In the winter of 1999, a small army of cops, firefighters, and inspectors descended unannounced on the Cooler, the now defunct meatpacking district club. They weren’t looking for drugs or underage drinkers. They were looking for people dancing.
Unbeknownst to the squad of officers, a doorman had flipped a switch alerting the sound tech via a flashing light that the cops had arrived. The sound tech quickly killed the booming drum’n’bass and piped country music through the speakers.
So when the cops sauntered into the Cooler looking to bust people for busting a move, the drum’n’bass fans in attendance did exactly as planned: They stood perfectly still.
Three years later, the cabaret law is still in effect, and it is rumored that at least one East Village bar still performs a similar ruse—originally employed by gay bars in the ’40s—to escape the dance police. With a recent rash of raids on Bleecker Street bars by the Bloomberg administration—some of which resulted in the padlocking of venues—club owners have every reason to worry. Mayor Mike isn’t turning out to be the beacon of light that clubland expected.
Activists are trying to do something, anything, to overturn or change an archaic 1926 law licensing dancing that the Giuliani administration—and now the Bloomberg administration—have used to combat quality-of-life complaints and troublesome clubs.
But the nightlife industry’s sole voice, the New York Nightlife Association (NYNA), the only organization that has any real power with community boards, City Council members, and other politicians, is not in favor of repealing the law.
Its president, David Rabin—who is also an owner of Lotus—sparked a minor fury last month among bar owners when he reiterated his stance at a dance convention and again in the New York Post that dancing should remain regulated, with exceptions to allow for incidental dancing. He angrily pointed his fingers at other venues, Pangaea, Serafina, and Rehab—all of them his direct competition—for operating without cabaret licenses.
Rabin’s “big mouth” (his words) also may have inadvertently sparked a renewed campaign against nightlife by the city. At least one of the spots named by Rabin—Serafina on Lafayette Street—may have gotten a visit as a direct result of his outbursts. The restaurant had been having Wednesday-night parties and had already incurred one catering violation, says Gretchen Dykstra, the commissioner of the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), the city agency charged with handling cabaret licenses.
Dykstra says she is aware of Rabin’s complaints and says of the other establishments he named: “We are typing up all of that.” Of Serafina, she says, “It’s not surprising for someone to get padlocked if they continue to blatantly thumb their nose at the law.”
Rabin feels bad, sort of. “I feel badly for some of the employees who may not be making as much money this week, but I don’t feel badly for a guy who was deliberately violating the law,” he says.
One club owner who runs an unlicensed cabaret even called him to thank him for not sending the cops his way. “I started laughing. I don’t have a bat phone saying ‘Illegal dancing on 24th Street!’ ” says Rabin incredulously. “Believe me, I have no influence over the mayor’s office whatsoever.”
He is most upset about bait-and-switch operations like Serafina that have allegedly presented themselves as restaurants or lounges, only to become full-fledged nightclubs, replete with long lines and rowdy patrons. Such deceit ruins it for the rest of the industry. “Because they [owners] have lied about what they are going to do, they [community boards] are going to assume you are lying also,” says Rabin.
But others point out that Giuliani effectively created a club cartel by enforcing the cabaret law and say that club owners like Rabin are only interested in protecting their own investments.
Rabin argues that he and other club owners have—in some cases—poured millions of dollars into spaces that are zoned for a cabaret, and to allow a free-for-all is unfair: “The immediate eradication of the cabaret laws would be the same as if the city overnight announced that there was no longer a ceiling on the number of taxi medallions,” he wrote in one of several lengthy e-mails to me. “Can you imagine the outrage from people who had invested their life savings in a medallion only to find it rendered worthless in one fell swoop?”
And, he says, he did everything fair and square. So should everyone else. “The process exists, we didn’t put it there, but if we follow it and raise money and work hard because we know that at least we have a built-in and protected niche, then others should have to play by the same rules,” he says.
While his detractors—and there are many of them—understand Rabin’s business concerns and empathize with the potential loss of money, they don’t feel it is pertinent to the discussion.
Shawn Schwartz, co-owner of the Brooklyn café Halcyon, and a member of NYNA, takes issue with Rabin and the association’s stance: “Those that have a cabaret have struggled and done what they had to do with bad circumstances. I applaud them for their struggle, but it doesn’t mean they should turn around on the other side and maintain an unjust system because they were able to survive it.”
Rabin has been in the club business for 12 years. Before opening Lotus and Union Bar on Park Avenue South, he was a lawyer. His venues are high-end lounges with swank interior designs that regularly draw celebrities (Leo! Tobey! Ivana!) and young blond women who circle wealthy, balding businessmen in blazers like sharks. Rabin sees Lotus as one of the pioneers of the meatpacking district—once home to whores and crack dealers—even though it opened quite recently, in 1999.
But Rabin bristles at any attempts to characterize him and his business as upper-class or rich. When he spots me eyeing his very nice, long, black leather coat, he says defensively, “It was a gift! A gift!” and later e-mails me, “I’m in no way pleading poverty—I make a comfortable living that allows me to support my wife and son—but I’m not getting rich.” He says his club has yet to make a profit, and that 20-plus investors are still awaiting a return on their investment.
But Rabin and Lotus’s posh rep is part of what bother some of his critics who believe that NYNA and Rabin only speak for a certain type of establishment and don’t properly represent the smaller businesses in the industry. While NYNA lawyer Robert Bookman (who is also Rabin’s attorney) would not release the names of the 120 members, it is known that in addition to big clubs like Centro-Fly and Exit, NYNA does boast small bars like Meow Mix and Hogs & Heifers as members.
While his Post comments had several people—most of whom were not NYNA members—calling for his head, most NYNA members think he is good for the organization.
“He’s an extremely productive head of the association,” says Michelle Dell of Hogs & Heifers. “He’s an asset to nightlife in general and the association in particular. It would be a great loss for him to resign.”
“NYNA is the only lobbying group that represents our business interests on the state and city level,” says Tom Sisk of Centro-Fly. “Robert Bookman [the organization’s lawyer] and his expertise pretty much speaks for itself.”
The walls of Bookman’s small, no-frills office in downtown Manhattan are covered with articles chronicling his many years battling on behalf of nightclubs.
Bookman worked in the Department of Consumer Affairs in the 1980s, and since he entered the private sector, much of his business has come from nightclubs. When club owners want a cabaret license, or when they want to fight cabaret violations, they frequently call Bookman. “I did the license for the Ritz and the original Tunnel,” he says proudly.
And when club owners need a liquor license, they frequently enlist the services of his partner Warren Pesetsky. “We are pretty much the go-to boutique if you want to do one-stop shopping,” Bookman says.
But James Habacker, co-owner of the Slipper Room, one of the many small venues that have been hard hit by the dance police, says that this is troublesome—another instance of a NYNA member looking out for his own interests instead of the industry’s. “For years Robert Bookman and his people have been trying to get me to give them money to join NYNA under the guise of fighting the cabaret law. It’s just a big lie,” says Habacker. “If you want a cabaret license, he makes his living getting people cabaret licenses, and then on the other side of his mouth he’s saying, ‘I’ll help fight the law.’ ”
Bookman says that is not true—and that if the law were repealed tomorrow, he would have more clients, not fewer. “It would probably be good for business because the broad opening of the marketplace would bring in additional people who would need lawyers. They are still going to need someone to marshal them through the multi-agency process.”
As it stands, the cabaret law now requires a slew of safety measures—like sprinkler systems, an automatic switch for the fire alarm through the sound system, flame-proof wall hangings, and at least two exits—which bars and restaurants are otherwise not mandated to have. Most of these requirements were added in the late 1970s, and the original language of the cabaret law does not mention one word about safety.
But, argue club owners, safety should not be regulated through the act of dancing.
Says Halcyon’s Schwartz, “It’s a crock to say it’s about safety. Safety has nothing to do with whether people are standing still or shaking their asses.”
“The city feels like they have a duty to protect citizens from a Happy Land scenario,” says David Baxley, a co-owner of Centro-Fly, referring to the 1990 fire that killed 87 people at an illegal Bronx social club.
As the owner of both a big, bona fide dance club (Centro-Fly) and a small loungey bar (Drinkland), Baxley finds himself in a unique situation. “I understand both sides,” says Baxley. Venues like Drinkland have been most vulnerable to enforcement, and there is no current distinction between Twilo-sized nightclubs and small spots like Drinkland in the East Village—which are essentially lounges with DJs and cocktail tables.
“I don’t think a bar that’s 700 square feet should have to have a cabaret license,” says Dell of Hogs & Heifers. “Establishments between 80 to 200 occupancy should not have to go through getting a cabaret license if they really are a bar and not a club.”
Bookman and Rabin say that allowing incidental dancing—say 10 or so people in a small bar setting where the primary activity is not dancing—would clear up many of the headaches currently clogging the system. Some NYNA members like Brooke Webster, the owner of Meow Mix, say that the proposal is not ideal but it is at least a step in the right direction. Dell also believes that an incidental-dancing clause would have helped bars like hers that were being attacked.
Famed civil-liberties lawyer Norman Siegal scoffs at the idea of “incidental dancing.” “Does that mean I can only dance with one leg? I can only kind of move a quarter of my body?” he jokes. “If you’re going to allow people to dance, if we want to put a cap on it, cap the size of the place.”
“Look,” says Baxley. “The cabaret law itself is absurd. It’s totalitarian. Two years ago the only places it was illegal to dance were Manhattan and Afghanistan. And now you can dance in Afghanistan,” he says.
There is much uncertainty over the new administration’s policies regarding nightlife. While some club owners see Bloomberg as being generally more business-friendly, others fear that Bloomberg only has big businesses in mind: Another era of megaclubs is about to be ushered in, with the advent of Estate@Limelight, Crobar, and Buddha Bar. But Bloomberg’s recent actions—the proposed smoking ban (which NYNA has successfully deflected), the Silent Night campaign, and the recent rash of raids—have left a sour taste in their mouths.
For Halcyon’s Shawn Schwartz, it feels like the same-old, same-old: “I think the most telling moment of the Bloomberg administration so far was his speech where he said that there’d be slashes in education programs, and fuck the poor and the elderly, but don’t worry—the squeegee guys won’t be back!”
Conversations with Gretchen Dykstra, the Consumer Affairs commissioner, revealed little insight into the administration’s position, but she is much more open than officials in the previous administration to amending the law. “We’re happy to meet anybody who wants to talk with us. That’s an invitation,” she says. She does not, however, entertain the notion that dancing is regulated in New York City. “Dancing is not regulated. The places that allow dancing are regulated. Deregulated dancing is a misnomer,” she says.
Dykstra says she was very surprised that the law was being used as a “catchall” when she came into office, but adds, “I don’t mean it makes it easy to shut these places down.”
But, say many of the law’s detractors, that is exactly how it is used. One of the first places to get busted for illegal dancing was Hogs & Heifers. “I really think that it is a law that is misused in most cases,” says Dell. “They, in my opinion, couldn’t get us on anything else. They got us for cabaret.”
This sentiment is echoed by many club owners. They say that selective enforcement and the subjective judgment of inspectors leave them with little bargaining room, which would only be made worse if incidental dancing were written in. “It seems like it would cause more problems,” says Eric Demby of Legalize Dancing NYC. “It would allow for more selective enforcement of the law, and it seems like a fairly hollow attempt to respond to what is clearly a significant hole in their [NYNA’s] position.”
The Slipper Room—a Lower East Side bar owned by Camille and James Habacker that has DJs and hosts burlesque and theatrical performances—typifies the type of establishment most affected by the dance police. The Habackers’ ordeal began in spring 2001, when they received their first ticket for illegal dancing, which resulted in a $150 fine.
For a year everything was quiet. Then they got another visit on a Thursday at 6 p.m. and were promptly padlocked and handed a hefty fine of $30,000. “We had two options: Plead guilty and reduce the fine to $6000 or fight it. That’s when we hired Norman Siegal,” says Camille. Siegal met with the DCA, who were “shocked” that the venue got nailed and agreed to leave them alone.
There are three ways the law can be stopped. One possibility is for the mayor to ignore it. Another, more likely, scenario is through working with City Council members, as Legalize Dancing NYC is doing with Alan Gerson. They have been drafting legislation for Gerson to introduce to the City Council that would either eradicate the law or fairly amend it. Gerson, who says he is “offended” by the cabaret law, wants to couple a revamped noise code with the cabaret proposal, because he believes it’s noise—not dancing—that most irks community members.
And the final, most time-consuming and costly method of getting rid of the law is to take it to the courts—something that Norman Siegal says he’s prepared to do.
For Siegal, Demby, and other activists, the issue is not about noise, safety, zoning, or quality of life. It is simply about the right to dance. For them, the cabaret law is a First Amendment and civil liberties issue—which Bookman and Rabin dismiss as an “interesting tangent” and an “academic discussion.”
“The First Amendment is not an intellectual exercise,” says Siegal. “It’s a safety valve for democracy.” Demby agrees: “I think that they [NYNA] are trying to marginalize our point of view, which is what they have been trying to do all along.”
Siegal has filed an appeal on behalf of one club that got a violation. “I articulated for the first time the argument that the dance prohibition violates the New York State Constitution as a violation of free expression,” says Siegal. “If that appeal doesn’t succeed and if the club wants to go into state court, I’m prepared to do that.”
While dancing is not protected under the First Amendment at the federal level, New York State law is written more broadly—which bodes well for a case challenging the cabaret law. Siegal believes that he can win. “I’ve got a pretty good record on the court stuff,” he says humbly.
Philip Rodriguez, the owner of Baktun, is not a member of NYNA or Legalize Dancing NYC (“I wouldn’t be a member of any club that would have me,” he cracks), but he’s one of the most outspoken opponents of the law. A former manager at the Cooler, he opened its sister club Baktun, which focuses on DJs and digital arts, in 1998.
When the dance police first visited him in 1999, a raging house party was going off. It was not a case of incidental dancing. Baktun is a small club with a 180-person capacity that falls somewhere between gargantuan monsters like Twilo and itty-bitty lounges like Plant. It is meant for dancing, it is set up for dancing, and it cannot survive without dancing.
He was lucky. It is also zoned for dancing. Soon after his first ticket, Rodriguez applied for a cabaret license, which sat in limbo somewhere in the Department of Buildings for 16 months. He had already spent $70,000 upgrading the fire alarm and installing a sprinkler system. “But that $70,000 is a spit in the ocean compared to what we lost,” he says over tea at an East Village café. “We lost 50 to 60 percent of our gross income for 18 months straight as a net result.”
Baktun is directly across the street from Lotus, but the divide couldn’t be greater. There are no red velvet ropes in front of Baktun, no celebrities clamoring to get in, only clubbers seeking a dose of good music made more palatable by the club’s low cover charge and relatively cheap drinks. “We get along together,” he says of Rabin. “But it’s a different industry.”
“The part of the nightlife industry that’s actually interested in music and the arts has been annihilated,” says Rodriguez, who is originally from England. “Consider all the different art scenes in the 20th century, whether it be Berlin in the 1930s, or the 1950s in the Left Bank in Paris, or New York in the late ’50s, early ’60s. You need physical platforms. You need cafés, restaurants,” and he says, “clubs.”
Looking at all the conversations and e-mail exchanges with David Rabin and Robert Bookman, there are many mentions of “investment,” “business,” “zoning,” and “safety.” There are a few mentions of dancing or the First Amendment and freedom of expression. But not once do they mention music.