“This is unprecedented,” said Guy Smith of Sutherland, a queer nightclub within East Williamsburg space 3 Dollar Bill. He’s talking about the first-ever Office of Nightlife Listening Tour, in which new “night mayor” Ariel Palitz and a slew of representatives from state and city agencies listen (and even respond) to what the community thinks about the state of nightlife, in the hopes of arriving at a “new beginning on how to approach nightlife as a whole together.”
The first of these took place last night at Brooklyn’s Murmrr Theater, a venue within the Union Temple of Brooklyn at Grand Army Plaza. The packed crowd addressed a panel so full of acronyms—NYPD, FDNY, SLA, DOB, SBS—it looked like a Scrabble board. Other notables in attendance included City Council member Rafael Espinal (who introduced legislation repealing the cabaret law and establishing the Office of Nightlife), Borough President Eric Adams, and even Amsterdam’s original night mayor, Mirik Milan.
Palitz, who was named night mayor in March, will be a liaison between the nightlife industry, the city, and its residents. She will be helped by a small team and a 14-member advisory board of DJs, advocates, bar owners, a social worker, and more. Among other plans, Palitz will soon launch a website to serve as a “one stop shop” for nightlife information, from best practices according to the NYPD to to the various, often convoluted steps to bring a venue up to code.
It’s common to hear of a small bar or venue being raided, either by the NYPD or by MARCH, a multi-agency “secret, venue-closing task force” that often arrives unannounced and can spell certain doom for underground spaces, as evidenced by the fall of spots like Palisades and Silent Barn’s 2011 iteration. This was one of the more frequently mentioned topics.
“We’re treated like pariahs,” said Diana Mora, co-owner of Crown Heights bar Friends and Lovers, who told the crowd her bar had been subject to a MARCH raid she believes was unwarranted, and was told there was nothing she could do about it. Nola Rodney, who took over ownership of The Hills on Church Avenue from her mother, explained she was “horrified” at how city agencies treated them.
“It does tarnish our reputation,” Rodney added, suggesting MARCH should come during the day instead. David Rosen, a member of the Office of Nightlife’s advisory board, said there should be a “311 notification system” to alert business owners of complaints in real time so they don’t pile up.
Palitz and other city officials often responded, encouraging people to speak with them directly in the hopes of continuing a more personal dialogue. NYPD Deputy Chief Frank Vega, executive officer of the Chief of Department’s office, said MARCH comes after a “pattern of problems” that stretch beyond 311 complaints, and several groups have to approve the raid before it happens. He adds they’ve “come a long way” from the days of only communicating with clubs to shut them down, and that inspectors don’t get “extra credit” from him for facilitating a MARCH raid.
Not everyone was happy with this progress. “At the black-owned businesses, these people don’t do us right,” said Celia Belyn, an owner of Suede, a Caribbean restaurant in East Flatbush. “This is rampant,” added a lawyer working with Flatbush’s Cafe Omar, criticizing the “hostile” police inspectors who he says continually disrupt the bar’s business despite repeated attempts to work with them in a way that would be mindful of everyone’s schedules.
Kia, a member of Brooklyn’s Community Board 6, lamented the disappearance of businesses owned by people of color in her neighborhood, and suggested a subcommittee be created specifically to protect minority-owned businesses. The Small Business Jobs Survival Act was frequently mentioned, but not a lot of tangible suggestions were made regarding preserving affordability.
Julia Fredenburg of the New York City Artist Coalition, one of the first grassroots groups to actively push for legislation like the cabaret law repeal and Office of Nightlife, called for a “confidential cultural caseworker” to help forge a “clear pathway to legality” for spaces who cannot afford pricey lawyers and lobbyists. Carol, a teacher and “partygoer” who feels safer at illegal underground techno parties like Unter than commercial venues, expressed wanting to know who at the Office of Nightlife to go to to report assault, something she said had happened to her by someone who continues to headline parties.
Palitz was “truly surprised” how few “residents” came out to speak. There were some, of course; Lauren Warwick explained she loves nightlife but raising a family next to the notoriously rowdy Park Slope bar Woodland has been “a living hell”; a Park Slope drummer wished loud music wouldn’t blare into the streets from open windows.
Interestingly, several critiques were focused on the very venue holding the night’s discussion. A concert venue inside a temple, Murmrr drew ire from some of its neighbors, including a family who brought their young son, for being too close to residential buildings, lacking proper soundproofing and zoning, and playing music too late and too loud.
Guy Yedwab of the League of Independent Theater noted that 70 theater spaces in the city had closed in the past decade and a multi-use art space he lived by had recently become a “store that sells drones.” He offered a rather dystopian vision of the future if nothing were to change: “Without protections, most cultural venues can be turned into more ‘productive’ spaces like a Chase bank or CVS. If the only place that’s open 24 hours is a Duane Reade, we won’t really need an Office of Nightlife because there won’t be any nightlife left.”
Listening tour dates in the other four boroughs can be found here.
Update, October 3: The original version of the article was amended to correct David Rosen’s name.