Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
They play an important role in building community, and nightlife advocates say that needs to be taken more seriously by officials.
Nightlife can make great contributions to a city, so it’s bizarre how often decision-makers fail to understand it. While officials may have a profound knowledge of their city in the daylight hours, sunset can seem to dim their expertise to cliches of noise and criminality.
In New York, a report released last month aims to help change that. The Creative Footprint NYC Report is a unique audit of the city’s robust music scene. Compiled by VibeLab, a consultancy piloted by former Amsterdam night mayor Mirik Milan and Lutz Leichsenring of Berlin’s Club Commission, the report is also a step forward in the march of the “night mayor” concept, which advocates better communication between nighttime businesses, city officials, and the public.
The report’s approach is serious, even wonkish, in presenting an audit of New York’s music venues—a category that includes nightclubs, live music, and music bars—and in assessing the cultural offerings they provide. Among the important points that emerge is the assertion that music venues with more experimental, non-commercial programming play a special role in improving community cohesion and resilience. Additionally, the successes and failures of the music scene are bound up with the overall pattern of demographic and economic changes in the city.
There’s one question at the center of the report’s investigation: If New York acknowledges that variety is an essential element of its music scene, what can be done to foster that? The key recommendation is so fundamental that it’s poignant: The city (and others like it) needs to take music venues seriously.
Measuring the experimental
Because the nightlife sector rarely gets a systematic overview, musicians, music lovers, and promoters are often left without the tools or data at their disposal to open a meaningful dialogue with the city.
“For a community to successfully engage with the government, it needs to have its dimensions and values translated into some language that the government can understand and act upon,” report contributor, lecturer and musician Michael Fichman told CityLab via email. The goal with this survey, he said, is to measure things that are important to the music scene but unlikely to be surveyed by the government or economists.
Crucially, the report doesn’t only measure venue size and location; it also develops metrics that help to assess the cultural and community value of each site. It does this by creating an “experimental output” metric that appraises the extent to which a venue provides non-mainstream alternatives to commercial offerings, and thus to what extent it broadens the city’s cultural possibilities.
As the maps below show, that metric changes the geographic layout of New York’s music scene. Unsurprisingly, Manhattan is king when it comes to the sheer number of venues. The sections south of Central Park retain the most intense concentration of music venues, far outpacing even the stereotypically artist-filled areas of northwest Brooklyn.
But when you look at where the experimental venues are, the map shifts markedly. The highest-scoring venues for experimentation tend to be around the Brooklyn/Queens border, mostly somewhat inland. Focus in more closely and the city’s most musically experimental venues cluster in Ridgewood, Queens, closely followed by neighboring Bushwick South.
These areas will no doubt be familiar to New York watchers: They’re on the frontline of Brooklyn’s and Queens’s ongoing gentrification. Indeed, across the city, the report finds that New York’s most experimental venues tend to be in areas similar to these: neighborhoods with good transit connections and large populations of minorities and young people.
Typically, these areas experience higher-than-average rent increases, and it’s interesting to reflect on the relation between rent increases and experimental music venues. There could be an argument, for example, that such venues are motors of gentrification rather than its victims, springing up in areas where rents are already rising and acting as magnets for developers and the affluent.
This is where the report’s focus on experimental content can shed some extra light. It shows that Williamsburg actually retains more music venues than the still cheaper, somewhat less gentrified areas to its west. The area’s collective experimental score is nonetheless perceptibly lower than Bushwick/Ridgewood. This suggests—but does not confirm—that while higher local costs may not necessarily expel music venues, they have a role in promoting a less diverse music ecosystem.
And when less commercial venues are forced to close, a focal point for part of the local community is lost, as is a place where some social divides are bridged. When these venues are cultural beacons for minority communities, which themselves face the threat of displacement, the potential damage to community cohesion and neighborhood identity is even greater.
Searching for solutions
So what can be done to make it more feasible for these kinds of venues to exist? Part of it, as mentioned before, is an attitude shift that sees venues as potential community anchors and incubators for creative industries.
Beyond that, the report advocates a broader understanding of the conditions that help a music scene thrive—what it calls “city center flexibility.” Inner districts do not thrive culturally or socially if they are treated as monolithic, mono-zoned spaces whose uses have long crystallized. Cities can make their public spaces more vibrant by investigating cultural uses for public spaces, especially if this enables establishments like music venues to engage with a wider public beyond just their physical location.
There are other ideas, too, like giving developers incentives to provide cultural spaces within their developments, or offer rent control for certain spaces that are identified as valuable. Red tape can stand in the way as well. Take, for example, New York’s policies around live music. Venues with a capacity of under 200 can normally get permission to operate in commercial or manufacturing areas, although they need a Place of Assembly Permit for any capacity over 75. If they charge cover and post a line-up, however, they immediately fall within a more heavily restricted set of venues, even if they abide by every other regulation. That means that city policy actually works against the creation of live music, without necessarily having set out with that intention.
In practice, the authorities sometimes turn a blind eye if this kind of venue keeps its nose clean. Too frequently, however, such venues are targeted by authorities and slapped with a series of minor violations until forced to close.
An appetite for change
Even where suggested solutions make sense, they’re not necessarily politically feasible—but New York does seem to have some momentum for change. The city already established its own partly independent Office for Nightlife, a local implementation of the Night Mayor/Club Commission that’s sprouted up in some European cities. City Councillor Rafael Espinal, who proposed the commission, is also proposing some further measures, such as a rule that places the responsibility for soundproofing on developers. If approved, that could help prevent a notorious kind of stand-off in which new residents move in near an existing venue, then campaign to close it because it’s loud.
Nightlife and music-friendly policies are nonetheless likely to be greeted with some suspicion, and understandably so. If residents have their sleep disturbed by thoughtlessly located, poorly run venues, they’re not likely to see the social cohesion happening there. It’s worth stating that night mayors and offices for nightlife advocate specifically for the avoidance—not the tolerance—of such unhappy neighborhood relationships.
Indeed, perhaps the best argument for a change of attitude lies in the condition of New York itself. As high real estate costs leave parts of Manhattan as glossy wastelands without stores, street life, or even permanent residents, New Yorkers see the costs of failing to protect space for bottom-up affordable cultural spaces, homes, and businesses in the city core. Something needs to be done to protect and nurture the city’s vitality, to prevent it from becoming a mere dormitory for the better off. That something could—indeed should—involve a more positive attitude to nightlife.