It was only four hours—barely as long as a transcontinental flight—but September 28’s much hyped Nightlife Summit at John Jay College, the brainchild of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn , was probably the longest discussion members of the nightclub industry have ever had with government officials and police. “It was a relief,” said Sutra Lounge owner Ariel Palitz. “We really only interact with each other when there’s a problem.”
The closed-door session hosted panelists such as Spirit’s John Blair, David Rabin and Robert Bookman of the New York Nightlife Association, NYC criminal justice coordinator John Feinblatt, City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., and Daniel Boyle, chairman of the New York State Liquor Authority. In the audience of 80-plus (which got a few opportunities to speak) sat community board members; community activists; New York State Senator Tom Duane; City Council member Thomas White; Sandee Wright of the Whiskey Ward; Amy Sacco of Bungalow 8; and reps from Crobar, the Roxy, Mr. Black, and Guest House. The four hours went fast, and the dialogue touched briefly on topics like changing the 311 anonymous-call system, raising the club entry age, and assessing the controversial proposals for Paid Detail Units—off-duty officers paid by the clubs to monitor heavily populated nightlife areas.
The media-free environment allowed open dialogue, including Blair’s controversial accusation that the police use the Nuisance Abatement Act—which allows the city to shut down a club for drug sales or underage drinking by obtaining an emergency court order—as a form of harassment and racial profiling. He says Spirit has been shut numerous times under the broadly worded act, which doesn’t require convictions—only arrests—to trigger an immediate closure, which almost always happens on Friday nights.
“This assertion is completely unfounded,” said Assistant Police Chief
Michael Collins when reached by e-mail last week. “The Nuisance Abatement action against Spirit, or any other club, is in no way based on the race of the clientele, and any such claim is irresponsible and wrong.”
According to the club owners present, the NYPD representatives—including Assistant Chief Bruce Smolka and Deputy Chief Brian Conroy—didn’t appear to take this and other critical comments well. Bookman said that the elected officials “came across as being more than reasonable, and the police did not.”
But when reached by the Voice, Quinn cautioned against that analysis: “Just because police officers aren’t as chatty as elected officials shouldn’t be misinterpreted as them not being interested.”
Numerous club owners also explained that they were afraid to call the police to their venues for help because they say that such calls are always met with a Disorderly Premises summons. From the audience, Roxy manager Jason McCarthy explained that he’d called to save a person’s life, and after assistance arrived, police wrote up such a Disorderly Premesis ticket.
“We were concerned to hear such allegations,” NYPD rep Collins said afterward, “and invite any club owner who feels that an inappropriate summons was issued to contact us, so we may investigate the circumstances.”
Despite the tension, Bookman says, “I think even the police got the message a little bit. At the end of the summit Bruce Smolka gave his phone number out, and I called him on Tuesday.” He’s since been in conversation with Smolka’s office about the 10th Precinct shutting down clubs at 4 a.m., flouting a 1989 lawsuit, won by the Limelight, proving that, while clubs can’t serve alcohol after 4 a.m., they are allowed to stay open 24 hours under state law.
The debate over the legality of Paid Detail Units incited the most heated discussions. Panelist Sue Petito, the assistant commissioner for intergovernmental affairs for the NYPD, joined the police in insisting PDUs are against the law. Bookman pointed out that it wasn’t illegal when the NYPD suggested Paid Detail Units a few years ago, but that the proposal was rejected by NYNA and club owners because it was “prohibitively expensive.”
Collins explained afterward: “The Alcoholic Beverage Control Law prohibits a police officer from being directly or indirectly interested in the manufacture or sale of alcoholic beverages,” making PDUs “clearly illegal.” He said that the proposal a few years ago was crafted to have a group of businesses hiring officers, not individual businesses. NYNA’s Rabin said, “It is our opinion at NYNA that the plan designed by theNYPD was deliberately crafted to be rejected. It was not feasible economically, and they knew it. They wanted us to say no so they could then say it was us being unreasonable.”
“We came to Paid Detail only out of frustration,” said Rabin, who added that club owners would be happy if the police increased their presence on the street voluntarily. But barring that, “We’ll pay for police presence. We don’t want a situation like New Orleans, where police check ID. We don’t intend to replace the security bouncers with police. We just want them to walk up and down the block as beat cops.”
Sutra Lounge’s Palitz said, “I don’t think the City Council really knew the extent to which everyone is trying to place blame and criminalize each other.” Her bar—located on the busy, noisy corner of First Avenue and 1st Street—was dubbed public enemy number one when former City Council member Eva Moskowitz released the 2005 survey of the city’s noisiest nightspots, based on the frequency of 311 calls.
Because of the report, Palitz says, “If the police department is looking on paper, now I am a, quote-unquote, ‘problem location.’ I really wanted to speak about the importance of not trying to blanket the nightlife establishment as a problem, but target the methods in which problem locations need to be defined.”
“It was clear to everybody there that we’re responsible industry leaders,” Bookman concluded. “We’re looking to work with the government. We’re not the enemy. We need some real help. These are real issues.”
For her part, Quinn was also pleased with the results. “There was a tremendous hunger on the part of everyone in the room to work together,” she said, noting that the summit showed how “confused the different entities were about the regulatory requirements. There’s tremendous need for clarity.”
The summit also touched on raising the age limit for entry everywhere to 21 (currently anyone 17 or older can enter any establishment with a liquor license that also serves food), which pleased the NYPD. Collins said, “[We] look forward to seeing such legislation pass.”
Interestingly, before the summit Quinn had already introduced legislation proposing mandatory ID scanners and cameras, and independent monitoring of cabarets with multiple or serious violations before the summit. “The irony of the meeting is that all that stuff was glossed over and taken over by this other discussion,” Rabin said. Still, the nightlife community saw the day as a victory and, for the most part, praised Quinn’s efforts. “It’s a good first step,” Rabin said. “Chris Quinn runs a fair show.”
Quinn said she has plans to meet with smaller groups—and there’s a public hearing on October 17 regarding the legislation she introduced. But the onus is on the city to continue the talks. “If she follows up on this, bravo,” John Blair added. “Don’t waste time.”
“They seemed to think we could never all be in this room together again,” Palitz said. “There was not necessarily a plan to continue with this think tank, this brilliant ensemble. If left where it is, then nothing is going to change. This should be used as a catalyst to keep momentum going. Once the anger and animosity are put aside, you realize we share a lot of their concerns. We need common ground to stand on. The fact that we all love New York should be a good place to start.”