Earlier this year, the New York City Council passed a bill establishing a new Office of Nightlife, a decree signed by Mayor Bill De Blasio at House of Yes, a popular Brooklyn dance venue.
New York was following the lead of cities around the world. London, Berlin and Amsterdam have all warmed to the idea that the late-night economy and culture are key parts of what makes cities attractive. In turn, they have been creating official or quasi-governmental offices to help foster and regulate it.
“Historically, nightlife has had an adversarial relationship with the city and communities,” said New York city councilman Rafael Espinal, who proposed the legislation to create the office. “This office will bridge that relationship and create dialogue.”
Such a conversation could, in theory, help underground, do-it-yourself venues find a path to legitimacy, all while cultivating entrepreneurs and preserving the after-hours creative culture that make urban areas appealing to artists. New York’s action has led many prominent voices in L.A. nightlife to ask if such an office could help manage our sprawling music, bar and club scene.
It could also lead to safer nightlife. In the months since December’s tragic Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, which killed dozens of young music fans, Los Angeles has cracked down on unpermitted warehouse parties, which often play host to music and communities shut out of mainstream venues. But those shows have a huge cultural value, and still continue — just further under the radar in more marginal spaces.
Meanwhile, promoters and venue owners say the permitting and building-code process is more time-consuming and expensive than ever.
“All operators face enormous hurdles in getting their venues open in Los Angeles. Some run out of money before ever opening their doors,” said Cedd Moses, the founder of the bar and club network 213 Hospitality, which helped transform downtown L.A. over a decade ago. “L.A. would definitely benefit, assuming the right person is put in place.”
Given escalating gentrification and increased scrutiny around safety, the challenge of maintaining a thriving nightlife in L.A. may finally warrant specific attention.
“What’s been done before hasn’t worked,” said Simon Rust Lamb, an attorney and the former COO and general counsel of the dance music promoter Insomniac.
He’s pushing to create such an office in L.A.
“There are film offices in L.A. and in many states that made a decision to promote that industry,” he added. “Why doesn’t that exist for music here?”
From the most under-the-radar do-it-yourself spaces to the most lucrative bars, L.A. and California’s challenges with managing its nightlife are considerable. While the area is booming with nightlife development, from small music venues in downtown to swank hotels in Hollywood, there are complex issues to be resolved.
Unlike the film industry, which has a well-connected lobbying wing and coordinating body for permits, Film L.A., the nightlife industry here has no similar unifying structure. Neither, for that matter, do residents affected by busy nightlife scenes or artists and fans whose cultural life depends on after-dark venues.
“It would be great to have someone at City Hall to meet with neighbors and address concerns,” said Dave Cooley, the owner of the club and restaurant the Abbey in West Hollywood. He cites West Hollywood’s WeHo Ambassadors program, which assists tourists and monitors popular bar areas for trouble, as a model program.
“I wish the city would get a nightlife manager,” he said of L.A. “The laws [city and state] are so outdated and need to be changed.”
Venues ranging from underground clubs like Non Plus Ultra to Fashion District live-work artist lofts — and even some corporate-sponsored warehouse shows — have been shut down recently. After Non Plus Ultra closed in March, one of its founders told The Times that they had struck out in securing the proper permits.
“It all just depends on who you talk to,” said the club’s Jerry DeFazio. “If they could give us the information we needed, we’d use it, but if you can’t find it, it’s harder.”
Bob Duenas, a senior City Planner with L.A., defended the current permitting system.
“The process is pretty transparent, but an applicant has to do a lot of legwork before they come in,” he admitted. Conditional use permits typically take six to eight months for approval, and Duenas said that a so-called ‘night mayor’ could help bring underground promoters into the light and help established ones navigate the process.
“That could be a good idea,” he said. “We provide services but we don’t advocate [for the nightlife industries]. But if there was someone to sit down with us and say ‘We need this kind of attention’, we could do that.”
Even big concert promoters have felt the pinch.
“After that tragic [Ghost Ship] fire, it’s a different process to get things done now,” said Insomniac founder Pasquale Rotella, whose Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas is America’s largest multi-day music festival. “We understand why, but it’s become so difficult.”
Rotella had in the past thrown electronic dance music (EDM) events at a Chinatown warehouse, but has stepped away in recent months due to what he described as bureaucratic difficulties.
For smaller promoters, more-accessible permitting and advice on safety-codes can mean the difference producing a safe event or canceling.
“Safety is always high on our concern list. I would love someone to help with permits and check spaces,” said Derek Marshall, the promoter behind the new activist club night Party Like You Give A....
In Europe, “Night Mayors” have helped mediate cities’ after-dark economies for years. The idea began in Berlin and Amsterdam, where they had L.A.’s opposite problem – the big crowds and liberality of their club scenes were making some longtime residents annoyed.
When Mirik Milan, the “Night Mayor” of Amsterdam, took the job in 2012, he pursued 24-hour licenses for a string of nightclubs outside the compact city’s central nightlife district. But he also updated design elements (like removing overstuffed bike racks from pedestrian thoroughfares) and established a 311-style hotline, where concerned neighbors could get an immediate response.
The independent non-profit agency is run with a mix of city funds and fees from club owners. It’s freed up police resources, with a staff given authority to address problems.
Milan said violent crime went down 28%, nuisance complaints went down 30%, and the effort earned the trust of promoters, government and residents.
“It’s a holistic approach to making sure people are more engaged,” Milan said. “We got support for the industry and the nighttime economy, but there was also good incentive to take care of the downsides.”
An L.A. office of nightlife wouldn’t have to look exactly like New York’s. There are local obstacles here: namely, the fact that alcohol policy is largely determined by the state, and the difficulty of corralling corraling such a sprawling (and sometimes oppositional) coalition of venues, promoters and regulators.
Recent marijuana dispensary legislation could be one model, but some local politicians, like L.A. city councilman Paul Koretz, have opposed measures to liberalize nightlife regulations.
But New York’s recent experience could still be instructive.
Over the last decade, New York has seen a spate of beloved DIY venues like Death By Audio, 285 Kent, Shea Stadium and Glasslands close in the face of rising rents, code regulations and commercial development (the new Vice Media offices booted Death By Audio, for instance).
Gentrification is a problem faced by many changing neighborhoods, but venues catering to people of color, LGBT partiers or less-marketable genres of music are often the most vulnerable.
The New York office includes a new Director of Nightlife and a 12-member Nightlife Advisory Panel that will act as a liaison between club owners, residents and government, and help guide city policy around preserving the city’s nightlife.
Espinal said that the new office (coupled with a successful effort to repeal New Yor City’s ‘cabaret law,’ which prohibits dancing in clubs without a specific license),would give a voice to the disparate, sometimes government-averse nightlife community, while also bringing planning and accountability to the industry.
“New York nightlife is iconic and attracts people from all over the world,” Espinal said. “For us to preserve that brand, creativity has to flourish. If we lose the luster of nightlife, we’re going to lose the reason people want to live here.”