In the tension between thriving nightlife venues and sleep-deprived neighbors, Ariel Palitz knows both sides of the issue. For a decade she was the owner of Downtown Manhattan’s popular Sutra Lounge, which was called “the undisputed champion of noise complaints in the East Village,” with 265 complaints in less than two years. Yet for six years, she was also a member of Manhattan’s Community Board 3, where she had to listen to what she has called the “no-more bar contingency.”
That bipartisan background is part of what earned her the job as the city’s “night mayor,” officially appointed in March as senior executive director of the newly established Office of Nightlife, part of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. Her mandate: to support the city’s nightlife industry, which generates more than 300,000 jobs, while smoothing relations with neighbors complaining about noise, public urination and other nuisances.
“It wasn’t necessarily something I was aspiring to do,” Palitz told The Bridge. But when she looked over the job description for the new gig, it was “like reading my own résumé,” she said. “The opportunity was there and I seized it.”
While Palitz made her name in the clubland of Manhattan, she knows where the scene has moved in recent years: Brooklyn and Queens. Her first public appearance in the new job was in Bushwick at the DIY space Secret Project Robot, a bar, art gallery and performance space. “I’m here to work with you to preserve, protect and enliven nightlife,” she said, “but also to be good neighbors, to be legal,” Bklyner reported.
City Council Member Rafael Espinal, who represents Brooklyn’s District 37, led the push to create the Office of Nightlife after researching the success of Amsterdam’s “night mayor,” Mirik Milan. Milan told NPR in December that over the course of his four years in office, he and his team “managed to get down alcohol-related violence by 25%.” He also boasted of a 30% “decrease in nuisance of any sort–littering, people shouting on the street, anti-social behavior–all the things residents can’t sleep from at night.”
Besides fostering a more well-mannered scene, Palitz will be expected to help nightlife entrepreneurs tackle the other challenges to their success, including rising real-estate prices and the red tape of city regulations. At stake is a multibillion-dollar slice of the city’s economy. “I’m hoping that we see a huge boom in the city’s nightlife again,” Espinal told The Bridge. “The last time we saw a pop in our scene was in the early 2000s, when the indie rock revival began to happen in the Lower East Side and Williamsburg.”
After Mayor de Blasio signed the legislation creating the new department last September at the Bushwick performance space House of Yes, six months elapsed with no announcement of a choice for the nightlife mayor. That prompted rumblings of impatience from nightlife advocates, but the eventual choice of Palitz drew applause. “For over 20 years we have been advocating for the creation of this office, so obviously we are very pleased that it has finally come about,” Robert Bookman, an attorney for the NYC Hospitality Alliance, told The Bridge in an email. “The selection of Ariel Palitz as its first director is an excellent choice given her varied background and experience and we look forward to working with her.”
Palitz, 47, was raised on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and has lived in the East Village for more than 20 years. “New York is a very nightlife-based city,” she says. “The minute you’re able to, you start going out.” She attended the University of Hartford, majoring in sociology with a focus on cultural anthropology.
At school, Palitz founded “Mind Over Matter,” a group that organized campus events like “open mic jams,” which she says were meant to “bring the diversity of the school together. It was a little political in nature, but it really got my production juices flowing.”
Back home after college, Palitz put together the “Soulution Spontaneous Groove Open Jam,” which featured hip-hop, spoken word, gospel, rock, and drag performances in such venues as Nation, SOB’s, and Tunnel. An old friend asked Palitz to invest in a bar close to where she lived, which Palitz later reimagined and called Sutra, which she described as “an institution for the preservation of Old School Hip Hop and New York DJ culture.” After closing the club, she worked as a real-estate agent and consultant to nightlife entrepreneurs.
In her new job, she’ll have a $300,000 budget and a salary of $130,000 a year. “There’s lots to do,” Palitz says, “but I’m loving every minute of it.”
With the recent repeal of the city’s Prohibition-era “Cabaret Law,” which restricted dancing, combined with the founding of the Office of Nightlife, many have wondered if New York is returning to less prudish times, like in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s, when nightclubs were more prominent and not as tightly regulated.
The Giuliani era wasn’t club-friendly. “As mayor of NYC from 1994 through 2001, Rudy Giuliani demonized nightlife as our city’s bastard child in order to make things safe for tourists and co-op owners,” author and Village Voice veteran Michael Musto wrote last year on the music site Noisey. Asked about Palitz’s new role, Musto replied in an email: “I hope she finds a nice balance between dealing with concerns but also promoting nightlife. NYC nightlife is often in a relatively fragile state and needs encouragement in order to flourish. Let’s make the city dance.”
Those Brooklynites happy with the borough’s transformation the past decade, one that has placed it among the world’s great refuges for nightlife, just want to keep the momentum going. From 2011 to 2014, 640 bars opened in the borough, according to a report from the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. That figure outpaced Manhattan’s 581. A 2014 report from the State Comptroller’s office pointed to the vast economic impact of the “leisure and hospitality” industry, which had the fastest rate of job growth of any sector in the borough, expanding by 36% between 2008 and 2012 (twice the rate in the rest of the city), the report said. “Of the 9,820 jobs added during this period, 85% were in restaurants, bars and food services.”
“I think that Brooklyn is a natural [destination] for the nightlife community to explore,” Palitz says. “What you really want as an operator and as a patron is space, affordability, and the ability to be creative. I think Brooklyn really presents a lot of those really important ingredients to create a very vibrant nightlife.”
“With that said,” Palitz continues, “this office is serving all the boroughs. It’s important we take what we have learned in Manhattan … with oversaturation, proliferation and business diversity, [and] implement those lessons to maintain vibrancy as well as quality-of-life.”
And now a few words from a nightlife entrepreneur
What should Palitz do in her role? The Bridge spoke to Bushwick’s House of Yes co-founder Anya Sopozhnikova to find out what changes she’d like to see Palitz pursue that will make it easier for venue owners to run their small businesses:
•Slice through the bureaucracy: “Different types of violations–whether it’s with the Department of Buildings, or fire violations, or even people calling 311 repeatedly because they have a personal [problem] with an owner–can get your whole venue shut down.” Until this point, Sopozhnikova says, there has never been a city official who a nightlife operator can call to solve minor problems efficiently. “None of us are making the kind of money where we can be closed for a couple days, or have a delayed opening,” Sopozhnikova says. Palitz told The Bridge she has an “open-door policy,” and, for now, can be reached through the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment at (212) 489-6710 or an online contact page here.
•Award government grants for nightlife art production: “It’s really difficult to do [creative] things without going into overtime, and when you’re a small business it starts killing you.” Sopozhnikova would like to see a reward system for nightlife operators who contribute compelling art in various forms to the community, which will help offset out-of-pocket costs and, by default, increase wages for workers. “You’re kind of stuck in this place where your whole brand relies on being this art space that’s really creative, but then you have to slave away at making it all happen.”
•Assist owners in improving nightlife safety: “Once you raise the standard of how nightlife is done in New York, and you [create] a positive experience versus ‘Let’s just get wasted,’ everybody wins.” One way the city can make nightlife better for all, Sopozhnikova says, is to sponsor security-guard training programs and publicize common-sense policies about dance-floor etiquette, consent, and other signs of respect. “Put it in media: ‘This is New York, this is how we do things, don’t be an asshole.’”