The Safety Dance

You Can't Dance if You Want To

Rabin has been in the club business for 12 years. Before opening Lotus and Union Bar on Park Avenue South, he was a lawyer. His venues are high-end lounges with swank interior designs that regularly draw celebrities (Leo! Tobey! Ivana!) and young blond women who circle wealthy, balding businessmen in blazers like sharks. Rabin sees Lotus as one of the pioneers of the meatpacking district—once home to whores and crack dealers—even though it opened quite recently, in 1999.

But Rabin bristles at any attempts to characterize him and his business as upper-class or rich. When he spots me eyeing his very nice, long, black leather coat, he says defensively, "It was a gift! A gift!" and later e-mails me, "I'm in no way pleading poverty—I make a comfortable living that allows me to support my wife and son—but I'm not getting rich." He says his club has yet to make a profit, and that 20-plus investors are still awaiting a return on their investment.

Free your hind: Shelter is one of 316 places in NYC where you can legally dance.
photo: Staci Schwartz
Free your hind: Shelter is one of 316 places in NYC where you can legally dance.

But Rabin and Lotus's posh rep is part of what bother some of his critics who believe that NYNA and Rabin only speak for a certain type of establishment and don't properly represent the smaller businesses in the industry. While NYNA lawyer Robert Bookman (who is also Rabin's attorney) would not release the names of the 120 members, it is known that in addition to big clubs like Centro-Fly and Exit, NYNA does boast small bars like Meow Mix and Hogs & Heifers as members.

While his Post comments had several people—most of whom were not NYNA members—calling for his head, most NYNA members think he is good for the organization.

"He's an extremely productive head of the association," says Michelle Dell of Hogs & Heifers. "He's an asset to nightlife in general and the association in particular. It would be a great loss for him to resign."

"NYNA is the only lobbying group that represents our business interests on the state and city level," says Tom Sisk of Centro-Fly. "Robert Bookman [the organization's lawyer] and his expertise pretty much speaks for itself."

The walls of Bookman's small, no-frills office in downtown Manhattan are covered with articles chronicling his many years battling on behalf of nightclubs.

Bookman worked in the Department of Consumer Affairs in the 1980s, and since he entered the private sector, much of his business has come from nightclubs. When club owners want a cabaret license, or when they want to fight cabaret violations, they frequently call Bookman. "I did the license for the Ritz and the original Tunnel," he says proudly.

And when club owners need a liquor license, they frequently enlist the services of his partner Warren Pesetsky. "We are pretty much the go-to boutique if you want to do one-stop shopping," Bookman says.

But James Habacker, co-owner of the Slipper Room, one of the many small venues that have been hard hit by the dance police, says that this is troublesome—another instance of a NYNA member looking out for his own interests instead of the industry's. "For years Robert Bookman and his people have been trying to get me to give them money to join NYNA under the guise of fighting the cabaret law. It's just a big lie," says Habacker. "If you want a cabaret license, he makes his living getting people cabaret licenses, and then on the other side of his mouth he's saying, 'I'll help fight the law.' "

Bookman says that is not true—and that if the law were repealed tomorrow, he would have more clients, not fewer. "It would probably be good for business because the broad opening of the marketplace would bring in additional people who would need lawyers. They are still going to need someone to marshal them through the multi-agency process."

As it stands, the cabaret law now requires a slew of safety measures—like sprinkler systems, an automatic switch for the fire alarm through the sound system, flame-proof wall hangings, and at least two exits—which bars and restaurants are otherwise not mandated to have. Most of these requirements were added in the late 1970s, and the original language of the cabaret law does not mention one word about safety.

But, argue club owners, safety should not be regulated through the act of dancing.

Says Halcyon's Schwartz, "It's a crock to say it's about safety. Safety has nothing to do with whether people are standing still or shaking their asses."

"The city feels like they have a duty to protect citizens from a Happy Land scenario," says David Baxley, a co-owner of Centro-Fly, referring to the 1990 fire that killed 87 people at an illegal Bronx social club.

As the owner of both a big, bona fide dance club (Centro-Fly) and a small loungey bar (Drinkland), Baxley finds himself in a unique situation. "I understand both sides," says Baxley. Venues like Drinkland have been most vulnerable to enforcement, and there is no current distinction between Twilo-sized nightclubs and small spots like Drinkland in the East Village—which are essentially lounges with DJs and cocktail tables.

"I don't think a bar that's 700 square feet should have to have a cabaret license," says Dell of Hogs & Heifers. "Establishments between 80 to 200 occupancy should not have to go through getting a cabaret license if they really are a bar and not a club."

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