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Neighbors and Nightclubs

by Mark Berkey-Gerard, May 07, 2001
 

When a recent argument inside the nightclub Tunnel in Chelsea spilled out onto the street, a 16-year old wound up fatally stabbed and another teen was shot. It was just another incident in a long line of troubles for the nightclub. In the last few years at Tunnel, an 18-year-old died of a drug overdose, another club-goer was shot and killed, and city officials have repeatedly accused the disco of promoting drugs, selling alcohol to minors, and evading taxes.

For Maria Garcia, who lives a few blocks away, the latest stabbing and shooting resulted in another sleepless night because of a neighborhood disco.

"There were police cars, people on the street, and ambulances," said Garcia. "It kept us up all night. We did not know what it was, but we knew it was something big."

Noise, drunken club-goers, litter, drug use, and violence are common occurrences because of nightclubs, Garcia says. "With several clubs all within a few blocks, we literally have thousands of people coming out of clubs between 2 and 4 o'clock in the morning, every day of the week."

As the head of a group called Chelsea Owners and Tenants for Neighborhood Preservation, Garcia is engaged in ongoing battles to get area nightspots like Twilo, Roxy, Limelight, and the Tunnel to be responsible neighbors. She also tries to keep new clubs from opening.

And, at least part of the time, she is successful. Recently, Garcia and her neighborhood organization stalled the efforts of two clubs, Tambourine on West 23rd Street and High Altitude on West 19th Street. While Garcia said the two victories were not the norm, they point to the growing power of residents in the ongoing battles between community groups and nightclubs, with city officials in-between.

Club owners claim they are often treated unfairly by the city, raided by the police, required to undergo a rigorous and expensive process of gaining permits, subjected to unfair expectations from the public and press.

What To Do If Your Neighbor Is A Noisy Nightclub

Persistence is the key to dealing with noise, crowds, and other problems that may result from a disco in your neighborhood. But knowing whom to call will also save time, since different city agencies handle different problems.

First, see if others have complained before you. Local community groups may have already taken up the cause. Tenant.net is a good resource for many neighborhood issues and may provide information about what is going on in your area.

Second, it is best at least to make an attempt to contact a club directly, because the establishment may be accommodating. Filing an official complaint with a government agency before voicing concerns to the club may make it more difficult to reach a solution in the end.

When you decide it is time to get the city involved, the first official stop is the Department of Environmental Protection, which handles complaints about noise from nightclubs and outside speaker systems. The general complaint phone number is 718 DEP-HELP (337-4357). The city also has a special quality of life hotline at 888-677-5433.

The local police precinct handles noisy neighbors, boom boxes, noise outside of bars and clubs, and the general loudmouth who passes by your window at 2 a.m.

Community Boards are the place to air grievances about general neighborhood issues, liquor licenses, and new clubs. You can always take it one step further and notify your city councilmember.

The final step is the State Liquor Authority, which considers community response when it considers applications from establishments that want to sell alcohol. Recommendations from community boards and letters from elected officials do influence the decisions. The city office for the State Liquor Authority can be reached at 212-417-4002.

"You are probably safer inside a club than in a school or on the street because of the measures most owners take," said Andrew Rasiej, president of the New York Nightlife Association, a coalition of club owners and music industry professionals.

Some argue that unlike Miami, a city that welcomes nightclubs as a vital part of its image and economy, New York is turning its back on the nightlife that helped make its name.

"If you look up dancing on the city's visitors website, all you get is ballet," said Rasiej.

In fact, the official New York visitor's website does offer some other options, but the lounge of the Marriott on Times Square (the website's top suggestion) is probably not what most have in mind when they want to experience the "city that never sleeps."

PROBLEMS BEHIND THE VELVET ROPE

At 11 p.m. on a Thursday, women in backless tops and platform heels and men in tight silky shirts stand outside the Cheeta nightclub on West 21st Street. They line up along a velvet rope, some shivering in a light drizzling rain, hoping that sometime soon they can convince the doorman that they are indeed on the guest list. The thumping bass of the electronic music inside booms out onto the street. The line is constant for the next few hours, the doormen allowing in a few parties at a time to keep up the appearance that this is such a fashionable place to be; how could it not be, if people are willing to wait in the rain to get in?

"I go out about three, sometimes four nights a week," said Ana Tallow, a 22-year-old student who has been waiting on line for 20 minutes. "It is just about going out and being with my friends."

By 2 a.m. patrons begin to flow out of the club, some staggering and laughing loudly. They whistle for double-parked taxis; the taxis honk back. This scene is a nightly occurrence, just part of what is expected outside of a club. But traffic and noise are just the beginning.

Last year, St. Vincent's hospital in Manhattan notified authorities of an increasing number of people who had overdosed on drugs and arrived in the emergency room via private ambulances. Several nightclubs, it turns out, keep ambulances on a kind of retainer, parked outside their door. The hospital reported treating four to five nightclub overdoses a night, twice as many as before. The medical emergencies are from relatively new drugs like the psychedelic Ecstasy, which can lead to dehydration, and the mixture of alcohol and GHB, commonly known as a date rape drug. Since 1994, the national number of medical emergencies from Ecstasy has increased ten times.

THE PLAYERS AND THE LAWS

New York Nightlife Association - A coalition of music companies and club owners that would like the city to look more favorably on the nightclub industry.

Social Club Task Force - Building and Health Departments officials, Fire Marshall, and Police Department who make inspections.

State Liquor Authority - Issues liquor licenses to New York establishments. Many in the city, including Queens Borough President, Claire Shulman do not think the state authority is responsive enough to city issues. Shulman has proposed a bill to create a City Liquor Authority.

Department of Buildings - Issues certificate of occupancy for clubs.

Department of Consumer Affairs - Issues cabaret licenses for dancing.

Community Boards - Neighborhood government bodies hold public hearings and can vote to reject liquor license applications.

Nuisance Abatement Law - Three arrests at a club means it can be shut down.

Padavan Law - Named after one of its sponsors, Senator Frank Padavan, the law gives local communities a right to have their views expressed on certain liquor license applications. It does not give Community Boards the right to give the final rejection of an application, only to weigh in with their concerns.

"Sure Ecstasy is a problem in some places. Sometimes as soon as you walk into a place, there is someone right there trying to sell you something," said Tallow, the student and club regular. "But clubs also get too much blame. People make their choices to find what they want. It is not necessarily the clubs' fault."

Two of the clubs that hires ambulances--Twilo and Roxy -- said the private ambulances are for the protection of their patrons.

"When people go down [from GHB], 911 is useless," said Jason McCarthy, the general manager of the Roxy in a recent New York Times article. "I do this to protect my clients who go into cardiac arrest."

Twilo, in particular, has had drug problems. Last summer, a medical student passed out on a dance floor and died. And two club-goers are suing the club alleging that employees hid them in a backroom when they overdosed so that police would not find out.

"We are blamed for everything and we are never given the benefit of the doubt," said Peter R. Sullivan, Twilo's lawyer. "The reason we are still open is because we have been able to prove to the courts that we are the safest club in New York."

The clubs also say they have asked for help from the police in fighting the drugs, but received no assistance.

High profile cases of guns and violence at clubs, particularly involving famous hip-hop stars, have also created negative perception. Last year1s shooting at Club New York that put rap stars Sean "Puffy" Combs and Jamal "Shyne" Barrow on trial produced daily news stories for months. Just weeks ago, rapper Jay-Z was charged with concealing a weapon outside the club Exit.

Such cases have apparently inspired the New York Police Department to create a special "hip-hop" patrol unit that cruises by certain hot spots looking for rappers involved in illicit activities.

CLUBS SPEAK OUT

Clubs say that the incidents that make headlines are small when the number of discos and patrons are considered. They also contend that many of their efforts for improving relations with the city and residents (like a recorded message in cabs from Madonna urging club-goers to be responsible) have been snubbed by city officials.

"When there are events at Madison Square Garden or parades, organizers hire off-duty police officers," said Andrew Rasiej, who also runs Digital Club Network, which broadcasts music events online. "We've asked police and the city for the same thing. Their response has been: No."

Another consideration, club owners say, should be the positive economic impact they have on the city.

Indeed, a recent study by the Manhattan Borough President's office reported that the city's bars, clubs, and ballrooms generate three billion dollars for the local economy and account for more than 27,000 jobs. A survey commissioned by the New York Nightlife Association claims that the nightclub industry brings in more people than the city1s sports teams, Broadway theaters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Empire State Building combined.

And New York does not provide a particularly business friendly environment for those who want to open a disco. A total of 26 separate credentials from various city agencies are needed, and some owners say they have spent more than one million dollars without assurance that their club will be allowed to open.

Zoning may be the most difficult part of the equation.

In the past, clubs could find homes in neighborhoods that were more industrial, but as housing and land for new residential development grows more scarce, the areas that welcome nightclubs are growing smaller. In the mid-19801s, neighborhoods like the West Side were rezoned for mixed use by commercial, real estate, and manufacturing interests. The zoning threw everyone into inevitable conflict.

"When you sell a loft in the meatpacking district for two million dollars, those people expect the same quality of life as those who live on Gramercy Park," said Rasiej. "But it is not going to happen."

KIDS THESE DAYS: THE HISTORY OF CLUBS

Of course, the battles between nightclubs, residents, and politicians are nothing new.

In the 1860's John Allen, the owner of a dance hall on Water Street that doubled as a bordello, was commonly referred to as the "wickedest man in New York." By 1910, the political reformers were able to convince the state legislature to amend the city charter so that it required licensing of dance halls. Soon after, many social venues began calling themselves dance academies and offered dance instruction in an effort to circumvent regulations and present a more positive image to the public.

Opposition did not deter dancers and clubs. By 1925, there were 786 licensed dance spaces in the five boroughs, 238 of which were in Manhattan. And a study at the same time calculated that 14 percent of the city1s males and 10 percent of the city1s females between 17 and 40 years old went dancing at least once a week.

The modern discotheque with its fashionable celebrities, elaborate sound systems and lighting, and unique problems did not emerge until the 19601s.

Early discotheques included the fashionable Ondine on East 59th Street, Le Club on East 55th Street, and Arthur, owned by the son of Adlai Stevenson, that featured rock and roll bands. The Electric Circus on St. Mark's Place opened in 1967 and featured trapeze performance artists as well as parties for famous people, hippies, and students. In 1977, working-class discos in the boroughs were made world famous by the film, Saturday Night Fever.

Studio 54 became the best-known club of the 1970's with its policy of selective admittance, drug use, and decadent parties. The party may have seemed to go on forever, but in fact it ended in 1979, when the owners of Studio 54, Stephen Rubell and Ian Schrager were arrested by federal agents and convicted of tax evasion.

By the 19801s clubs began opening in unused warehouses in Chelsea, Lower Manhattan, and the meatpacking district. This angered residents. They began organizing against them.

The most tragic and deadly nightclub incident happened in the Bronx in 1990 when Julio Gonzalez set fire to Happy Land Social Club after an argument with his girlfriend. The fire claimed 87 lives and highlighted the problem of illegal clubs that operate without proper licenses and safe building codes.

MAKING GOOD NEIGHBORS

"New York has a well-deserved reputation as the 'city that never sleeps,'" said Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields. "Unfortunately, in some instances, conflicts sometimes arise between these types of businesses and communities in which they are located."

Toward the end of helping clubs become good neighbors, Fields has issued a number of recommendations that include creating special police units to enforce existing rules on nightclubs, reform of the State Liquor Authority procedures, and improved zoning.

Other local measures are also underway. West Side City Councilmember Christine Quinn said community boards two and four in her area have created joint hearings on the use of the meatpacking district that creates better dialogue between nightclubs and residents.

However, community groups admit that even well meaning club owners are fighting a losing battle. "The days when the neighborhood would welcome a large venue for 2,000 people are over," said Garcia. "And there is no doubt that any new club is paying for all of the bad people that came before them."

Non-profits, like Dance Safe an organization that works to promote safety and health at raves and nightclubs, are also doing their part to try to improve the scene. Dance Safe sets ups booths and provides water, information, condoms, and ear plugs. They sometimes even perform a chemical analysis of patrons' Ecstasy pills to make sure they do not contain contaminants.

"People are going to do certain things," said Paul Hale of the New York City Dance Safe chapter. "We do not condone or condemn drug use. We try to educate and reduce the harm people can do to themselves and others."

Hale also noted that most of the people he encounters at clubs are sober and that many overdoses of Ecstasy and GBH have occurred at frat houses and college parties, not just at nightclubs.

Ultimately, the battles over nightclubs pitch each interest against a host of opponents.

Residents complain that police, the State Liquor Authority, and the city are not doing enough to enforce the present laws. The city complains that the long court cases against nightclubs often do not produce results because of unenforceable laws. Fire and police officials say they are cracking down on the problem and that surprise raids that they conduct yield evidence that clubs are routinely breaking the law and putting patrons in danger.

Nightclubs complain that they have few friends in the city.

The only people not complaining are the thousands of young people who, egged on by hip magazines and designers and music promoters and various celebrities, each night are on the lookout for the latest, hottest, and most fashionable place to be. Or, if they are complaining, nobody can hear them through the beat.

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