“Is this the best town hall ever?!” yelled Anya Sapozhnikova, the founder of House of Yes, at a packed house in Bushwick’s Market Hotel last night. The crowd cheered, clapped and stamped their feet. Around 400 people had gathered to hear a motley crew of New York’s creatives and council members discuss the future of New York nightlife. DJ Ali Coleman was on the decks; Hip-hop legend Kurtis Blow the emcee; film director Charlie Ahearn showcased his polaroids on the big screen. And local politicians in their grey suits were quick to praise Brooklyn’s thriving nightlife and pledge to preserve it.
But amid the positive vibes, there was a serious agenda. The event revolved around the push to repeal the archaic Cabaret Law, a prohibition-era rule that bans dancing in places which do not have a special license. In the twenties, the legislation was enforced in an attempt to stamp out African American jazz clubs bubbling up across the city.
In 2017, nearly a century after the law was introduced, some feel that its motivation has barely changed. The license means that subculture music and arts venues have been pushed underground, into parks, gyms, disused spaces, and block parties. Those would be subject to raids and shutdowns, in what Nikki Brown of the Dance Liberation Network called the “criminalization of public expression.”
The event at Market Hotel (not, in fact, a hotel but a giant, rattly nightclub overlooking the elevated tracks at Myrtle Avenue) began with the organisers fastidiously going through the emergency exits, accessibility, and bathroom locations at the venue. Everyone seemed keen to present the space as legitimate, safe. Sapozhnikova described her struggle as an artist putting on LGBTQ and sex-positive events across Brooklyn and her fears of pushing the scene into more dangerous spaces. “We’ve been terrified to ask for permission,” she said. There was a passionate argument for bringing DIY spaces and movements out of the shadows and work to decriminalize their image.
Hip-hop legend Kurtis Blow emphasized how the music kept him out of trouble as a young man. “We had a way out from the drugs and the violence,” he said. “Hip-hop saved my life.” Blow went onto describe how keeping hold of these subcultures would be crucial in keeping kids off the street. “We are going to save the lives of a lot of young people,” he said, to whoops and applause. Brian Polite was frustrated by the current state of affairs.“You don’t like the kids dancing on the train?” he said, “Where else are they supposed to dance?”.
Later, in a Williamsburg bowling alley-cum-concert space, the manager—who preferred not to give his name—admits over the crashing noise of the band and the tumbling skittles that he has never needed a Cabaret license. “We’re a big venue, with a capacity of over 500, so it doesn’t apply,” he explained. “That’s only for the smaller places. But they don’t really enforce the Cabaret License. Nobody listens to it. I’ll tell you something—the NYPD enforce everything selectively.”
While the Cabaret License doesn’t apply to larger spaces, it is also structured to make life as difficult as possible for smaller night-time venues. The event producer for a luxury hotel in Dumbo, who also wished to remain anonymous, tells me that they gave up on trying to secure a license for the roof because of the complicated bureaucracy involved—and that was with a team of lawyers behind them. So it’s nigh-on impossible for more modest places to get licensed. They either have to risk going without and getting shut down, or try to battle the paperwork on their own. Dr Pooyan Aslani, an NYU engineering professor and administrator for Sunnyvale performance centre by Newtown Creek, seemed almost at his wits’ end on this subject. “As an engineer, I beg the the city to create a taskforce to define what the law is.” Pooyan described how the NYPD and Departments of Buildings and Consumer Affairs constitute a “gotcha gang” who all have their own ideas about how the law should be implemented.
Speakers at the Bushwick event were emphatic: the cabaret license continues to criminalize and marginalize underground movements. But if they can get three more council members on their side, the law will be repealed. Politicians and artists kept repeating the line – “we are this close to getting rid of it.” But there is still work to be done. “We are struggling against the weight of bureaucracy and elitism,” said Rachel Nelson, a co-founder of Secret Project Robot, a beloved Bushwick art and music night. “We want to keep the classic culture alive. We are for the weirdos, the gays, the artists, the people of color.” For now, the cabaret law remains, and New York’s underground music scene continues to roar.
Images courtesy of NYC Artist Coalition