Groove patrol: City admits cabaret law is discriminatory, but defends it anyway as pols push repeal - Brooklyn Paper

Groove patrol: City admits cabaret law is discriminatory, but defends it anyway as pols push repeal

The Brooklyn Museum lets loose the first Saturday of the month and throws one of the best dance parties in Brooklyn. Don’t believe us? Here’s photo proof.
Photo by Lauren Fleishman

They’re officially dancing around the issue.

The DeBlasio administration is defending an antiquated law that forbids dancing in venues unless they have a difficult-to-obtain license, but at the same time admits that legislation has discriminatory roots, according to a spokeswoman who claimed the law is not being enforced to marginalize people at a Monday City Hall hearing.

“We are aware of the historical issues of the law and its enforcement, but this administration has not taken those approaches under Mayor DeBlasio,” said Lindsay Greene, a senior advisor for the Office of Housing and Economic Development.

The city, however, is defending the cabaret law in a legal battle against the owner of Williamsburg cafe and bar Muchmore’s, who is challenging the measure as unconstitutional after receiving a citation for violating it in 2013.

“The administration is currently defending the lawsuit in court,” Greene said.

The city’s contradictory revelations came as Councilman Rafael Espinal (D–Bushwick) announced he will be introducing a bill on Wednesday to repeal the Prohibition-era measure, which opponents say was enacted to target black jazz clubs and has been used to crack down on venues frequented by minority groups ever since — despite Greene’s declaration that the law has not been used to discriminate.

Just 97 of the city’s 25,000 bars and restaurants hold the cabaret license, which requires owners to install pricey digital video surveillance systems in venues and to prove they don’t owe child support among other stipulations, according to City Hall.

The spokeswoman did not provide specifics on the number of times a cabaret violation has been issued under DeBlasio, and refused to answer questions about the city’s stance on dancing, citing the pending lawsuit. But she did reveal that there are ongoing conversations about repealing the law that she was not authorized to discuss.

Another Brooklyn pol, who represents one of the borough’s nightlife hubs, compelled the city to just let the lawsuit go at the hearing, pointing out how people still get down despite the dated measure.

“The administration is not under a legal obligation to defend the lawsuit and could drop defense of the cabaret law entirely,” said Councilman Steve Levin (D–Williamsburg). “There are hundreds of establishments around New York City that are not observing the cabaret law. The reality and the law are pretty out of whack at this point.”

Crackdowns across the city led activists to renew their push to trash the law in March, following the fire inside Oakland’s Ghost Ship warehouse that killed 36 happy-footed revelers last year. But opponents have talked of canning the measure for decades — most famously during the “Million Mambo March” in 2000, where protestors boogied in a Manhattan park.

Advocates for repeal packed the normally drab Council chambers for Monday’s spirited hearing, waving their hands silently in approval of statements after being banned from erupting in applause.

“We’re going to have to do jazz hands,” Espinal said. “Just as dancing is illegal, it’s illegal to clap here.”

Venue owners, promoters, lawyers, city agency reps, and one Manhattan community board member gave testimonies about their brushes with the law, which one Bushwick bar owner said left him terrified after a recent raid.

“I thought it was like a counterterrorism raid, some ‘Borne Ultimatum’ tip,” said John Barclay. “It’s like they found El Chapo in my bar or something. It’s terrifying, everyone freezes and it’s over nothing. It’s dancing.”

Espinal also introduced legislation last week, ahead of his bill to repeal the cabaret law, to create an Office of Nightlife overseen by a Night Mayor that would help businesses navigate the city’s complex codes. And Mayor DeBlasio carved out the role for a “nightlife ambassador” as part of a jobs plan he announced on June 15.

But the city must first get rid of the measure that keeps many businesses from operating safely and successfully — and when it does, a third councilman in favor of repeal said he knows exactly where to celebrate.

“I’m hoping when we pass this legislation we’ll have a big dance party in chambers,” said Councilman Antonio Reynoso (D–Bushwick).

Reach reporter Lauren Gill at lgill@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–2511. Follow her on Twitter @laurenk_gill

More from Around New York