New York

Awaiting the ‘Night Mayor’

Small clubs hope that a new City Hall office will make it easier to navigate New York City’s licensing bureaucracy

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Brooklyn’s Happy Fun Hideaway opened in 2013.
Brooklyn’s Happy Fun Hideaway opened in 2013.

At the Market Hotel in Bushwick last month, a crowd of about a hundred people gathered for a town hall with City Council members and representatives from city agencies. Dubbed “Save NYC Spaces” by its organizers at the NYC Artist Coalition, an advocacy group formed in the past year to lobby city officials on problems faced by the DIY community, the event was a chance for the city’s smaller performance venues to plead with the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (MOME) and Department of Cultural Affairs for better representation.

It was an unusual place for a town hall: Unlike the more expected spaces, like church basements and public schools, where such events tend to pop up, the Market Hotel is a performance space that had been shut down repeatedly by the NYPD. A year ago, it was raided and hit with citations for storing liquor without a license — the 83rd Precinct later tweeted a photo of plastic containers filled with beer cans, warning venue operators not to engage in “risky business” by stockpiling alcohol without a permit.

Though Market Hotel has so far survived, many other small and DIY spaces have not. More than eighty performance spaces in the city have closed in the past ten years, according to the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, including such popular spots as Death by Audio, Shea Stadium, Glasslands, and Palisades. Rising rents are the most cited obstacle, but advocates from the DIY scene also blame an enforcement-centric mentality on the part of the NYPD, Department of Buildings, FDNY, and the Department of Health, which band together as the Multi-Agency Response to Community Hotspots (MARCH) taskforce to hit venues with multiple citations at once.

But there could be a long-awaited thaw between City Hall and the city’s performance spaces. An advocacy movement for small and DIY venues consisting of artists and venue operators has developed in the past year, encouraged by cooperative officials like Department of Cultural Affairs commissioner Tom Finkelpearl and Councilmember Rafael Espinal. The coalition has had large legislative successes: This Halloween, it was successful in repealing the city’s 91-year-old Cabaret Law regulating social dancing, which had been widely (if unevenly) enforced to shut down informal venues since the 1990s.

A previous attempt to overturn the Cabaret Law in 2004, recalls Rachel Nelson, owner of Bushwick’s Secret Project Robot, a venue with DIY origins, had met with very different results. “It was sort of like this, except nobody let us into City Hall,” says Nelson, laughing. “This is like the first step in really grabbing the city’s ear.”

More promising still to small and DIY spaces is a law, written by Espinal and signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio on September 19, that establishes an Office of Nightlife to serve as a liaison between City Hall and the nightlife industry. Its director, as yet unappointed, has already earned the nickname “night mayor,” a title used by similar offices in cities like Amsterdam.

The repeal of the Cabaret Law, says Nelson, is important because it’s “one less thing that can be used against” club owners. “But I think that the Office of Nightlife has a little bit more power and ability that will be able to bring some safety net for DIY spaces.”

The office’s budget is modest: about $300,000 a year, according to NYC Artist Coalition organizer Olympia Kazi, perhaps a third of which will go to the night mayor’s salary. (MOME says no official budget has been finalized.) The legislation, which was signed by the mayor at the Bushwick performance venue House of Yes, also established a twelve-member advisory board, with eight appointed by the City Council and four by the mayor. Espinal says the board will be announced before the end of this month; MOME, which will house the Office of Nightlife, says its goal is to have a night mayor in place before the end of this year.

How much the night mayor will help the struggling DIY and small-venue community remains uncertain. In addition to rising rents, venues face an expensive path to being up to code, something city agencies have not always been the most helpful with. Venue owners say that rather than working with them to deal with renovations that would take time to address, these agencies hit them with a barrage of tickets for small infractions like inadequate lighting. And even owners of spaces that have always been up to code complain about long waits on hold for representatives who turn out to not have the information they need.

“The reality is, nobody really knows how this office is going to work,” says Kazi. Her hope, she says, is that the night mayor will help informal cultural spaces “have access to resources, grants, [and] special permitting frameworks” that are necessary to keep small and informal venues afloat.

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Owners of up-to-code venues with DIY origins like Silent Barn, Babycastles, and Secret Project Robot say they’re hopeful that the night mayor position could make communication with city agencies smoother and create a repository of knowledge they say was lacking while building their spaces.

“No one throws a party and says, ‘Oh, man, this is so dangerous, there aren’t enough fire exits, how cool is this,’ ” says Adam Reich, one of the co-founders of Shea Stadium, a beloved all-ages Brooklyn venue that closed last March. Most DIY operators want to be safe, he says, but are hit with citations rather than guidance.

“So much is left to the discretion of various city officials who often don’t talk to each other or even among themselves and often have contradicting criteria about what’s OK and what’s not,” says Reich. Even if a popular arts space is committed to safety and earnestly wishes to bring itself up code, he says, the city provides no blueprint on how to do this, leaving artists on their own to navigate a maze of obscure building codes and opaque requirements.

“New York City building code is a byzantine document to say the least,” agrees Eli Dvorkin, a founding member of Silent Barn and managing editor at the Center for an Urban Future. The code has 35 chapters and 18 appendices and includes standards for everything from rodent-proofing to outdoor signs. “There’s no guide to get you up the mountain,” he says.

Rather, the city has an entire industry of “expediters” who help keep spaces up to code and avoid any potential violations. But they are prohibitively expensive for less-funded venues, charging thousands of dollars simply to secure a permit from the Department of Buildings.

Rachel Nelson, who along with Secret Project Robot also owns the clubs Happy Fun Hideaway and Flowers for All Occasions, says that the city’s code is geared more toward propping up an existing system of union laborers than it is toward safety. Something as simple as an exit sign, she says, can cost up to $2,000 to install correctly.

“Do we care that the exit sign is there, and it’s fulfilling a necessity, or do we care how that exit sign got there, which is this bureaucratic bizarre system?” Nelson says.

Smaller, informal spaces intimidated by the web of requirements can end up forgoing them altogether, sometimes at the expense of safety, says Nat Roe, executive director of Flux Factory, an arts community space in Queens: “They are just in this noncompliance mentality.”

Yet some operators of the remaining handful of informal, DIY venues — ones that never broadcast their address on flyers for fear of police crackdowns — say on condition of anonymity that while they’re supportive of the new office, they’re unlikely to make use of it. Financial barriers to getting up to code, they say, are insurmountable. A study by MOME on the city’s music venues backs this up, estimating it can cost up to $1 million to open a new 100- to 300-person venue that passes regulatory scrutiny.

But Roe stresses that spaces that fit into this category should still consult with the night mayor on ways to become safer. “If you can’t be completely compliant, some spaces don’t even educate themselves about the stuff they could do,” he says. “A lot of these codes — who cares. But people’s safety is really the most important thing.”

Roe says that the original Silent Barn space, which was shut down by MARCH in 2011, was guilty of this. But when a freak electrical fire tore through the building at the current up-to-code Silent Barn in 2015, no one was harmed — and because it was up to code, the venue was able to collect insurance money.

“If that had been a noncompliant, not–fire safe place, we could have lost lives in that fire, and the organization probably would have ceased to exist,” Roe says.

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The new detente between New York City’s artists and city officials stems both from a change in mayor and council and from an urgency on the part of artists in the aftermath of tragedy. After de Blasio signed legislation in 2015 tasking the Department of Cultural Affairs with creating a comprehensive “cultural plan” for the city that would address inequities in arts funding and support, the plan commission began meeting with artists around the city — hundreds of interviews in total — in August 2016. Four months later, tragedy struck the DIY world with the fire at Ghost Ship, an informal live-in arts space in Oakland, California, which claimed the lives of 36 people.

Soon after, the Department of Cultural Affairs held open office hours with the city’s DIY community, and the NYC Artist Coalition began to host its own town halls, inviting city officials to hear the concerns of the DIY arts community, including those over the Cabaret Law and other enforcement actions.

“After the [Ghost Ship fire], it got scarier,” says Stephen Clark, a co-owner at Babycastles  a nonprofit video game gallery on 14th Street. “It made everyone a target.”

Reich, the Shea Stadium co-owner, says the days and weeks after the Ghost Ship fire brought relentless visits from FDNY and NYPD officials, who issued fines for zoning violations and failure to obtain certificates of occupancy and public assembly permits. By contrast, in the eight years preceding the Ghost Ship fire, Shea Stadium had only been ticketed once. Reich believes this was a targeted attempt to shut down unpermitted venues: “We’re just going to keep coming back,” he says he was told by NYPD officers during one visit.

Reich and the other co-owners of Shea decided to shut the space down temporarily and launch a Kickstarter campaign, hoping to bring everything up to code. But before the space had a chance to reopen, its landlord said he was no longer on board and would instead open a legal nightclub in the space himself.

The city’s vision for the Office of Nightlife also involves mediating long-standing tensions between venues and their neighbors, over everything from gentrification to noise complaints. Sandra Hong of New Women Space says artists that move into neighborhoods should not be surprised to be at the center of conversations about quality of life. She recalls a community board meeting where a longtime Williamsburg resident pleaded, in tears, for the board not to grant a liquor license to an adjacent bar, in a strip that had become overdeveloped with nightlife venues.

“I felt that was a moment where I understand why an Office of Nightlife needs to exist,” Hong says.

There’s some evidence a liaison office could reduce complaints — Amsterdam night mayor Mirik Milan’s office says that noise complaints have been reduced nearly 30 percent in the fifteen years since the role was established. Espinal, who said at a June City Council hearing that he hoped the office could “find a happy medium between the community and the venues,” as well as officials from Department of Cultural Affairs and MOME, have met with Milan and officials from similar offices around the world for advice in developing New York’s nightlife office.

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The largest barrier by far for smaller venues, though, is affordability. Many venue owners say they have only been able to stay open because of arrangements that allowed their commercial rents to remain relatively stable over time. At Bushwick’s Mayday Space, the leaseholders have an agreement with the church they’re housed in. Andrew Muchmore, owner of Muchmore’s in Williamsburg, owns his own space, subsidizing his business with a law practice. The owners of Silent Barn are locked into a long-term lease with modest year-to-year increases.

“Because of how aggressive the real estate market is, owners don’t want to give long leases to tenants,” says Roe. Flux Factory’s lease ends in 2021, and Roe says the operators have been trying to purchase the building, but it’s a struggle, financially. He suggests the city pursue some version of commercial rent control, which has languished in the City Council for decades.

Some fear that the loss of affordable space for DIY venues — cooperatively run, with a radical social mission — has harmed New York City’s homegrown music scene, cutting off support for budding, younger artists. Zeno, the 22-year-old lead singer of Yer Trash, says DIY spaces across the Northeast were integral to the band members’ coming of age. But because those types of venues are becoming rare, they’ve considered booking shows at 18- and 21-plus venues.

DIY spaces without age minimums — the kind of experimental spots that struggle to generate enough revenue in cost-prohibitive New York City — are “important, especially for younger people,” Zeno says. “It’s a community. It doesn’t have to be good or sound good, it’s just crucial that it exists.”

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