Hundreds of New York residents came together last night to talk about the challenges facing the city's nightlife and to implore officials to overturn the arcane laws throttling it. Held at the Bushwick venue Market Hotel—which, following a raid by the NYPD last year has put a hold on live music events—the public meeting was focused on making strides to repeal the Cabaret Law, a piece of Prohibition-era legislation that puts impositions on where people can dance.
It was the first in a monthly series hosted by Commend, a shop associated with the Brooklyn experimental dance music label RVNG Intl. Last night's meeting partnered with a number of nightlife activists including the NYC Artist Coalition, a group of artists advocating for informal and affordable community spaces in the city and the Dance Liberation Network, an organization focused on repealing the Cabaret Law.
The packed town hall-style meeting was attended by people from a diverse range of New York nightlife scenes, from fire spinners, to techno promoters, to residents of DIY spaces. They were there to be heard by the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, Tom Finkelpearl, who is working on a project called Create NYC, a "cultural plan" that according to the project's website, will "[promote] greater equity, access, diversity and vibrancy" in the city's cultural spaces.
"I came to New York in 1979; I was an artist; I was living in a loft," Finkelpearl told the assembled crowd. "I have in my heart a belief that artists are key to this city—[that] artists are the people who make the city great. We are here to listen to what you have to say."
Finkelpearl has spent the last few months attending hundreds of meetings like this one, listening to the thoughts and ideas of New Yorkers who are interested in creating cultural change. Last night's meeting arose out of a previous gathering of DIY venue promoters with Finkelpearl following the tragic Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, which killed 36 people in an informal space that didn't meet fire codes.
Some New York City Council members were also present—among them Antonio Reynoso and Rafael Espinal, who represent Districts 34 and 37, respectively, covering a large area of Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Ridgewood. Espinal said that he had introduced a bill to the New York City Council over a year ago proposing a repeal of the Cabaret Law.
"I have a little confession to make: this isn't my first time in the Market Hotel," Espinal told the crowd to laughs and cheers. "I came here eight years ago on an OKCupid date. It was a memorable night because it was a lot of fun, and the city shouldn't be getting in the way of fun."
After introductions by the Commissioner and Council members, Frankie Hutchinson, a member of the Dance Liberation Network and co-founder of the dance music collective Discwoman, took to the mic to raucous applause. Hutchinson gave a brief history of the racist roots of the Cabaret Law, which was passed in 1926 and requires venues to obtain a special license to allow dancing on premises. While it was intended to curb speakeasies at the end of the Prohibition era, it ended up stifling the nascent jazz scene by imposing tough requirements on venues.
"To be explicit here," Hutchinson said, "saxophones weren't allowed, but accordions were." She noted that though these specific restrictions pertaining to musical instruments are no longer in place (the law was updated in 1967), the law is still on the books, which makes shutting down venues in New York a matter of law enforcement discretion rather than actual cause. Hutchinson emphasized that the Cabaret Law still disproportionately affects marginalized groups, who don't have the capital and access required to secure a Cabaret License.
Several venue owners and promoters spoke passionately and emotionally about what they described as the seeming impossibility of sustaining a venue legally in the city. "We constantly live in fear and paranoia of our city government," said John Barclay, who runs a Brooklyn venue and is one of the other core organizers of the Dance Liberation Network along with Hutchinson, Nikki Brown, Adam Snead, and Nicole Grier. Barclay said that he has jumped through all of the necessary hoops to secure the permits for his venue and pass the inspections needed to run a space in the city, but doesn't have a Cabaret License. "We've been to court a couple times [for Cabaret citations], we've had our liquor license threatened," he said.
There are only 133 venues in the city with Cabaret Licenses, which is required for any venue that serves food or drink and allows people to dance. A petition by the Dance Liberation Network asking the New York City Council to repeal the Cabaret Law has gained over 2,000 signatures.
After the Ghost Ship incident, Barclay says the venue was visited by city fire officials a dozen times in one month. "I think we were ok with that, because they were concerned primarily with safety. But we were threatened about the repercussions of allowing people to dance. To me, that seems extremely hypocritical if you're concerned about safety," he said. "New Yorkers are going to dance no matter what. If you kick them out of a legit place that's hyper-regulated like mine, they'll go to a warehouse and dance. And if you close down that warehouse or that DIY spot, they'll go into a pit full of alligators and snakes and dance—there's not doubt about that."
The lively meeting wrapped up after 90 minutes with many questions still left unanswered. Despite this, there was a general sense of optimism in the room and amazement that so many people were willing to come out and get involved.
The Commissioner's Cultural Plan and the ongoing campaign to repeal the Cabaret Law are just two of many intersecting efforts needed to keep New York arts spaces open and thriving, from Kickstarters for individual closed venues to larger projects, like expanding the statewide Loft Law that allows industrial spaces to be converted into liveable rent controlled housing.
"The reason the city is listening is this event tonight," said Espinal, motioning towards the large crowd. If the passion of this community can be channeled into action, the problems facing New York nightlife have a real possibility of being addressed."