New York is known worldwide as "the city that never sleeps." Now, however, there is a real threat that the city's energetic nightlife industry will suffer in the determined effort by some government officials to address a crisis that is more imaginary than real. Next week the City Council is hosting a nightlife safety summit. The fear is that the lawmakers will write new rules that snuff out even reasonable bars or clubs. A few tragic instances do not require a crackdown that features an indiscriminate scorched earth regulatory and enforcement policy. Such a crackdown will send a chilling message to young entrepreneurs that New York is not the best place to invest their capital. New York is not supposed to be antiseptic. If we police the city too much, we turn it into Cleveland or Salt Lake City.
The argument starts with economics. The nightlife industry employs 19,000 city residents and generates over $700 million a year in tax revenue. This nearly $10 billion economic engine is not, however, the kind of unobtrusive industry that can operate quietly in the air conditioned skyscrapers of midtown. It is by its nature often raucous and colorful.
That is why the city needs to find a way to accommodate this boisterousness in a manner that interferes as little as possible with the residential needs of New Yorkers. In fact, we in the industry thought that this was being done already. When gentrification took hold in the city the nightlife industry was forced into Chelsea, the meatpacking district, and the Lower East Side. It was this restrictive zoning that, while pushing the clubs into the deserted and rundown areas of the Far West Side, created a de facto nightlife district. It is important to remember that the reason bars and clubs are crowded in these areas is that they were following the law when they moved there.
Nightlife came into these blighted blocks and invested tens of millions of dollars to renovate abandoned buildings and transform the rundown area into an important entertainment destination. Now the city is telling these businesses that the area where they are located is "saturated" and would benefit from fewer clubs. Life is full of ironies — this is a zoning irony.
Nightlife districts should be seen as good for New York. Boston has successfully created a nightlife-focused area, and Las Vegas and Miami are reaping enormous tourist dollars by promoting their cities as exciting nightlife destinations. In our town, however, the welcome wagon seems to be staffed by hostile prohibitionists.
This city needs a collaborative nightlife policy, one that seeks to nurture and not punish bar and club owners. Currently, there is a fear by responsible operators that if the police are called due to a disturbance at a club or even outside the venue, it is the club owner who will be cited for a "failure to control the premise." Does anyone think that Jim Dolan or George Steinbrenner has ever gotten such a violation if a drunken brawl has broken out at MSG or Yankee Stadium?
In those venues the teams are allowed to hire off-duty cops in what is known as "paid detail." Yet the nightlife industry, a business sector that economically dwarfs the sports teams of this city, is refused permission to hire police to insure patron safety around its clubs.
Of all of the publicized issues in the nightlife controversy the problem of underage drinking is the one that could be most fairly labeled a crisis. Yet it is not something that is caused by the industry. This is a serious societal problem and the appropriate remedies need to involve a wide range of additional stakeholders. A harmful enforcement crackdown, one that includes earlier closing times that could devastate the city's economy, will simply fail to get to the root of the problem.
Underage drinkers themselves need to be made culpable for their actions. While it is against the law to serve alcohol to minors it is equally illegal for minors to purchase and consume alcohol. Increasingly, the computer savvy youngster is accessing "failure proof" fraudulent IDs that are offered on Web sites all over the Internet. These sites need to be shut down but if a youngster is faced with a night in jail or the suspension of a drivers license he or she will think twice about using a fake ID.
The New York Nightlife Association, for which I am spokesperson, is proud of its members and their contribution to the economic vitality of this city. At the same time we are certainly concerned about patron safety. It is in this spirit that we call on the mayor and the council speaker to set up an Office for Nightlife Affairs that is designed to nurture the industry's growth and to insure that this growth takes place in as safe an atmosphere as possible. A vibrant and safe nightlife should not be mutually exclusive.
Mr. Lipsky, a spokesman for the New York Nightlife Association, goes to bed before 11:00.