New York City lawmakers voted to strike down a 91-year-old cabaret law Tuesday that prohibited dancing in public spaces without a permit. The city council voted 41-1 on Bill 1652 that removes the cabaret law but maintains safety obligations, like requiring cameras for larger venues.
Many believe the cabaret law was enacted in the 1920s to crack down on interracial clubs and was eventually utilized to keep black musicians from performing. For decades, the law required musicians and cabaret workers to be fingerprinted in order to obtain a “cabaret card” to work in bars in New York. The rules prohibited artists like Billie Holliday, who had a drug offense from obtaining a card. Ray Charles was also denied a card. As a result of the regulations, Frank Sinatra refused to play in New York rather than face the indignity of being fingerprinted.
Out of roughly 25,00 bars, clubs, and restaurants in New York, less than 100 had cabaret licenses. Licenses required the approval of several agencies and were costly and time consuming for venue owners. The law has not been strictly enforced since the 1990s when former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani used it to shut down clubs for his quality-of-life initiatives.
Current Mayor Bill de Blasio has not regularly enforced the law, but many venue owners in New York felt the regulation hung over their heads and posed a threat to New York nightlife. Opponents of the law also feared that when these antiquated rules are not met, smaller spaces go off the radar and can result in unsafe environments.
Brooklyn Councilman Rafael Espinal put forth the bill to repeal the law earlier this year with the support of local organizations including NYC Artist Coalition, Dance Liberation Network, and Legalize Dance NYC. The Councilman brought forth the legislation due to the increase of D.I.Y. spaces and bars in his district.
The bill is now headed to de Blasio’s desk to be signed. A spokesperson for the mayor told the New York Times “The mayor strongly supports repealing the law.” The legislation will go into affect 30 days after he signs it.
The removal of the cabaret law comes after de Blasio instated the Office of Nightlife. In September, amongst music icons like Marky Ramone of The Ramones, de Blasio signed a bill creating the office that would serve as a liaison between the nightlife industry and the government. The office will establish a Director of Nightlife and a 12-person Nightlife Advisory Panel that will be comprised of both city representatives and industry folks. The office, styled after ones in London and Amsterdam, will not have the power to enact legislation, but will provide the city with recommendations to eliminate redundant laws and help mitigate relations within communities to keep New York’s $10 billion nightlife industry booming.