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Chelsea Mourning

Happier times at Club Deep, New Year's 2006
photo: Staci Schwartz

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).

Yet the drug buys at the seven clubs, as detailed in court documents, are not as impressive: 16 Ecstasy pills at Avalon, three bags of coke and six hits of E at the View (allegedly from the same dealer busted at Splash), $120 worth of coke and five hits of E at Deep. At Spirit, police say, undercovers bought seven bags of heroin and one bag of marijuana, but no one has been charged yet by the special narcotics prosecutors' office.

Club owners might have the strongest argument that they are held to a higher standard than other industries when one considers the Steel Gym case. The next biggest drug purchase—$2,700 at Splash for five eight-balls and 30 pills—was less than half than what police bought at Steel Gym, which was the only non-nightclub included in the raid. Officers purchased 264 bags of crystal meth totaling $9,920 from the same person, who was not among those on the special narcotics prosecutor's list. Yet Steel Gym was not shut down. Its fine: $1,000.

"Different judges make different determinations," explained Browne. "Some will authorize a closing while others will issue a restraining order, directing the operations to end the illegal activity but allowing the establishment to remain open."

Still, it's hard to fight the image of clubs as drug funhouses. "We need to show we are not a mess," said Landeche. "We have to turn around the notion that nightlife equals bad life. Nightlife is where you network with friends after work, where you meet the love of your life, where you celebrate your birthday. It's a great part of life."

Ironically, just a few days after the busts and the dismissal of the suit challenging the cabaret law, MAYOR BLOOMBERG announced that he wanted to create an arts and culture office to ensure the city's place as one of the world's foremost cultural centers. Bookman, for one, doesn't think the anti-nightlife sentiment is due to an anti-nightlife mayor. "He's not GIULIANI. Giuliani made the streets safe at night but didn't believe anyone should be out on them."

Halcyon owner SHAWN SCHWARTZ is not so sure it matters if Bloomberg's pro- or anti-club. The effect is still the same. "How is New York City supposed to retain its title as the City That Never Sleeps, when no right-minded investor would chance opening a new venue in this hostile environment? When no talent or promoter can be certain that their event will have a venue safe from closure—or that indeed they will be safe from prosecution for some patron's minor drug offense? How can the city, from one side of its mouth, proudly tout its vibrant nightlife in ads aimed at attracting the Olympics, or expanding the Javits Center, while the other side gleefully vilifies clubland with total disregard for the repercussions?"

The mixed messages only got worse when JUDGE MICHAEL STALLMAN dismissed the complaint in the case of JOHN FESTA et al. v. New York City, brought by NORMAN SIEGEL and PAUL CHEVIGNY, shooting down the argument that the cabaret law is unconstitutional.

In his decision, Stallman addressed the notion that dance clubs create more chaos in the surrounding neighborhood: "If these establishments draw more people because they offer dancing, then there is a greater likelihood of pedestrian traffic." But Stallman added, "The 80-year-old Prohibition-era cabaret law and its interface with zoning laws might well be re-examined in light of current social norms and neighborhood conditions. . . . Surely, the Big Apple is big enough to find a way to let people dance."

Siegel said that New Yorkers shouldn't pack up and move to Berlin just yet. "Unfortunately, the Big Apple under Giuliani and Bloomberg has not found a way to let people dance, which is one of the reasons for the lawsuit," he says. "I continue to believe social dancing is an expressive activity and should have New York State constitutional protection. I believe the cabaret law is unconstitutional. We're considering an appeal and hopefully find a way to let New Yorkers dance."


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