Chelsea Mourning

Nightclubs get the whip, but the cabaret law is still kicking

Last week was not New York nightlife's finest moment, when New York's finest shut down five clubs, and the dreaded cabaret law survived a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality.

On March 29, when the police raided Avalon—formerly known as the Limelight—they were probably anticipating a scene from the height of MICHAEL ALIG's heyday: club kids staggering around on platforms, wasted on drug cocktails.

Instead, the dozens of cops found a bunch of regular guys in their thirties and forties, behaving anything but badly. GARRETT SHELTON, the director of marketing and a&r for the independent jazz label Sunnyside Records was at the club for an early evening concert featuring WILCO drummer GLENN KOTCHE and TEDDY THOMPSON performing for "subdued Wilco fans," when "40 cops appeared out of nowhere." Everyone seemed confused: "A couple of cops looked completely flummoxed," says Shelton. "They said it was a citywide narcotics crackdown, but they got the wrong crowd!" He added, "The head of the operation was glaring at the crowd from the stage while smoking a cigar."

As Avalon was getting shut down for drug sales under the city's Nuisance Abatement Law, according to police, so were Splash, Spirit, Deep, and View—while Speed (a/k/a Shelter) and Steel Gym were issued restraining orders.

At press time, the Voice learned that the clubs will reopen by April 13, police say, except for Shelter, which will be closed April 17 through 24. The clubs must pay fines between $5,000 and $15,000, and in most cases hire independent "security monitors" to police illegal activity, which Sprit already does. Splash owner BRIAN LANDECHE says the monitoring service will cost an extra $3,000 a day. "What they are asking for effectively drives most nightclubs out of business," he says. "It seems to be what they want to do."

Sprit's executive director, JOHN BLAIR, says he agreed to close the doors at 3 a.m. and shut down by 6 a.m. "I agree with the police on that one," he says. "After-hours are just about drugs."

Nightlife—particularly in Chelsea, where many of the shuttered clubs are located—is under fire by residents who think more clubs mean more noise, litter, and crime. But many in the industry say they are held to unrealistically high standards compared to other businesses: "If you did a six-to-nine-month investigation on NYU or Columbia dorms," posits New York Nightlife Association lawyer ROBERT BOOKMAN, "my guess is you will find drug use in those dorms." Are we going to arrest the presidents of NYU or Columbia because they are 'turning a blind eye'?"

The raids also led to some speculation that both gay clubs and hip-hop nights were being singled out. "While the mayor is thrilled about major hip-hop events coming to New York, his captains and his sergeants are telling club owners, 'off the record,' if they don't stop nightly hip-hop parties, they'll get summonses until they go out of business," says Bookman.

Indeed, Garrett Shelton said, "one of the cops made a funny comment: If it'd been a hip-hop show, he said, they would have searched people on the way out."

NYPD deputy commissioner of public information PAUL BROWNE shot down the accusations, saying, "It's untrue."

At an April 4 meeting at the Roxy organized by SCOTT AGUIAR, the Roxy's ROSALIE SCHUPP joined more than 20 industry people, most of them gay nightclub employees—including Blair, Landeche, XL's MORGAN MCLEAN, promoters MARK NELSONand CYNTHIA RUSSO (of Krash), and DJs RANDY BETTIS and DREW G. Most were skeptical that the raids targeted gay clubs, but were concerned for their livelihoods. One man, MITCH AMTRAK, said before the meeting: "I'm just a lighting designer. But I just feel badly for those who lose work when clubs are shut down."

The Nuisance Abatement Law was passed in the late '70s to close down massage parlors. It's been used on clubs—and was especially handy during the PETER GATIEN era, in closing down the Tunnel, for instance. "It's a good law when it's used right," said Blair.

Many of the promoters and operators agreed that the anonymous 311 complaints and the CompStat crime-tracking system had contributed to the woes of nightclubs.

The operators maintain that they've added so many layers of security that by the time a patron finally gets into a club, as one person at the Roxy meeting put it, "you're exhausted." Krash promoter Russo says, "We search for weapons, drugs, we search in their pockets. If they have cigarette packs, their cigarette packs are opened. We have a wand. They go through a metal detector. We can't look in your socks."

Blair added that he already spends $2,000 a week for security monitors and hires a firm to conduct undercover surveillance on their employees to suss out those who might be selling drugs or taking bribes. Indeed, the operators were most upset by the allegation that a bartender at Avalon had been arrested for selling Ecstasy.

According to spokesperson MAGGIE GANDASEQUI of the special narcotics prosecutors' office, seven people were arrested and indicted stemming from the club busts. Browne says the city spent $34,465 purchasing 528 grams of meth and 258 Ecstasy pills inside locations. (It was not clear if this included the total of 1,006 locations in the city that have been closed or received restraining orders since January 2005).

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