New-York News

Op-ed: Getting rid of the last traces of the city's Cabaret Law

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New York City is famously the city that never sleeps. Take a walk through the East Village at night and you’ll have no shortage of places to eat, drink, dance and enjoy a fun time with your friends. That’s the beauty and attraction of our city.

Most New Yorkers can remember where they saw their favorite band or danced along to their favorite song during a night out. However, most New Yorkers would be surprised to find out that the simple act of stepping inside your favorite bar and dancing along to your favorite song may actually still be breaking the law.

That’s why we’re calling for an end to these outdated regulations in 2024.

For decades, New York City nightlife operated under the shadow of the Cabaret Law, which barred singing, dancing and musical entertainment in venues across the city. The law required nightlife establishments to obtain a special license for the purposes of live entertainment, singing or dancing. Few licenses were ever issued though, meaning that most venues were technically operating illegally. New York City became its own living version of the movie Footloose.

In 2017, the City Council — led by Council Member Rafael Espinal — took the historic step of repealing the outdated Cabaret Law. With this legislation, small businesses received a major boost of confidence, and New York City took a step toward ending selective enforcement that resulted in a disproportionate impact on Black-, Latino- and LGBT-owned venues.

Despite this progress, many establishments are still hamstrung by zoning regulations that carry out the original intent of the Cabaret Law and prohibit nightlife. Even more confusing, the regulations may vary between different blocks in the same neighborhood. Take a walk through the East Village and you’ll find one block that has strict prohibitions and another block that has zero. Confusing? You bet. Irrational? Absolutely.

For small business owners, this means having to either navigate a long, expensive, cumbersome rezoning process or risk operating in a legal gray zone breaking the law anytime patrons even mildly sing or dance along to their favorite song. It’s confusing. It makes no sense. And it’s way past time that we remove this outdated barrier on New York City nightlife. 

This year, New York City should end the legacy of the Cabaret Law and allow New Yorkers to do what they do best: enjoy a fun night in the greatest city in the world.

In the coming days, the City Council can take major action on this front by repealing this outdated regulation as part of the City of Yes for Economic Opportunity proposal. The zoning change would provide venues with the legal clarity they deserve to confidently operate their business. New York City nightlife is a $35 billion industry that supports some 300,000 jobs and generates $700 million in yearly tax revenues. It’s an economic engine that our zoning laws should support and complement, not stifle and penalize.

Will this result in a burst of new nightclubs springing up across the city? Unlikely. Rather it would end unbalanced enforcement, bring establishments into compliance and eliminate confusing regulations about which locations qualify. It would simply ensure that it’s legal to stand up and dance in places where music is already allowed. Additionally, larger venues that exceed 200 people would still be subject to separate, additional regulations on where they can be located. 

New Yorkers will also remain protected against quality of life and safety issues: All establishments would still be subject to noise, fire, security and health codes. Larger venues would continue to be limited to high-density or industrial areas of the city, and, regardless of the venue’s size, local community boards would continue to be able to weigh in on the suitability.

At the end of the day, this common-sense zoning change is about removing the last traces of an antiquated, irrational law. And making sure New York maintains its status as the center of nightlife far into the future.

Like most New Yorkers, we enjoy a night out in the city. And our small businesses are the lifeblood of our city. That’s why it’s time that we bring New York City into the 21st century.

It’s time we let New York City dance.

The writers are members of the New York City Council.

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Keith Powers, Chi Osse, Erik Bottcher , 2024-05-21 21:20:23

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