Time for a NYC ‘Office of Nightlife’?

“The Cabaret Law with its infamous racist and homophobic history has horrible effects to this day,” wrote NYC Artist Coalition. (Photo by Tiffany Rexach via Brooklyn Daily Eagle)

On Wednesday, City Council member Rafael Espinal plans to introduce legislation that would overturn an “antiquated and racist” law, passed in 1926, that severely restricts the operation of music and dance venues, driving many operators underground.

In addition to repealing the law, known as the “cabaret law,” Espinal wants to create a city Office of Nightlife, led by a “night mayor,” writes Scott Enman in Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

According to NYC Artist Coalition, an organization that “[protects] community spaces,” the Cabaret Law was created and used to break up underground black institutions at the height of the Harlem Renaissance and it was reinforced by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the ’90s to target gay and lesbian bars.

“The Cabaret Law, with its infamous racist and homophobic history, has horrible effects to this day,” wrote NYC Artist Coalition in a statement. “We appreciate New York City Council for opening a space to debate this issue. Social dancing is not a crime. We advocate for the safety and preservation of informal cultural spaces, such as DIY music venues.

“The Cabaret Law is currently used to criminalize such spaces and it forces our communities underground and into unsafe environments.”

A crowd of about 200 artists, musicians and business owners came out to support the move at hearings held by the City Council’s Consumer Affairs Committee on June 19. Under the current law, only 17 venues in all of Brooklyn are licensed as “cabarets,” which means that those operating without a license face the threat of fines and closure, as Enman notes.

At the hearing, several business owners described a task force resembling a SWAT team that routinely comes into venues on their most anticipated nights to shut it down and hand out cabaret citations.

One venue owner, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, said that when the task force showed up at his venue, “I thought they found El Chapo hidden in my bar.”

The citations can cost owners thousands of dollars in fines, booking fees and reimbursement of ticket sales.

The bill has undergone several amendments related to safety and zoning over the years, notes Kadia Goba in Kings County Politics.

As a result, owners of small bars, restaurants and lounges seeking to acquire a cabaret license must also meet the demands of zoning, building and fire codes of a venue usually three times its size and which operates in the capacity of an actual dance hall. Therefore, if patrons start dancing in a smaller, more intimate venue, the establishment risks being fined as an unlicensed cabaret.

This is the case of Andrew Muchmore, a 36-year-old attorney and Williamsburg bar owner. Muchmore was fined when patrons were found dancing in his establishment. The store owner is challenging the city’s 90-year old legislation on the grounds the law is unconstitutional under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

“It is astonishing that the Cabaret Law continues to exist in the 21st Century,” said Muchmore. “It serves no legitimate purpose, yet suffocates the City’s musicians, artists and creative economy. The law has been consistently disregarded and mocked, and is enforced only arbitrarily against the City’s most vulnerable residents.”

Read more about the changes proposed by Espinal, including the “nightlife task force” and its composition, in Kings County Politics.

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