The nightlife industry has become one of the most integral cogs in Brooklyn’s economic machine over the past decade, so much that, according to the Chamber of Commerce, “tourism and entertainment” account for nearly 10% of all the borough’s private-sector jobs. But if the Office of Nightlife’s “listening session” at Union Temple of Brooklyn’s Murmrr Theatre on Tuesday night proved anything, it’s that there’s still a stout divide to be bridged between the industry’s entrepreneurs and their government overseers.
Hosted by Ariel Palitz, New York City’s new senior executive director of the Office of Nightlife, or the “Nightlife Mayor,” as she’s often called, the listening session was the first of five—one in each borough—to hear from industry members and the public about what can be done to strengthen their businesses. While part of the new office’s job will be to hear complaints from residential neighbors, this night belonged to the entrepreneurs, who raised their concerns about rents and other rising costs, aggressive inspections by city agencies, and the struggles of minority-owned establishments to survive.
The 200 attendees faced a panel of 11 officials, including Palitz, representing several government agencies, among them representatives from the NYPD, FDNY, Department of Buildings, Department of Small Business Services, State Liquor Authority and others. None of them were on the hook to prescribe solutions in real time, but throughout the two-hour event they freely offered comments—and rebuttals—to some of the issues raised by audience members. From all the listening, new policies and legislation may emerge to address the industry’s problems.
Kicking off the session were City Council Member Rafael Espinal, who led the push to create the Office of Nightlife, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. “When I ran for office I always knew there was a community that did not have a voice in City Hall,” Espinal said. “I thought that, it’s time the city sees its nightlife as an asset.” Adams noted that during a meeting with Con Edison executives, they told him that “throughout the entire city, at 7 p.m. the electricity use declines; the only place that it increases is Brooklyn,” he said. “Brooklyn comes alive at night.”
The complaints and suggestions then flowed freely. A man who identified himself as an industry advocate asserted that many police officers write frivolous citations against nightlife business owners. Such actions force establishment owners—frequently referred to as “operators”—to pay for attorneys and take time away from work to deal with legal issues, only to see the vast majority of tickets get “thrown out” by judges, he said. “We understand the importance of compliance,” the man went on, but added, “it’s harassment disguised as enforcement. It has to stop.”
Nearly four-dozen audience members saw mic time, including a couple of community-board members, a few residents, and other nightlife community organizers. Some called out specific establishments as problematic, and wondered what more can be done about noise control, cigarette smoke in outdoor spaces wafting into residential units, and even the presence of urine and vomit on sidewalks. Others brought attention to the fact that many nightlife establishments find excuses to not welcome black, Latino, and LGBTQ patrons, which paves the way for illegal—and sometimes unsafe—alternative establishments to thrive.
But the overwhelming majority of the speakers were entrepreneurs. Some issued warm thanks to Palitz and the panel for taking part in the event, but one by one they expressed varying levels of anxiety over the sustainability of their businesses and the entire industry. The three most prominent concerns:
1.) Rising Costs
The single biggest threat, especially to independent operators, has been rising commercial rents and competition for space with national chain stores.
Guy Yedwab, the managing director of the League of Independent Theater, an advocacy group for people working in small theaters (99 seats or less), discussed the closing of a number of small theaters and other performance spaces within the past few years. “Without protections, most cultural venues can be turned into … spaces like a Chase bank or a CVS,” he said. “So what we’d like to know is, What protections will the Office of Nightlife fight for, in order to ensure these places can continue to operate?”
Another man involved in the arts scene, New York native Joe Ahern, talked about coordinating different artistic programs at a series of venues that have all since shuttered their doors. Ahern observed that many commercial tenants have little recourse when new development and skyrocketing rents come to a neighborhood where they’ve long been established. “The artists and the audiences who come to those spaces are critical as well,” he said, adding that he’d like to see consideration for rent stabilization laws to protect nightlife locations that should be “recognized for the positive impacts they have on the city.”
Palitz said that affordability is “obviously a citywide issue” and a “multi-agency concern.” She also mentioned that the languishing Small Business Jobs Survival Act is now “in committee” in the City Council. The act “would establish conditions and requirements for commercial-lease renewal negotiations, including requirements for lease renewal terms, arbitration-triggering conditions, limits on security deposits, and prohibitions on landlord retaliation,” according to the Council’s website.
Palitz then kicked it to Amna Malik, assistant commissioner at the Department of Small Business Services, who cited a free resource, the Commercial Lease Assistance Program, which provides legal services to business owners dealing with commercial lease-related issues.
2.) Disruptive “Inspection Marches”
Several operators, including Nola Rodney, a second-generation manager of The Hills, a Caribbean restaurant and bar in East Flatbush, railed against unsettlingly invasive inspection practices that cause small businesses harm in myriad ways.
In a soliloquy that spurred thunderous applause at its conclusion, Rodney said that when she took over The Hills, she “was horrified by the way we were being treated by various city agencies.
“One thing that I encountered immediately,” she continued, were “‘inspection marches,’ where you have all of the city officials come in all at once and pretty much most of the time shut you down.” She painted a picture of a half-dozen police cars sprawled out in front of the restaurant, with passersby wondering what’s going on inside.
“It’s definitely a concern for me because I do feel like it does tarnish our reputation,” she went on. “I want to know if there is another way this could be done. … I would like to know, Is it possible for these agencies to pick up the phone, or come in in the daytime, quietly, discreetly [and] have a meeting or a conversation with the business owner, and just give us an idea of what the issue is so that we can do something about it?”
A man who described himself as a working DJ asked if such marches are only ordered against establishments with a track record of complaints and wondered if such information is publicly available. “What are state agencies doing to be more communicative [with] those in nightlife before those things happen?” he asked.
And a woman who identified herself as the owner of Friends and Lovers, a bar in Crown Heights, said the place was “marched on” and she received no answers from police as to why. “You tell me, Why don’t we just get rid of marches, because it’s the new oppression?” she said, a remark that also prompted a hearty applause break.
Deputy Chief Frank Vega of the NYPD said that he would follow up with the Friends and Lovers owner directly. After Nola Rodney’s speech, Vega said that before an “operation” like the one Rodney described is carried out, there is typically a “pattern of problems at that establishment,” including complaint reports and possibly violence, and a series of approvals are given from a number of government offices. “It’s not our first course, to go in there and try to shut down establishments, to harm the small-business owners, I assure you that,” Vega said.
3.) The Survival of Minority-owned Venues
Echoing observations about rising rents and the inspection marches, some attendees said nightlife businesses owned by blacks, Latinos and LGBTQ people are having an especially tougher time surviving in the current landscape because of those factors.
A woman who identified herself as a member of Community Board 6 said she’s concerned about “what seems to be the attack” on businesses run by people of color and other “marginalized groups.” She believes inspection marches seem to be disproportionately instigated against businesses run by black and Latino entrepreneurs.
“I can say, for one, in Park Slope in the mid 2000s, we had black-owned businesses. … They got wiped out,” she said. “See if you can create a sub-committee that focuses solely on protecting small, minority[-run] businesses.”
And in her comments about the inspection march against the bar Friends and Lovers, the owner noted that the bar “works really hard to be inclusive” in terms of its hiring and coordinated events; reviewers cite its queer dance nights as an attraction. Because of that, “we’re treated like pariahs,” she said, suggesting that her business was targeted because of its LGBTQ-friendly status.
Four more such sessions will follow, taking place intermittently through Nov. 28. “The Office of Nightlife welcomes all New Yorkers to share feedback on topics such as quality of life, safety, regulations, enforcement, and the role nightlife plays in fostering creativity and social cohesion,” the office said in announcing the listening tour.