New York City has long been considered the mecca of American nightlife (sorry Los Angeles), and more recently, Brooklyn has become an icon of youth culture. But in a trend as old as the city itself, no sooner had the artists and students laid a path for commerce than developers rushed in, creating a conflict between the luxury condo residents and the culture warriors that had preceded them.
In the last decade alone, Brooklyn has lost at least six venues to rising rents or development - and that’s only counting the ones big enough to create a press stir or documentary. While some may argue this is just the natural course of a growing city, more often than not, these venues lose their footing because of the city’s antiquated and loosely regulated cabaret laws.
Which is why many in New York City are applauding Councilman Rafael Espinal’s recently passed legislation to appoint a “night mayor” – or more formally, a director of nightlife – to oversee a newly established Office of Nightlife that will include an advisory board of local businesses, citizens and industry leaders. Modeled after Amsterdam’s night mayor – or nachtburgemeester – the position will bridge the needs of the city’s nightlife businesses, concerned citizens and city officials.
City & State spoke with Espinal to find out more about the new role, where the City Council and mayor’s office stand on the controversial cabaret laws, and how you can apply to become New York City’s first night mayor.
C&S: What drove you to get behind this cause and sponsor this legislation?
RE: For me personally, as a Brooklyn representative, over the years I’ve seen many of Brooklyn’s and New York City’s beloved venues close because of one, overregulation, and two, because of the rising cost of rent. So I thought it was important for the city to intervene at some point and stop the bleeding of not only financial capital that this industry can potentially produce, but also the cultural capital that it produces for our city.
One model that I’ve been studying over the past few years was the model that Amsterdam’s taken up about three years ago, in 2014, to create an office of nightlife and the position of a night mayor. And what we’ve seen in Amsterdam was actually the city getting behind supporting its nightlife and seeing where they could foster the cultural and financial capital it produces there while also thinking about long-term planning to not only deal with the community concerns that lead to enforcements, but also figure out how they can plan in the future to make sure that all parties involved in nightlife can live side by side in an environment that is supportive for everyone.
C&S: You mentioned overregulation, and many times the pressures on these small businesses comes from local authorities, be it the NYPD or FDNY. Have they been actively involved or part of the discussion?
RE: We had a hearing a few minutes ago, where we heard from the administration directly, and they themselves are supportive. I haven’t heard from agencies in particular, but I think the city has come to recognize the importance of supporting these small businesses. Again, not only because of the financial capital but also the cultural capital; nightlife in New York City is iconic and it’s known to be one of the best in the word. But if we allow the city to over-regulate and overenforce and not look for productive measures to support them, then we’re going to lose, again that cultural capital, and in turn lose tourism, and not be able to retain some of the people because of the venues and the spaces it currently has.
C&S: You’re also part of the effort to repeal New York City’s cabaret laws. Where does this currently stand?
RE: So the cabaret law deal goes hand-in-hand with this effort because the cabaret law is seen as one of the major regulations that is in the way of allowing not only businesses to grow in our city, but for artists to be able to go out and express themselves. We introduced the repeal a few months ago and I’m looking to have a hearing in the middle of September, and hopefully be able to repeal the law by the end of the year.
C&S: Do you feel you have the support of the City Council and the mayor?
RE: I’ve been getting a lot of positive signals. I haven’t gotten the green light yet, but it seems as if they are supportive of the measure and I guess we’re just trying to figure out what is the best way to move forward.
C&S: The advisory board will be chosen by the council speaker. Have you been working with the potential candidates on how that will be determined?
RE: I would say a few of the candidates have gotten on board and have co-sponsored the repeal, so I’m confident with the way the conversation has been going, not only with the current speaker and administration, but the potential speaker candidates.
C&S: Will there be any emphasis on maintaining an independent structure to the advisory board and is there any concern of it creating a conflict of interest between venues or businesses?
RE: I think the administration would have concerns of having someone who is too close to the industry, but I myself have concerns of someone who is too close to the administration. I want to make sure we have someone in place that understands the importance of certain regulations, but also someone who would be compassionate and listen to the issues that venue operators are dealing with today. So we need someone who is really well-balanced across the board.
But for me, it was also important to include an independent advisory board that is going to be made up of community leaders and industry folks, and they themselves will be tasked with producing their own report of how they feel the city can move forward with policy. So that way we will have not only the director of nightlife, but the independent advisory board kind of advising the City Council and the mayor’s office of how we should be supporting our night businesses.
C&S: Most people pulling for this role seem to be coming from the venue or entertainment side, but how will this position be helpful for residents and those concerned about quality-of-life issues?
RE: I feel a lot of the enforcement that is done to venues stems from 311 complaints, local communities, and I’ve heard from community boards across the city about how they feel their neighborhoods have been oversaturated with bars and restaurants and music venues. What we’ve seen in Amsterdam, the office not only looks to support business, but it also figures out a way where it can help mitigate issues that communities have with certain venues. You know, how do we move forward in requiring developers to soundproof windows or maybe the venues doing more soundproofing or security, so that way we can help with the quality-of-life concerns that communities are seeing today.
C&S: Once the position is established, do you envision yourself remaining involved with the role?
RE: Yeah, I think it’s important for myself to continue tracking how the progress of this office continually operates in the future. Again, I believe everyone needs to be part of the conversation. One, because the city is the one who is responsible for the enforcement on these businesses, and two, I feel we need an independent eye to continue tracking what the development of this office will bring.
C&S: And for our readers out there wondering, how does one apply to become the night mayor?
RE: I believe there will be a job posting going up at some point. The bill hasn’t been signed yet, but I envision once the bill is signed, there will be a job posting and I encourage them to submit their resumes to myself or to the mayor’s office.