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It’s time to dump ‘racist’ law banning dancing, says Espinal

June 20, 2017 By Scott Enman Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Prior to the Consumer Affairs Committee hearing, Espinal hosted a press conference on the steps of City Hall calling for a repeal of the Cabaret Law and the implementation of an Office of Nightlife. Photo courtesy of Councilmember Espinal’s office

If New York wants to retain its title as The City That Never Sleeps, then several sweeping changes need to be made, according to city Councilmember Rafael Espinal.

Hundreds of nightlife advocates, business owners and artists joined Espinal at a Consumer Affairs Committee hearing on Monday to voice their opposition to an antiquated and draconian rule known as the “Cabaret Law.”

The Cabaret Law states that people can only dance in venues that possess a cabaret license, but these certificates are extremely difficult to obtain.

The law, which was created in 1926, prohibits dancing by three or more people in any “room, place or space in the city,” to which the public may gain admission and includes “musical entertainment, singing, dancing or other form[s] of amusement.” 

“I am extremely pleased with yesterday’s Consumer Affairs Committee hearing,” Espinal told the Brooklyn Eagle. “Over 200 people — from artists to musicians, business owners, labor unions, employees and everyone in between — came out to support the preservation of NYC’s iconic nightlife scene and reject the idea that dancing should be illegal.

“This Wednesday, I am officially introducing a bill to repeal the historically racist and arbitrarily enforced cabaret law and I look forward to continuing to engage the community as we proceed.”

Espinal was joined by city Councilmembers Stephen Levin, Corey Johnson, Antonio Reynoso, Rory Lancman and Karen Kozlowitz.

In addition to repealing the law, Espinal wants to create an Office of Nightlife, which would be led by a “night mayor.” 

The new position’s responsibilities would include regulating the nightlife industry, helping DIY venues stay open and creating a safer partying environment.

According to NYC Artist Coalition, an organization that “[protects] community spaces,” the Cabaret Law was created and used to break up underground black institutions at the height of the Harlem Renaissance and it was reinforced by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the ’90s to target gay and lesbian bars. 

“The Cabaret Law, with its infamous racist and homophobic history, has horrible effects to this day,” wrote NYC Artist Coalition in a statement. “We appreciate New York City Council for opening a space to debate this issue. Social dancing is not a crime. We advocate for the safety and preservation of informal cultural spaces, such as DIY music venues.

“The Cabaret Law is currently used to criminalize such spaces and it forces our communities underground and into unsafe environments.”

Using data from the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs, NYC Artist Coalition created a map identifying every venue in the entire city that possesses a cabaret license.

The map reveals that only 17 Brooklyn venues can legally have people dancing inside.

Lindsay Greene, a representative from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office, said that only 97 venues in the five boroughs possess the license.

If one chooses to let loose in all but 17 Brooklyn venues, the establishment could theoretically be shut down or fined, as has been the case on numerous occasions.

At the hearing, several business owners described a task force resembling a SWAT team that routinely comes into venues on their most anticipated nights to shut it down and hand out cabaret citations.

One venue owner, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, said that when the task force showed up at his venue, “I thought they found El Chapo hidden in my bar.”

The citations can cost owners thousands of dollars in fines, booking fees and reimbursement of ticket sales.

Councilmember Reynoso cited the example of the famed Williamsburg DIY venue Zebulon, which shuttered due to fines and relocate to Los Angeles. 

Shira Gans, a member of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, said that the de Blasio administration is committed to helping the nightlife community. 

In April, the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce hosted an event at Brooklyn Bowl that released the results of a report studying the economic impact of music in New York City.

The study revealed that the music industry supports roughly 60,000 jobs, accounts for $5 billion in wages and creates $21 billion in total economic output for the city. 

In 2015, New York’s concert tickets accounted for $5.4 million, which was more than Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago combined.

“The Cabaret Law is a law that is arbitrarily enforced on minority populations and small businesses in order to shut them down as a neighborhood gentrifies,” said Rachel Nelson, a small business owner.

“It must be repealed or we’ll end up with only chain stores and condos, a formula that actually ruins the vibrancy of a city that relies on tourism and innovators to drive everything from retail to real estate prices.”

 

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