Everyone was all smiles at the knitting factory two weeks ago when gretchen dykstra, the commissioner of the department of consumer affairs, announced the proposal to abolish the city’s controversial cabaret law. Andy gensler, eric demby, and adam shore of legalize dancing nyc, one of the groups at the forefront of fighting the cabaret law, seemed stunned as they stood on the stage next to Dykstra when she proclaimed, “We will no longer be the dance police.”
But after the news sank in about the law’s replacement—an all-encompassing nightlife license that would regulate establishments with continuous sound past 1 a.m. that serve liquor and/or food—club owners and dance advocates, who had sometimes clashed in the past, began to grumble. David Rabin, the president of the industry’s only lobbying organization, the New York Nightlife Association; the organization’s lawyer, Robert Bookman; Slipper Room co-owner James Habacker; Centro-Fly co-owner Tom Sisk; and former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union Norman Siegel all expressed reservations over the proposed nightlife license.
While most applaud and welcome the move to eradicate the 1926 no-dancing law and the DCA’s newfound focus on noise problems, they are wary of the DCA’s proposal. While the DCA says it will no longer be the dance police, the zoning laws, which control where dance clubs can be built, will not change. That raises the question: Who will become the new dance police?
At a private meeting the morning the announcement was made public, Norman Siegel reports, “[The DCA] were telling us they would entirely focus on noise and not dancing.” But when asked about “the zoning laws that still are on books, they didn’t have an answer,” he says. “I hope this isn’t a three-card monte. We won’t have Consumer Affairs being the dance police but maybe the buildings department will. And no one can give me a straight answer.” Dykstra herself, when interviewed by the Voice last year, said, “Dancing is not regulated. The places that allow dancing are regulated. Deregulated dancing is a misnomer.”
This notion—that it’s not dancing that’s regulated, but the places hosting dancing that are under the microscope—leads many to believe that the DCA is essentially passing the buck to another city agency, namely the Department of Buildings. “Before everyone high-fives each other and breaks the champagne out, we still have to change the zoning law,” says Siegel.
“You don’t pass a law saying ‘Paris has been liberated!’ when that is not the case,” says Robert Bookman. “The zoning law is what really regulates where dancing can be held in the city. The cabaret law is an enforcement tool. What [the DCA] are proposing is to take away one of the enforcement mechanisms.” But Dykstra defended the DCA’s proposal, saying, “The DCA had a law it’s supposed to enforce that doesn’t address a problem, and that’ll be true for the buildings department, too. There are folks who would like us to go farther outside our purview and that’s not my job,” she says. “We are not the Department of City Planning.”
The city’s zoning was set up in the 1960s, when Soho was a vast wasteland and long before the meatpacking district was home to Stella McCartney and other high-end fashion retail stores. In the last 40 years, you could argue that the entirety of Lower Manhattan has become residential, making the distinction between “residential,” “commercial,” and “mixed-use” zones increasingly murky. Under the current law, establishments that want to host dancing can only be in certain mixed-use or commercial zones, areas like far west Chelsea, where the new Crobar is due to open in December, or the meatpacking district, home to Filter 14 and Rabin’s Lotus. Some are hoping that, during the hearings on the law scheduled in the coming months, there will be an opportunity to write zoning law changes into the bill. “The question is, if we don’t change zoning law, should we pass this?” says Norman Siegel. “That’s a tricky strategic question. You do it once and do it right, because you might not get another shot at it for five or 10 years.”
While a prominent city official indicated it would be unlikely that the DOB would place the enforcement of dance venues at the top of its list, one could expect that its agents will do their jobs, especially when making their rounds as part of the MARCH (Multi-Agency Response to Community Hotspots) nightlife squad every weekend. Robert Iulo, the DOB’s assistant commissioner of citywide inspections and the agency’s spokesperson, Ilyse Fink, indicated they would write citations if a venue was not in compliance with zoning. “Dancing isn’t really the issue,” says Fink. “The issue would be what use group is this particular premise zoned for, and whether or not you are compliant. We look at what the zoning law says—and if it says you can’t have X establishment in X area, we’d be writing a zoning violation, not a dancing violation.” But, she adds, “We’re not going to be the dance police.”
“For us it hasn’t changed,” says Iulo. “Our issues deal with safety. A crowded dancefloor is a problem in an emergency if the place wasn’t designed to deal with a crowded dancefloor.” While DCA’s new nightlife license would allow an under-75-capacity bar like Plant to have dancing, Iulo stressed that if there is “obviously an area cleared for dancing—not just an aisle—then dancefloor regulations would become effective.” He added that it might not be a problem if there are “only one or two people dancing. [But] 10 or 20 people or more—that sounds like dancing to me.” And, he adds, “I think our inspectors would know a dancefloor when they saw it.”
The critics argue that the DCA is simply looking to expand its regulatory power. Currently, there are roughly 300 cabarets that fall under its jurisdiction; under the nightlife license the DCA estimated that it’d have 1,000 licensed venues—and many bar owners feel that is a low number. “It’s not shocking that a licensing agency would create more licenses,” says Bookman, adding, “[DCA] is not anti-nightlife, but the old cabaret law gives very little discretion, and they are looking for a broader licensing law.” And under the new rules, club owners argue that it would be easier, not harder, to shut a club or bar down. The agency lists 10 incidents that could result in the revocation of a license, with a maximum of three violations in a two-year period—among them serious offenses like murder, assault, and rape. But the club community argues that other listed offenses, like the sale of liquor to minors and overcapacity, are more commonplace in clubland and are covered under existing laws that should be enforced by the city’s police and fire agencies, not the DCA.
Rabin and Bookman say that the proposal in the bill that requires all 500-plus-capacity clubs to hire one security guard per 50 people would not solve the problems presented by patrons outside the club. Rabin says that without a paid detail unit added into the proposal, the numerous security guards are useless when policing people who are drunk, unruly, and violent, and that a paid police officer would be better at enforcing these types of problems. “The problem is not lack of security,” says Rabin. “Our security has no legal authority to do anything about someone urinating or drinking a six-pack or even talking on a cell phone while they’re out smoking. All are violations of some law right now. [Under the new guidelines,] our license is now on the line for what goes on outside of the place.” But, says Dykstra, the police and fire departments have told her it is illegal under city and state law for off-duty police officers to work for establishments whose main purpose is the sale of liquor.
While club owners welcome the eradication of the dance police, and even applaud the measures DCA wants to take involving noise, most are cautiously optimistic but leery of what the future holds. “I feel they are talking about more, stricter regulation. I feel like we’re dealing with people who have an agenda about wiping out nightlife in New York,” says the Slipper Room’s James Habacker. “I’m trying to adopt a wait-and-see attitude and hope for the best.”