As New York’s first-ever “nightlife mayor,” Ariel Palitz likes to call her job “the other 9 to 5.”
Since taking the reins of Mayor Bill de Blasio‘s newly minted Office of Nightlife last March, she’s been juggling issues like noise regulation, streamlining red tape processes and improving safety in a mission to make the city’s bustling after-hours industry more fair for patrons, operators and workers alike. “I’m here because I’ve been there,” says Palitz, who ran the now-closed Lower East Side club Sutra for a decade. “Everything I’ve ever gone through goes into informing this job, to make sure it’s as reality-based as possible.”
Amid her efforts — which recently included hosting Town Hall meetings across all five boroughs — a clearer picture of nocturnal New York is starting to emerge. This week, the Office of Media and Entertainment (under which the nightlife office is housed) reported in a new, 80-page economic impact study that the city’s nightlife industry supports 299,000 jobs, $13.1 billion in employee compensation and $35.1 billion in total economic output. Now, Palitz says, she’s using the data as a “roadmap” to pinpoint and manage the industry’s most pressing obstacles. (Among them, rising rents, confusing permit systems and keeping nearby residents happy.)
The study, and very creation of Palitz’s role, come at a transitional time for New York’s music community. Even as the new report reflects a growth in concert and DIY venues across New York, several longstanding establishments like Brooklyn’s OUTPUT and the Highline Ballroom have recently announced plans to shutter their doors.
But Palitz says we should remain optimistic. As she approaches her one-year anniversary on the job, she discusses why — along with how she’s making nightlife safer, adjusting to her new gig (while still hitting the town) and her plans for the office in 2019.
The new study is the first of its kind in New York, and you’re the first-ever nightlife mayor. Do you feel like we’re entering a new era here, in terms of giving nightlife its proper respect?
Absolutely. This is a really powerful economic driver, and important cultural industry that deserves the respect, attention and support of the city. [The study] really does help us to lay down the groundwork to inform the office, as well as the city, more exactly and definitively what a major part of the economy nightlife is. It’s really an international movement. I like to call it the United Nations of Nightlife. There’s a conversation, coordination and cooperation that’s going on with our office and offices of nightlife in Berlin, London, Orlando. There’s a brand-new office established last month in D.C., a new office of nightlife in Prague. It’s gaining steam, and it validates that this is something that does warrant proactive management. In the past, the presumption of nightlife has been that it’s in the dark, and that it’s where dark things happen. But in actuality, it’s really just the other 9 to 5.
Did any findings especially concern you?
As obviously optimistic as we are about the growth and vitality of the industry, it’s also a reality that running a nightlife establishment in New York is a challenge. Anywhere, it’s a challenge. So we’re looking at this data as a roadmap as to what needs to be addressed. Forty percent of owners surveyed indicated that their businesses may not be open in three years. The Office of Nightlife is really trying to minimize the cost of doing business as much as possible, and help streamline the red tape, and make it a less challenging experience, so people have more optimism moving forward.
You formerly owned Sutra nightclub in Manhattan. How do your own experiences in nightlife inform your approach to this role?
It informs everything that I do. I ran and operated Sutra for 10 years, and at the end of 10 years, a lot of people were like, “Why are you closing? You’re still doing well. Is it the rent, is it the landlord…” And at the end of the day, I just really wanted to move on and to explore different ways of being in the industry. Running a venue is complicated, it’s fun, it’s challenging, and I’ve experienced pretty much all the joys and miseries of doing it, and every single one of those lessons goes to informing how I address the challenges that other people are going through. I’m here because I’ve been there.
Over the past few months, we’ve seen beloved New York music venues like Highline Ballroom and Brooklyn’s OUTPUT announce plans to close. How can we protect small concert spaces and DIY venues that are vulnerable to rising rents?
The DIY/underground community has different challenges to the more established live music and creative spaces. We are in the process of establishing different initiatives and pathways to do that. We recognize that it is incredibly sad when we experience the loss of some of our most beloved legacy venues and live music venues. But we’re also extremely encouraged that the Office of Nightlife has created this support system that is specifically designed to come up with those support systems. We also recognize that nightlife establishments have a natural lifespan. There’s a lot of reasons why people open; there’s a lot of reasons why people close. Sometimes it’s economic, sometimes it’s personal, sometimes it’s just time. I think there’s a natural evolution, but at the same time, we’re really looking to make sure that while they’re open, they’re thriving. If and when things close, what’s really important is that what opens in its place also has the high level of quality and creative integrity that New York is loved for.
You just wrapped a five-borough listening tour. What did you take away from those meetings?
In the past, usually, talking about nightlife tended to be resident-heavy, and [focused on] what were the negative impacts of nightlife. We really did our best to ensure that there was equal representation of residents and owners and employees and patrons as well as performers. We had onstage with me all the city and state agencies with nightlife oversight. It was really a holistic conversation. Each of those stakeholders has their own concerns. Employees want to make sure there’s fair and equal compensation. There were safety concerns for the LGBT community. We want to make nightlife more fair for everyone — more fair for operators, more fair for employees, and patrons as well.
What unique challenges does the nightlife industry face in a 24-hour, highly populous city like New York?
Nightlife is really a microcosm of life itself. You’re dealing with not only small businesses; you’re dealing with social justice issues, whether it be LGBT rights, #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, immigrant rights. Although we’re not a reporting or enforcement office, we are here to be a liaison between the industry and the individuals who are experiencing injustices. It also gets to logistical issues — that goes as far as transportation and sanitation coordination, along with NYPD, to make sure that things are safe, clean and not noisy.
How do you balance keeping the creative, fun-loving spirit of New York nightlife alive, while mitigating things like noise and mess?
It’s not going to be easy, but I don’t think it’s going to be impossible. It’s about small, incremental changes that are going to make a big impact. How do we balance the noise to bring it down a little and make it a little cleaner? I’m extremely optimistic that we can improve quality of life as well as the way people do business and the way people go out. We can coexist. We all see both sides — everyone’s had a noisy neighbor. Everyone knows how irritating it can be to be kept up at night. And people that own and operate venues are in it because of a love of people and the community and the cities they live in. I think it’s a question of giving guidelines and education and supportive resources, and really pooling everything we know to balance everybody’s needs.
How are you adjusting to a daytime job, and the world of politics? Do you still go out often as part of the role?
I love to go out, I love to support my friends’ venues and the DJs that I know, I love to dance and I love music. I love the night. And so that still is true. Nightlife is also a lifestyle choice for a lot of people, and it was for me. When you own a club, and you are a regular who goes out and works in nightlife, it’s not just a job. It’s part of who you are and what you love to do. Of course, I really do try to get out to as many venues as possible. But being the senior executive director of the Office of Nightlife is a daytime job. Even when you own a nightclub, a lot of people don’t realize that a lot of what happens at night happens during the day first. Everything that you order and book. So nightlife is a daytime job. This is something I take very seriously, and it does sometimes mean having to go to bed a little earlier than I’m used to. [Laughs.] Even though I’m naturally a nocturnal person.
New York is seeing historically low crime rates, but 54 percent of women surveyed cited safety as a concern (compared to 36 percent of men). How can we make nightlife safer for women, and for minorities?
Safety for women and for everyone is a top priority of the office. From a nightlife operator perspective, what we’ve learned is that you can get a more compliant venue with less enforcement and more education and support. From a women’s standpoint, I was a female bar owner. So I had a very special perspective on where the fine line is between flirtation and being harassed. There is a large conversation about the fine line, and that conversation is here. #MeToo is bringing that more to life. All women could agree that there’s a special level of vulnerability that needs to be addressed in nightlife everywhere. Through education campaigns and conversation, we can do better, and make nightlife safer for women and the LGBTQ community, and all others. Nightlife is a place where we can look out for each other.
The Office of Nightlife will be launching our website soon, which will be a one-stop shop to connect operators with all the city regulators and be a resource for all our programs and services. We’ve established a multi-agency working group that is tackling all the issues that we heard — ticking off everything from DIY concerns to enforcement concerns, to red tape, to making sure that the cost of doing business is going down, and really just keeping the trajectory of the economic impact study that has shown that New York is growing and thriving. I think we can look at how we can be more proactive rather than reactive — rather than to just call the police or call 311. We’re looking at how we can take everything we’ve learned, looking at the data, listening to people’s stories, and taking to the other city agencies and coordinate this in a way that it’s supportive rather than retroactive enforcement.