New York’s DIY music and dance scene is taking centerstage at City Hall.
Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed Thursday the creation of a new, slightly-ambiguous city position: nightlife ambassador.
Artists and city officials said the proposal is an overdue step in the right direction for the future of underground music. For decades, venue owners have pushed for the repeal of nearly century-old cabaret laws that have led to hefty fines and closures of several spots, such as Brooklyn’s “Shea Stadium.”
Olympia Kazi, a member of the NYC Artist Coalition, said the ambassador would need to address the antiquated legislation that bars clubs from dancing without a costly permit.
“The more [the city] can work with us the better,” she said. “The dance and music spaces are an economic engine that need to be preserved.”
Julie Menin, Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, gave little specifics about how the nightlife ambassador would operate, but said it would akin to similar positions created in London and Amsterdam. The ambassador would work with a special city advisory board and assist venue operators and artists with licensing, permits and other legal issues.
“This is an area of tremendous growth for New York so we want to have an office that’s really going to work with the various music venues, with the nightclubs with bars and restaurants,” she said.
A spokeswoman said the mayor’s office is in discussion with City Councilman Rafael Espinal, who first proposed the idea. Espinal, who represents Bushwick, which has a large share of DIY spots, also introduced a separate bill Thursday that calls for the creation of a night life task force.
Although he said he appreciated the mayor’s plan, Espinal said the city needed to take direct action on the cabaret laws if it wanted the nightlife scene to move forward.
The legislation, passed in 1926, originally targeted jazz venues, barring commercial venues from allowing dancing without a permit, according to Espinal. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani used the law to close down several venues throughout the city.
Although enforcement waned recently, Kazi and other activists said the laws are used as “scarecrows” by landlords.
“If someone wants to break up the dancing because they don’t like it they can just say, ‘Oh they don’t have a cabaret (license).’”
Only 97 cabaret licenses are currently issued, 40 of which are in Manhattan, and can cost vendors thousands of dollars, according to Espinal.
A Brooklyn bar owner sued the city in 2014, contending the cabaret laws are unconstitutional. A mayoral spokeswoman said the administration is “re-examining” the regulations.
In the meantime, Espinal will host a City Council hearing on the laws Monday and invites New Yorkers to express their concerns.
“We need to do something to stop the bleeding of our nightlife,” he said.