Voices

Grassroots Organizing Changed the Way You Can Go Clubbing in New York City

The city created a Nightlife Advisory Board to re-characterize how the city liaises with establishments that are important both to culture and the economy.
October 10, 2017, 5:30pm
Image via Wikimedia Commons

If you've danced on a night out in New York City there's a chance it was unlawful. And not for the reasons that may come to mind. Establishments cannot host dancing without the proper license from the Department of Consumer Affairs, an expensive and tedious obtainment. Although the "NO DANCING" signs in bars may be disregarded with mirth, the historical roots of the law are no joke. The "Cabaret Law," passed in 1926 during the Prohibition era, has been weaponized under different administrations to beat back nightlife, particularly when it threatens certain business interests.

Historically, the racially motivated law was meant to stifle the burgeoning jazz scene. Enforcement targeted marginalized groups like the Harlem jazz clubs and Latin venues. More recently, Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's MARCH (Multi-Agency Response to Community Hotspots) task force patrolled bars and issued fines under the law, at times, leading to closure. Now, this antiquated and discriminatory law is on the verge of repeal, a symbolic gesture to be sure, but local elected officials aren't stopping there. The city created a Nightlife Advisory Board to re-characterize how the city liaises with establishments that are important both to culture and the economy. Nightlife is a $10 billion sector of NYC's economy and employs over 100,000 people.

"It wasn't until a few grassroots organizations came to the fore when we were able to really get things off the ground and see change."

Brooklyn Council Member Rafael L. Espinal Jr. (D-37), a lifelong resident of Brooklyn elected to the New York State Assembly at age 26, championed the effort to repeal the cabaret law. Then he sponsored a bill signed by NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio late September to create an Office of Nightlife.

The Office of Nightlife and the Nightlife Advisory Board is made up of twelve members of diverse background and aims to: "protect businesses that are often saddled with heavy fines, support local communities and quality of life in every neighborhood, and preserve NYC's iconic cultural scene," according to the New York City Council. The initiative was modeled after similar ones in London, Amsterdam, and other European cities. The cities to pilot this strategy report a reduction in crime and decrease in noise complaints.

"I credit nightlife with giving me a space to let off steam and be among like-minded individuals," Espinal told VICE Impact. "Especially having been elected at 26 years old, nightlife was a place where I could connect with my peers and disconnect from the stress my elected position often held. Music and nightlife, culture and creativity and supporting our small businesses, while also maintaining a good quality of life for residents is personal and important to me."

Elected officials like Espinal work hard to reflect the heart of their communities and it takes citizens - paying attention and engaged - to solidify that work.


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"This process would not be possible without the many advocates and community leaders who helped me raise awareness of the issue and were great partners in this fight," said Espinal. "It wasn't until a few grassroots organizations came to the fore when we were able to really get things off the ground and see change."

In the face of a regressive administration that is rapidly alienating people, the phrase "all politics are local" has taken on much more weight.

"Nightlife was a place where I could connect with my peers and disconnect from the stress my elected position often held."

"Folks want to participate now," said Espinal. "They want to go to the streets or find an issue that matters to them. In a way, the national turmoil is galvanizing people to take action like we haven't seen in recent years. Pick your cause or a variety of causes and stick with it. Don't give up and don't give in. Whether it's something small like nightlife in NYC, or something huge like climate change or healthcare, these fights are all important and will all get resolved negatively unless good people stand up and demand positive action."

When it comes to backyard issues like better schools or better roads, your city councilor, mayor, state rep or governor often controls more that impacts your daily life than your Congressional Representative or Senator. For example, while the president may decide to pull out of the Paris climate accord, cities are stepping up to solve big issues like climate change. Laws to sustain the environment are often introduced by Council Members. Knowing who your Council Members are, what they're enacting, and how you can get involved matters.

READ MORE: Act Local, Think Global

"Local government is where the rubber hits the road," said Espinal. "Local politics is so important because it is where we can see the most change and where everyday people can get easily involved in issues that affect them and their local community."

Roughly 40 percent of Americans have a local election in fall 2017. This VICE Impact guide will help you get registered and informed.