told me at the first hearing on these bills, it helps that these council members are on the younger side. After all, you don’t really associate old white dudes with protecting underground clubs.

Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl and Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment Commissioner Julie Menin also attended, the latter of whom will be overseeing the Office of Nightlife. Menin said they are currently interviewing people for the Night Mayor position, a role which currently exists in places like London and Amsterdam.

This continual activism for DIY spaces is resulting not only in legislative success, but strengthened community in a scene still largely segregated by race, class, genre, and many other factors. House of Yes co-founder Anya Saphoznikova, who emcee’d the night, remarked that she’d recently gotten familiar with spaces and people she may never have otherwise. This didn’t mean there was solely warmth and hand-holding, but rather this allowed for a wide array of statements and perspectives, with speakers calling out institutional racism and gentrification, the whiteness of many DIY spaces, and other topics sometimes skirted around by white artists living and working in gentrifying areas. By giving locals and people of color the space to speak, there was little such avoidance.

Kurtis Blow #savenycspaces

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Additionally, an increasing spotlight was placed on areas outside of north Brooklyn neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Bushwick. Kurtis Blow, known as “hip-hop’s first superstar,” along with Wild Style director Charlie Ahearn spoke at length about Harlem and the Bronx’s crucial role in the hip-hop and underground house music scene’s development. Hip-hop, Blow said, provided “a way out” for young people who may otherwise have continued down more dangerous paths. Clubs were too expensive, so they did their own thing in more accessible places, from roller rinks to community centers. It’s not so easy to do that now, as closures and raids have become commonplace and the requirements to get a space up to code remain both convoluted and costly.

One of the most stirring statements was from Libertad Guerra, director of the Loisaida Center, a organization in the Lower East Side empowering the local Puerto Rican and Latino community. She detailed how cabaret law enforcement and other crackdowns spearheaded in Giuliani’s time largely affect businesses owned by people of color the most. “Gentrification,” she said, “is experienced first in the night.”

“How will the Night Mayor help people have fun and not encourage cultural erasure?” she asked, to approving applause. This would only happen, she continued, if they were “a mayor for the undocumented, working class, cultural workers.”

As another speaker, from dance collective Afro Mosaic Soul, said: “Help us or get out of our way.”

The portion where government workers addressed questions was brief. Since only a handful of questions were answered, it wasn’t fully clear what the specific plans were for the Night Mayor. Concerns like how involved the contrarian NY Hospitality Alliance will be did not come up beyond being mentioned by Nikki Brown of Dance Liberation Network. The question of whether the Office will prioritize smaller, more vulnerable spaces was met with a reply that the government was for “all New Yorkers.” However, Menin plans to hold additional town halls in every borough.

Big, public discussions can often become a contest of who can speak longest, but for the most part the evening was well-structured, with Finkelpearl calling it more organized than panels he had participated in at larger institutions like museums.

“This group in this room has been very successful this year,” he said, citing the evening as “a moving example of democracy.”

As the crowd applauded and a LED-lit marching band began to play, it did truly feel that way, at least for a night.