The Policy Challenges of Nightclub Closings

Volume 5, Number 15 | April 13 – 19, 2006


The Policy Challenges of Nightclub Closings

Whatever their intention, the NYPD has placed the leader of the City Council and state legislators from Chelsea in a difficult position.

Christine Quinn, the Council speaker who is lesbian, had just backed a police union proposal to upgrade the bulletproof vests worn by the officers—a savvy move with the mayor making gun offenses a priority. Her office has now also responded quickly to the Chelsea crackdown.

Some major gay clubs, most notably Splash and Spirit, have been labeled nuisances. The designation seems absurd to the many fans of these bars. Indeed, Splash is an internationally famous destination known across the world for its humpy, semi-nude men. One factor that makes a club famous is longevity—and Splash has that.

New York is a world-class city and its nightclubs compete with those in London, Berlin, Los Angeles, and Amsterdam to name just a few major cities where garish and spectacular gay clubs are big draws. Foreign nightclubs generally have legal advantages over American spots because outside the U.S. there are minimal restrictions on personal drug use and drinking age limits are not rigorously enforced.

But, noisy youth, fights, and rowdyism are worldwide concerns that bedevil every large municipality. The Netherlands prohibits drug dealing in bars and in 2002 the gay club iT, already in decline, was closed for six months for drug dealing.

The United States and Latin America have a problem different from much of the rest of the world—young people with guns—and that uniquely requires police intervention.

The police investigations preceding the crackdown uncovered evidence of clear criminality. Some clubs have records of violence, others had employees dealing. These problems have led to bar closings in New York City for decades. A police investigation into crystal meth dealing, a major concern of the gay community, is attempting to move up the chain from dealers to wholesalers who presumably have knowledge of drug “kingpins.” The police need not necessarily apologize for these closures. They found violations of the law and used existing legal standards to bring actions.

Still these closures are a problem for the City Council and the state Legislature because the crackdown in Chelsea raises the question of where to draw the line. The police have a say in making decisions on a day-to-day basis and community input is clearly needed, but it is up to elected officials to actually draw the line.

And that is a difficult problem because some of the clubs closed simply aren’t nuisances, no matter what the law may say.

If you have large crowds of single people under 35, you have drugs. That was true in 1850, 1890, 1926, 1956, and it’s still true today. One key argument advanced by the club owners amounts to this—Why should we have to demonstrate greater success against drug use and sales than the police can achieve? Club owners are surely on the right track when they insist that all they should be required to do is to be on the lookout. They can’t stop it anymore than the police can.

This is especially true for marijuana. Elected officials should ask if a club can rightly be labeled a nuisance because marijuana is available. Shouldn’t the bar be raided before a club can be designated a nuisance? The claim that you can find marijuana in a club doesn’t make it a nuisance, any more than the fact that you can find marijuana in an apartment building turns the building into a nuisance.

Go into a club as the police did and ask to buy drugs, and some friendly soul is bound to help you. That proves nothing.

The other questionable definition of a nuisance concerns 18-year-old drinking. When the nation imposed 21-year-old drinking on New York—the Legislature only adopted the law after Congress threatened to cut off highway funds—it was supposed to reduce drinking in high school. But now the police are trying to stop 18 years old from drinking in public, a dubious objective, because drinking in private is more dangerous.

The law permits 18 years old to go to clubs where drinking exists. Presumably, the lawmakers understood that some older adolescents would drink in these circumstances. Laws may embody reasonable objectives without insisting on strict obedience. State legislators and the City Council should look closely at whether the summary procedures of the public nuisance law should apply when the illegal drinking is by individuals 18 to 21 years old.

The nuisance law is a powerful tool. It permits a club to be closed down on the government’s word alone. John Blair, who for a quarter of a century has operated highly regarded drinking and dancing establishments in New York City, says he lost $200,000 when Spirit was closed for the weekend. This is a punishment far harsher than what could be imposed by the law, and it was assessed without the club having the opportunity to make its case. In fact, if we take a less serious view of marijuana and drinking by the over-18 set, Spirit may not qualify as a nuisance.

Nightlife is a big business in New York City. The Chelsea police precinct has 57 such establishments—one of the many signs proving the vibrant demand for these venues. These businesses attract serious investors who are affected by the business climate including law enforcement activity. The city should examine whether the tourism industry is served by making it too risky to have nightclubs that attract younger customers.

The new 311 system is part of the problem. Since the mayor and police brass track such calls, precincts have an undue incentive to respond to petty complaints about clubs. This issue is being examined by Speaker Quinn’s office and it may emerge as one area on which we will see progress.

Nightclubs have an impact beyond tourism—they are a vital part of the lives of young people in the metropolitan area. They are where thousands of youngsters who may have lived a relatively shy, even geeky life can learn that they are attractive and desirable. Couples conduct their courtship to the music, test their commitment to fidelity, and of course fall in love.

As anybody who has watched a young person dress for a night out, pleasure is a serious business. Nightclubs are where gay and straight come to terms with their sexuality. The future of New York City depends in a major way on how attractive the city is to the young. The policies we adopt toward nightlife are part of this larger picture. It is precisely the importance of the development of young adults that makes privacy protection and benevolent attitudes toward the young vital policy concerns.