Back in 2017, the City Council simultaneously created the Mayor’s Office of Nightlife and repealed the reviled Cabaret Law, which made dancing illegal in the vast majority of the city’s bars and restaurants for nearly a century. But the repeal did not change the fact that many establishments were still subject to the same restrictions under zoning regulations.
Now, a group of local politicians has proposed legislation to finally, permanently end the city’s zoning laws over dancing and entertainment, and make it so establishments will be regulated based on the capacity of the venue.
City Council Members Keith Powers and Mark Levine, and Brooklyn Borough President and mayoral candidate Eric Adams, argue that the zoning laws are an impediment to revitalizing a restaurant and nightlife industry that has been battered since the start of the pandemic. Their “Zoning for Dancing” resolution calls for dancing and entertainment to be allowed everywhere in the city for establishments with 200 people or less.
“We can’t let outdated regulations hold back our economic recovery from COVID-19,” said Adams. “Our food and drink establishments have been hammered by the pandemic, and many are in dire financial straits. We took an important step in 2017 by repealing the Cabaret Law and combating years of discrimination against Black, Latino, and LGBTQ+ New Yorkers. Now, we must change the remnants of the law in our city’s zoning code, and let New Yorkers break it down without breaking the law.”
First enacted in 1926, the original law made it illegal to have an eating-and-drinking establishment with “musical entertainment, singing, dancing or other forms of amusement” without a cabaret license. The process to obtain a license was invasive and restrictive, in which applicants had to be “fingerprinted, provide extensive financial records, meet specific zoning, surveillance, physical security, fire, building, electrical, health, record keeping requirements and pay the fees associated with each compliance.”
Kaye Dyja, a spokesperson for Powers, explained that the initial Cabaret Law was meant to stop the sale of alcohol during prohibition. “Cabaret licenses were expensive, difficult to obtain, arbitrarily denied, and enforced in a discriminatory fashion,” Dyja said. “Over time, the licenses were used to enforce segregation.”
In particular, the laws were weaponized against marginalized communities, including communities of color, the LGBTQ community, and artist communities.
“As the owner of a bar that features live entertainment, I know first-hand how crushing COVID-19 has been to the livelihoods of our staff and performers—many of whom are working singers, dancers, and actors,” said actor, activist, and co-owner of Club Cumming Alan Cumming. “I also know firsthand the inconvenience and huge costs in lawyers’ fees just to be able to stay in business when the antiquated Zoning Resolutions restrictions on dancing and entertainment are weaponized and used against small business owners—historically especially among Black, Latino and other minorities.”
When it was originally passed in 1926, the Board of Alderman’s Committee on Local Laws wrote in its recommendation that “there has been altogether too much ‘running wild’ in some of these night clubs and, in the judgment of your Committee, the ‘wild’ stranger and the foolish native should have the check-rein applied a little bit.”
The discriminatory intent of the legislation has been clear for nearly a century. The original legislation banned specific instruments in unlicensed venues; string instruments and pianos were just fine, but wind, brass, and percussion instruments—the staples of jazz music—were restricted.
Licenses became increasingly difficult to obtain, to the point where, in 2017, fewer than 100 out of the city’s roughly 25,000 bars and restaurants held one.
Advocates and small business owners say that enforcement of the archaic law was used as a tool by certain administrations to unfairly, unpredictably and inconsistently crackdown on establishments. It sometimes acted as “trojan horse,” allowing police to enter an establishment and bust them on other infractions, even if the dancing charge was eventually dropped.
Getting rid of the Cabaret Law in 2017 was a historic and meaningful change, but not one that solved the entire problem.
“Even before the Cabaret Law’s repeal, you could not get a cabaret license if your business wasn’t zoned for dancing,” Dyja explained. “So the repeal of the Cabaret Law benefited businesses in districts where dancing was already allowed, but as of right now dancing is allowed in less than 20% of the city.”
That’s because, in 1961, the city adopted the modern Zoning Resolution which established “Use Groups.” Dancing was designated as “Use Group 12,” which is a commercial use group that is allowed in commercial districts (C4 and up) and all manufacturing districts. That meant that dancing was prohibited in “all residential districts and all C1 Commercial Districts including C1 commercial overlays. “If you operate a restaurant or bar in one of these districts, dancing is not allowed,” Dyja added.
Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, over 60%t of NYC’s arts and entertainment jobs have disappeared and more than 1,000 bars and restaurants have shuttered. According to a survey by the NYC Hospitality Alliance, 75% of more than 400 restaurants and bars reported that their 2020 revenues fell by more than half compared to 2019, and another 21% of businesses said their revenues were down by 26-50%.