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City Council overwhelmingly votes to repeal NYC’s ‘racist’ Cabaret Law

November 1, 2017 By Scott Enman Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The repeal of the Cabaret Law is part of a broader agenda to address cultural, social and quality-of-life issues in New York’s City’s nightlife scene. Photo by Mark Col
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Strap on those dancing shoes.

On Tuesday, the New York City Council voted to repeal the notorious Cabaret Law.

The Cabaret or “Anti-Dancing” Law is an antiquated and draconian rule that 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.”

The law, which was created in 1926, states that people can only dance in venues that possess a cabaret license, but these certificates are expensive and extremely difficult to obtain.

“The cabaret license is an old phrase associated with taxation, prohibition and is truly just a two-word name for a variety of fines, taxes and attacks thrown by the state of New York on artists and venues,” world-renowned DJ and producer Dave Rosario told the Brooklyn Eagle.

According to NYC Artist Coalition, an organization that “[protects] community spaces,” the law was created and used to break up underground black institutions at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. The law was later enforced in the ’90s to target gay and lesbian venues.

“Created in 1926 with racist and discriminatory intent, the Cabaret Law has been systematically used as a conservative strategy to decimate cultural life,” NYC Artist Coalition wrote on its website.

“During the 1920s and ’30s, it targeted African-American jazz establishments and was used to halt interracial dancing. In the ’90s, it was redeployed by Mayor [Rudy] Giuliani against New York City’s thriving nightlife culture and to target gay and lesbian bars.”

Into No. 1652, which was campaigned by Councilmember Rafael Espinal, will fully repeal the Cabaret Law while retaining the current security camera and security guard provisions in the city’s public safety code.

This is the penultimate step to fully revoking the law. Following the City Council’s vote, Mayor Bill de Blasio now has 30 days to sign off on the repeal. If the mayor does not act within a month, it will be rescinded either way.

“Many venues in Brooklyn have been forced to close because of over regulation and high prices,” Espinal told the Eagle. “With gentrification threatening our neighborhoods, I’m proud to take this first step in ensuring we are able to retain our cultural spaces.”

Following the City Council’s historic decision, Espinal and a coalition of advocates, business owners and artists gathered on the steps of City Hall to celebrate their victory.

The repeal of the Cabaret Law is part of a broader agenda to address cultural, social and quality-of-life issues in New York’s City’s vibrant nightlife scene.

In September, de Blasio signed into law Espinal’s legislation to create an Office of Nightlife and Nightlife Advisory Board.

A night mayor will run the Office of Nightlife. The new position’s responsibilities will include regulating the nightlife industry, helping DIY venues stay open and creating a safer partying environment.

The director will be responsible for conducting outreach to nightlife establishments, acting as a liaison for venues, referring those organizations to city services, reviewing 311 complaints and holding at least one public hearing in each borough, among other duties.

The Nightlife Advisory Board will be comprised of 12 members: four to be appointed by the mayor and eight by the speaker of the City Council. They will each serve a two-year term.

“Today NYC will right a historical wrong,” Espinal said on Tuesday. “It’s over for the Cabaret Law. For almost a century, the Cabaret Law has targeted specific groups, kept businesses and performers in fear, and stifled the expression of NYC’s vital culture.

“I am proud to champion this historic repeal, which will support our nightlife businesses while maintaining the much-needed safety measures we already have in place.”

The repeal of the Cabaret Law will benefit the majority of venues in all five boroughs.  

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

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

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

The City Council’s decision will allow all other venue owners to operate their establishments without the fear of being shut down or fined.

“With the repeal of the Cabaret Law, New Yorkers will be free to feel the rhythm of the music in more venues than ever before,” New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said.

“Maintaining crucial security elements of the law will go far in keeping residents safe, while the remaining overhaul ensures that nightlife proprietors across the city are granted the chance to thrive,” she said.  

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter. 

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