It may have taken 90 years, but New York City’s cabaret law—which effectively bans dancing in bars and clubs around the city—is finally on the cusp of being repealed. The City Council is expected to vote in favor of abolishing it on Tuesday, following a years-long battle by activists, politicians, lawyers and even one former mayor keen to put an end to a Jazz Age edict originally penned to keep black and white people from dancing together.
“This is really exciting,” Councilman Rafael Espinal, the bill’s main sponsor, told Jezebel. “It’s a great first step, showing that the city is serious about revitalizing its night time economy, and that it will not get in the way of its residents from being able to fully express themselves.”
But repeal of the law—which prohibits dancing by three or more people in any commercial establishment where music is played—is indeed only a first step, since the real challenge lies in augmenting the city’s zoning laws. If the repeal passes on Tuesday as expected, dancing will still be legal only in the city’s commercial manufacturing districts, known as Use Group 12. It’s not a small area, as you can see from the map below (UG 12 is marked in blue), but it certainly doesn’t include the city’s essential entertainment corridors, like the Lower East Side and the East Village.
Espinal said that changing the zoning laws may take a few more years, though he predicts it will be an ideal project for the newly created Office of Nightlife to tackle. The goal of the new agency is to manage the relationship between residents and those with a stake in going out, namely partygoers and business owners. Those two groups have a notoriously contentious history, and the law has been a very handy cudgel for NIMBYs eager to shut down establishments they deem bothersome, to the detriment of the city’s once-vibrant nightlife culture. As one bar owner told the Village Voice in March:
“Whether they don’t like you because you’re particularly loud or rowdy, or because you’re associated with organized crime, or because you’re a gay bar in a more conservative neighborhood, they can waltz in and say ‘this person was dancing to the jukebox.’ They can pull your liquor license, and you don’t exist anymore.”
But Andrew Muchmore, a lawyer and owner of the bar Muchmore’s in Williamsburg, suspects the issue of zoning will ultimately be a relatively minor problem.
“It’s the trickiest part, but I see what’s happening tomorrow as getting us most of the way there,” he said in a phone interview. “Officers don’t write summonses based on zoning issues, and you’d be hard pressed to find an officer that even understands it.”
Muchmore, who in 2014 filed a lawsuit in attempt to have the cabaret law ruled unconstitutional, attributes tomorrow’s (probable) victory to a sustained effort from grassroots organizations and the refusal to let it be brushed under the rug as it has so many times in the past. He said he intends to drop his lawsuit for now, though if progress isn’t being made on resolving the zoning amendment in the next year, he will file fresh paperwork and have it revived.
“I guess we’ll see if it’s a theoretical issue or a real issue once the cabaret law is repealed,” he said.
The bill currently has 24 co-sponsors in a 51-member council, and Espinal predicts support will be unanimous.
The cabaret law has long been a bête noire for anyone who loves to dance, since it requires bars and night clubs to have a nearly-impossible to obtain cabaret license. Of more than 25,000 eating and drinking establishments in NYC, only 97 have one, thanks to a raft of absurd requirements like mandating proprietors be up on their child support payments.
Though the law technically applies to a number of institutions like churches and ballet studios, it’s unevenly applied, with establishments frequented by people of color disproportionately targeted and shut down, Muchmore argued in his lawsuit. Written in 1926, the law was forgotten for decades until the ‘90s, when the Giuliani administration revived it as a means of targeting places it considered harmful to New Yorkers’ “quality of life.” Many efforts to revoke it have been made over the years to no avail, largely because of its value to police and other powerful agencies who have employed it as they see fit.
Unfortunately, the law that was so convenient for Giuliani has overly racist roots. In its recommendation for approving the law, the Board of Alderman’s Committee on Local Laws wrote at the time:
“Well, there has been altogether too much ‘running wild’ in some of these night clubs and, in the judgment of your Committee, the ‘wild’ stranger and the foolish native should have the check-rein applied a little bit…Your Committee believes that these ‘wild’ people should not be tumbling out of these resorts at six or seven o’clock in the morning to the scandal and annoyance of decent residents on their way to daily employment.”
For decades, the city also required performers to have clean criminal records in order to obtain a “cabaret card,” disqualifying such luminaries as Billie Holiday, Thelonius Monk and Charlie Parker. That aspect of the law was only rolled back after Frank Sinatra refused to sing in New York until the restriction was lifted.
Olympia Kazi, a member of the New York Artist Coalition, said the law’s repeal will be vindicating after years of unfair repression. She acknowledges that it’s been a very useful tool for those who dislike noise and ruckus, but it’s time to use other avenues—like filing noise complaints with 311—instead of making it a crime to dance, a restriction she calls “horrible and homophobic and racist.”
“By repealing this law, what we’re actually doing is legalizing dancing,” she said. “The only thing that’s changing is that a venue where people are watching football will not be considered better than a place where people are dancing.”
Espinal, the council member, said that in an era where controversial statues are under review for removal, now’s a fitting time to scrutinize repressive laws and re-evaluate their use.
“There were so many hands in the conversation in the past,” he said. “I can say we are living in a more progressive city now than what we had decades ago.”