Take Back the Night!

The best party of the year in New York had no guest list, bottle service, big-name D.J.’s, or expensive sound systems. It was, of course, Blackout 2003, when impromptu sidewalk cafés were built, bongo players pounded out beats for dancers crowding downtown streets, and drinking—and smoking in bars!—continued well past dawn. True, the next day was a bit of a comedown (as some revelers discovered they couldn’t even take cold showers), but that Thursday was an oddly utopian moment when New York seemed like its old, libertine self again—with a few crucial differences. It was wild but (mostly) law-abiding. Friendlier but just as much fun.

In fact, New York in the dark showed how much more fun New York after dark could be if the powers that be loosened up a little—a lesson that comes at a very appropriate time. Recently, the Bloomberg administration announced that the city is considering amending—or repealing altogether—its cabaret law, which requires that bars and clubs possess a license to allow dancing. Enacted in the twenties to halt both race mixing and the rise of jazz, the law went mostly unenforced until the nineties, when Giuliani used it to curb the after-dark activities of Generation Ecstasy.

Dancers and club promoters alike were thrilled when the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs, which issues the licenses, held a hearing on them this summer. The hearing itself was something of a party, featuring everyone from members of the Dance Liberation Front dressed as elves to New York–nightlife legends like David Mancuso, former owner of the Loft. And it felt like the final chapter of a repressive era in which signs like THANK YOU FOR NOT DANCING adorned nightclub walls. Indeed, DCA head Gretchen Dykstra told me that the city will likely “eliminate or completely overhaul” the restrictions on dancing.

But even if the city struck down the cabaret law tomorrow, clubland would still be in trouble. If anything, jettisoning the law should be just the beginning of a broader campaign to make the city’s nightlife policy more sane, safe, fair, and fun—and, above all, far less byzantine.

At the moment, dancing is confined to a few commercial zones and (even more scarce) manufacturing zones. So the cabaret law’s demise wouldn’t necessarily spell the end of the “dance police”; cops could fine establishments based on zoning laws instead. Nor would it affect the Kafka-esque tangle of rules, licenses, and permits that makes opening a nightclub so confusing and expensive a process that a lucrative cottage industry exists just to guide owners through the paperwork. “The cabaret license,” says New York Nightlife Association attorney Rob Bookman, “is simply the twenty-fifth mile of the marathon.”

“Jettisoning the anti-dancing law should be just the beginning of a campaign to make nightlife more safe—and fun.”

The Bloomberg administration needs to stop ticketing and padlocking clubs for violations that have nothing to do with excessive noise or clubgoer safety. The city sends a contradictory message when it says it wants to end the unreasonable (and, as civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel argues, even unconstitutional) war on nightlife but continues to prosecute it anyway. The foot soldiers in the war on nightlife are the members of MARCH (Multi-Agency Response to Community Hotspots), and they should be redirected from ticketing legitimate bars and clubs to going after the real enemy: unlicensed clubs that flout fire codes.

But an even more radical change in how the city views nightlife is in order. Ratcheting down the Giuliani administration’s overheated rhetoric toward clubs (“buckets of blood,” Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington once called them) isn’t enough. Nightclubs need to be embraced—not simply tolerated—for their enormous cultural and economic impact on the city. It should be obvious that nightlife creates jobs and tax revenue, but it doesn’t seem to be to a city that doled out aid to Broadway post-9/11 but keeps club owners in a constant state of crisis. It’s worth recalling—since the clubland scandals of the nineties have so obscured it—what’s so great about clubs in the first place. They’re breeding grounds not just for Special K dealers but for musical movements like hip-hop, house, and techno. And sometimes they even serve as way-Off Broadway. Many of us first saw John Cameron Mitchell perform as Hedwig not at the Jane Street Theater but at the polysexual rock-and-roll night “Squeezebox” (which recently relocated to nightlife-friendly Berlin, a city that has become something of the next Williamsburg for fed-up downtowners).

The escape-to-Germany trend notwithstanding, New York is still considered a hip destination—at the very moment that the city’s nightclubs are dying off, its music scene is the envy of much of the world. For many young people, from Lubbock to London, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are just as compelling a reason to visit the city as the Met. New York’s all-too-conservative tourism board, NYC & Company, could even start a campaign modeled after the “Cool Brittania” campaign launched in the nineties. Of course, it’s deeply uncool to go to a club to hear a band, as I recently did while on assignment for a British music magazine, only to witness bouncers physically preventing partyers from dancing (the venue had just been ticketed for violating the cabaret law).

Further proof that what New York nightlife certainly doesn’t need is more regulation. Just as club owners get ready to celebrate the demise of the cabaret law, rumors are flying that the city might start up a new “after hours” licensing system that would require both bars and nightclubs to have a license to remain open past 2 a.m. During the cabaret-law hearing, Siegel warned of a “regulatory steam” rising. The DCA’s Dykstra refused to comment on the possibility of an after-hours license; she simply told me that the city is interested in “regulations that are written to address problems, not create them.”

But the specter of such a license is causing tremors within the nightlife community. One club owner I know says he’s making preparations to sell his business just in case it should come to pass.

All the more reason the Bloomberg administration should take an unexpected pointer from the blackout: New Yorkers can party safely without burdensome regulations. The city has clearly grown up (Lower East Side designer-sneaker looters excluded). Now it’s time for a nightlife policy that treats us like adults.

Take Back the Night!