Fighting for the Right to Party


While Giuliani’s war on nightclubs continues, with Wetlands the city’s most recent club casualty, the nightlife industry has decided to take matters into its own hands. In the face of what club owners see as constant harassment, they are doing the unimaginable in this self-serving world usually marked by gritty competition:

They are banding together.

In the last month, events planned by two groups of insiders, the Mishpucha collective and the newly formed New York City Late Night Coalition (NYCLNC), have been attended by some of the city’s most powerful club owners, promoters, artists, and record-label reps, as well as dance club patrons.

New York City and State earn $109 million and $110 million respectively in tax revenue from the nightlife industry.

“It’s becoming clear that it’s a citywide campaign of closure and harassment,” said the NYCLNC’s Ted Oehmke. “You’re talking about a group that is famously disenfranchised. No one has tried to organize these people into a coherent voice, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

“We have voters and we have money,” says Matt E. Silver, promoter and cofounder of a third pro-nightlife group, Action New York, with Paper‘s David Hershkovits.

The collectives want to galvanize voters for the upcoming mayoral elections. They also hope to influence mayoral candidates, by demonstrating, through petitions and polls, support for an abolition of the cabaret law, and an end to the city’s current practice of punishing nightclubs for 911 calls. Mishpucha’s Adam Shore concedes that “we’re a little late in the game,” but says, “We’re targeting the mayoral election. A lot of the anti-nightlife directions that Giuliani and Rudy Washington have pushed are coming from community boards and complaints. And those are not going to change when the next mayor is in, and he’s going to have to respond to those people as well.”

The nightlife organizations stress the economic impact of the late-night industry. “We want to show the city what a vital resource this business is, instead of trying to wipe it off the streets of New York,” said Oehmke. A 1998 report conducted by Audience Research & Analysis polled 685 visitors at nine different nightclubs over a 13-night period. They found that the industry’s total economic impact was $2.9 billion dollars, generating $800 million in salaries and wages citywide, and creating 27,040 jobs. New York City and State earn $109 million and $110 million respectively in tax revenue from the nightlife industry.

These issues were discussed at the first NYCLNC meeting, held last month at Baktun, with an SRO crowd of industry bigwigs such as Giant Step co-owner Jonathan Rudnick, HX magazine head Marc Berkley, and Centro-Fly club owner Tom Sisk.

Graham Boyd of the American Civil Liberties Union, Will Patterson of the Electronic Music Defense & Education Fund, and several members of the San Francisco Late Night Coalition (SFLNC) gave the New Yorkers some pointers. SFNLC was successful in its fight to keep open San Francisco’s two biggest clubs, 1015 Folsom and the End Up.

“You have to get out of the underground. People don’t know who we are, so they get away with representing us as stupid, drug-addicted kids who don’t contribute to society,” said SFLNC’s Leslie Ayres. “We are not active in politics; we are not out there in the media. We’ve been insulated and we have to stop doing that.”

While the NYCLNC meetings are invitation-only affairs, Mishpucha’s event two weeks ago at Makor was well publicized. An excerpt of Juli Berg and Candace Corelli’s documentary No Dancing Allowed kicked off a panel debate about the cabaret law, featuring Norman Siegel, former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, currently running for public advocate; Robert Pritchard of the Dance Liberation Front; and Robert Bookman and David Rabin of the NY Nightlife Association, among others.

The panel drew 200 people, and served for many in the audience as an introduction to the cabaret law created in 1926 to regulate jazz clubs and speakeasies. “The police raid is often the first time [bar owners] ever heard of this thing,” said Shore.

The law requires that any music establishments selling liquor and food be licensed for more than three people moving rhythmically. Its enforcement has resulted in the padlocking of numerous businesses, and was the tool by which the city finally shut down Twilo after several prior unsuccessful attempts using the Nuisance Abatement Law. Shore points out that there are 5000 liquor licenses in the five boroughs but less than 300 are cabarets; in 1960, there were 12,000 cabaret licenses.

While the Mishpucha event focused on the cabaret law and possible First Amendment-related issues, the NYCLNC, headed for the moment by Oehmke—a former journalist who’s written for The New York Times and who was working at Twilo in its final months—is choosing to focus on health and safety issues.

There’s at least one politician who’s listening. City Council candidate Alan Gerson has a jump start on his opponents: Last Thursday he held a fundraiser called “Dance on the Water,” held on the Yankee Ferry and featuring DJ Jeannie Hopper. Gerson’s made the cabaret law a part of his platform. “The city should regulate noise level and safety, not dance,” said Gerson. “At best, the current scheme is an indirect way of getting at legitimate concerns; at worst, it’s an infringement of a form of expression.”