By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
When you go clubbing now on West 27th Street, the first things that strike you are the searchlights. Placed at either end of the block at Tenth and Eleventh avenues, they light up the sky like a movie set, turning night into day. Then there's the huge electronic billboard that reads, "Use of fake IDs is unlawful." And then the cops, so many you can't keep count, lining the block, posted on every corner, handing out flyers detailing "Nightlife Safety Tips." ("Always inform a family member or friend of your whereabouts.")
So this is how we go clubbing in New York. After Imette St. Guillen, the woman allegedly murdered by a Falls bouncer in late February; after Steven Sakai, a bouncer at Opus 22 who allegedly shot four people, one fatally, in May; and after Jennifer Moore, the 18-year-old raped and murdered in July long after leaving Guest House. This has been the city's response for the last month: total police saturation. After months of asking for more help in this overpopulated area, West 27th club owners finally got what they asked for, and much, much more. "It looks scary," says Robert Bookman, a lawyer for the New York Nightlife Association. "It's like a major terrorist event has happened."
"A good amount makes people feel safe," Home and Guest House owner Jon B says of the increased police presence. "When it's overabundant, it makes people really worried and edgy."
This weekend I ended my Friday night at Lit, where DJ Mike Simonettiwas spinning to an empty houseLit lacks a cabaret license, so he couldn't spin music that compelled people to actually dance. Meanwhile, the team of police officers, State Liquor Authority reps, and fire and building inspectors that comprise MARCH (Multi-Agency Response to City Hotspots) made its way around the East Village, handing out citations.
Across town, Spirit, a club on the West 27th Street block, was shut down under the Nuisance Abatement Law for the second time this year. During the last round of club closures in March, it was closed for a week; since its reopening, police have accused the club of selling alcohol to minors and facilitating buys of cocaine and ecstasy. Manager John Blair says that the closure is not for underage drinking or drugs, but "because we made the police mad about our hip-hop night." ("It was closed for law-breaking," counters deputy commissioner Paul Browne of the NYPD's public information office, "not the choice of music.")
The increased police presence is part of the renewed campaign to clean up the city's favorite punching bag: New York nightlife. The concerned politicians and community members who backed the newly passed Imette's Law, drafted by New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, have good intentions. They've strengthened the already existing law that requires bouncers to be registered with the state by making it possible for city agencies to close nightclubs hiring unlicensed security under the Nuisance Abatement Law. This is a good thing.
But Imette's Law and Quinn's other nightlife proposalsincluding a plan to mandate security cameras and ID scannersare what Bruce Schneier termed "security theater" in his 2003 book Beyond Fear. Security theater, Schneier argues, barely alters an already faulty system but gives the appearance of being hugely effectivethe equivalent of making Grandma take off her running sneakers before going through airport security. Or, in this case, posting lots of cops on the street handing out safety flyers.
Consider this: Most if not all of the big clubs in the West Chelsea arealike Crobar and Homealready use cameras, including Guest House, the club that's been destroyed in the press since Jennifer Moore's death. Cameras are commonly used by clubs for their own security and insurance purposes in case of a fight or accident. "We have 16 cameras in a venue that's only 3,300 square feet," says Cain owner Jamie Mulholland. Even the small, grungy Dark Room on Ludlow Street has cameras.
Bernard Cole a retired second-grade police lieutenant who now serves as president of Cole Consulting Incorporated, a company that trains nightlife securitynotes that cameras aren't even necessary in cases of bouncers gone berserk. "Why would you worry about cameras if you have 100 witnesses?" he asks.
As for the now ubiquitous ID scanners that check for fakes, they're no more foolproof than the humans who operate them, and don't protect against minors who use someone else's real ID, such asan of-age sibling's or a friend's. "We implemented the scanners, but not every ID scans," says Guest House's Jon B. "The scanner doesn't scan passports. It only works on specific states. It doesn't work on countries. We're not even letting those people in. I don't want to take any chances."
Interviewed by the Voice,Council Speaker Quinn defends her proposals. "Cameras can be a deterrent," she says. "There's not any one thing that will solve the whole problem. It's a cumulative effect." Of the scanners, "You can catch people who have out-and-out fakes with the clubs knowing it's a requirement. The bouncers will be more focused to have eagle eyes. They're gonna know people are watching, taking this much more seriously."