At nightlife summit, atmosphere sometimes got tense


By Lawrence Lerner

A day after introducing legislation aimed at cracking down on underage drinking and making clubgoing safer in New York City, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn presided over her much-anticipated Nightlife Safety Summit last Thursday at John Jay College. The summit brought together community groups, law enforcement, the nightlife industry, government agencies and elected officials to devise solutions to nightlife safety issues.

First announced in August after a series of high-profile violent incidents shook the city and galvanized elected officials and others to act, the summit was the culmination of a legislative and community push to deal with a problem that many see as raging out of control.

The summit was not open to the press. However, according to participants, the 18 panelists and approximately 80 invited observers who packed the Gerald W. Lynch Auditorium at John Jay witnessed a passionate, sometimes heated, debate on issues ranging from underage drinking and noise control to strained relations between police and club personnel.

“We all know that this has been a polarized subject for a long time, and unfortunately because of the death of those two young women, we’re finally gathered here today,” said Andrew Rasiej, one of the meeting observers and founder of the New York Nightlife Association.

Rasiej was referring to John Jay College student Imette St. Guillen, 24, who was killed on Feb. 25, allegedly by an unlicensed bouncer from The Falls bar in Soho, and Jennifer Moore, 18, an underage New Jersey clubgoer who was raped and murdered on July 25 after leaving the West Chelsea club the Guest House. Moore was picked up by a man on the West Side Highway after she and her friend made their way to Pier 76 to retrieve her friend’s towed vehicle; her body was found the next day in a dumpster in Weehawken, N.J.

At a press conference prior to the summit, Quinn stressed prior legislative initiatives such as the “Bouncer Law,” signed into law by Mayor Bloomberg in August, which makes it easier for city officials to shutter bars and clubs that hire security personnel who are unlicensed, have criminal backgrounds or carry unlicensed weapons. Quinn also lauded a legislative package now on the table, which would require clubs to use scanners to detect fake I.D.’s, install security cameras at club entrances and exits, hire independent monitors approved by the Police Department if hit with serious or repeated violations, and provide better training for club employees.

While members of the press were barred from the summit, the speaker also repeatedly called attention to the summit’s collective aspect.

“Everyone has a role in making sure people come home safely from a night out: law enforcement, government, the community and the industry,” Quinn said. “Today, I think with everyone’s input, we’ll be able to move further down the road to where we need to be.”

As Quinn introduced the various participants before the meeting, including club owners and lawyers from NYNA, she took pains to strike a conciliatory tone, emphasizing that “we are not interested in putting the nightlife industry out of business. In fact, when I spoke to Imette St. Guillen’s mother, she made a point that that was not what she wants. What we do want is for nightlife in this city to be as safe as possible.”

David Rabin, president of NYNA and owner of Lotus on W. 14th St. in the Meat Market, agreed.

“I want to stress that this isn’t a gotcha situation. No one is here to put the nightlife industry on trial. In fact, I’m thrilled that we’re having this conversation,” he said. “We have a shared responsibility in this cause, and it’s important that all concerned parties work with us instead of against us. The nightlife industry is a $10 billion economic engine and a face of New York City to the world. I think we can make it safe and have it still be fun.”

Inside the meeting, however, according to participants, the cooperative rhetoric at times gave way heated discussion on an array of issues, including the relationship between police and clubs. Several club owners weighed in, going on the offensive against a Police Department that they regard as uncooperative and adversarial.

John Blair, who owned the defunct West Chelsea club Spirit, which was shuttered in March and again in late August, allegedly for drugs and underage drinking, let his feelings be known as a panelist.

“There is so much mistrust between nightlife and the police that one meeting like this will not solve,” he said after the summit. “Take just one issue: marijuana. The police came at us for marijuana in our club and threatened to close us down for it, yet they wouldn’t arrest perpetrators when we asked them to. So, it’s not about the drugs or underage drinking — definitely not. It’s about control.” Blair said he’s out of the nightlife business: “I’m done,” he said.

Outside the meeting, NYNA founder Rasiej also expressed dismay at police behavior.

“We would love to have police officers come and take care of noise or other problems when we need them,” he said. “But the problem is that when officers are called to a licensed premise, they are required to make a record of it and send it to the State Liquor Authority,” he said. “Meanwhile, lists of club violations also go to the community boards. So, if you’re an owner who wants to open a club in another district, the community boards look at their list and say, ‘Well, you got 30 facility premise violations.’ It doesn’t matter if they got dismissed. It already sets a bad tone.”

Rasiej then cited one club owner inside the meeting who testified that he was slapped with a disorderly premise violation for calling about a patron having a heart attack. A former owner of Irving Plaza, Rasiej in recent years has focused on expanding wireless Internet and politics, having run for public advocate in the last election. Yet he still obviously is keeping his hand in important debates on the city’s nightlife.

Club owners ultimately managed to apply enough pressure during the meeting to prompt one police captain to give out his personal phone number.

“He said he wasn’t aware of any sergeant or other officer giving out unnecessary violations, and if they did in the future, to call him personally,” said Rasiej.

Meanwhile, club owners were not the only ones who showed frustration at the event. Members of the press who were banned from the summit meeting inside Lynch Auditorium questioned Quinn at the pre-summit press conference about their exclusion. The speaker appeared taken aback at first but kept her composure, insisting this was the first of many meetings and that she would revisit the policy in the future.

“You know, although none of the participants are press-shy, this might come as a shock, but sometimes people can speak more freely when there aren’t cameras or microphones in front of them,” she said. “Our goal today is to have as honest and frank a conversation as possible, and I think that is easier to accomplish, in this first meeting at least, without having press in the room.”

Other excluded groups included Downtown neighborhood associations and activists who have spent years fighting against the oversaturation of bars and clubs in their neighborhoods.

According to Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance, two successful and very well-attended community meetings on nightlife safety were held in March and June of this year, the first at the Public Theater on Lafayette St. and the second at the Puffin Room gallery in Soho.

“These were truly open proceedings,” Sweeney said. “The first drew more than 200 people, including the police, community members and elected officials from Lower Manhattan, and it was sold out [completely packed]. So, when we heard about Quinn’s summit, we thought at least a few people from Soho Alliance, the Noho Neighborhood Association and the various Lower East Side, Meat Market and Chelsea groups would be invited. That would have been the judicious thing to do. But we never got the call.”