Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
As U.S. cities hire nightlife officials, we talked to people on the job about what they really do—and why you shouldn’t call them “night mayors” at all.
In his first week on the job, Shawn Townsend wants to be clear about his title.
“I am not the night mayor,” he says. “I am the director of the Office of Nightlife and Culture.”
And yes, it’s an important distinction: Positions like Townsend’s are colloquially referred to as “night mayor” or even “night czar,” but there’s good reason to avoid making it sound too mysterious or powerful.
“I don’t have any regulatory authority. I don’t have any enforcement authority. I’m leaving that to the regulatory agencies,” he says. “I’m looking to serve as a bridge builder, a liaison between nightlife businesses and these government agencies that currently exist.”
Townsend started his job Monday, after Washington, D.C., created the office earlier this year. He was selected, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said in a statement, for his experience in local government, including with the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, plus some past experience as a bar manager in Charleston, South Carolina.
Jobs like his are gaining popularity in American cities: New York City created its own office of nightlife last year, and Pittsburgh, Orlando, and others have their own versions as well. The job postings tend to garner a mix of skepticism and enthusiasm about what it means for a city to take a more active interest in its nightlife industry. What, exactly, does it take to make the position more than just hype?
For one thing, enthusiasm isn’t enough. In D.C. alone, the nightlife scene generates $3.8 billion in revenue, so there is a lot at stake. Townsend already has a list of issues to tackle, right after he hires his team. He says he wants to carry out the mayor’s vision of making the city’s nightlife “socially inclusive and culturally diverse.” He also wants to address noise concerns and streamline the licensing process for businesses and pop-up events. Then there’s D.C.’s notorious rat problem, congested corridors, parking challenges… the list goes on.
“What the night mayor does is actually city planning after dark,” says Mirik Milan, Amsterdam’s former night mayor, and the world’s first. (And yes, that actually was his title.) In Milan’s vision, cities would bring the same rigor and seriousness to solving challenges in the nighttime economy as they do during the day.
“When there is a problem at night, the first reaction from cities is always to say, ‘Hey, we have to stop this now,’” Milan says, “instead of bringing all the stakeholders together like how we do during the day and try to solve it.”
Townsend says he expects his biggest challenge will be getting people to see eye-to-eye. That concern was echoed among several current and former nightlife officials that CityLab spoke to for this article—and some say that alone justifies the need for such a position. “You need to speak the same languages [as them] to get something done,” Milan says. “A person who can only speak the nightlife language will have a difficult time getting their voice heard in city hall.”
That means striking a balance between the community and the regulatory world—and that can be tricky. Some cities, in trying to find someone who can truly connect with the night crowd, have plucked a representative straight from it. London’s “Night Czar” Amy Lamé was a DJ and co-founder of a performance artists collective. New York City’s Senior Executive Director of the Office of Nightlife Ariel Palitz was a bar owner and community board member.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, chose more of an outsider with related experience: Allison Harnden, who serves as the city’s night economy manager, was the former vice president of the Responsible Hospitality Institute, which advises cities on creating a vibrant nightlife.
And by day in Iowa City, a college town of 76,000 people, Angela Winnike is the chief of retail operations for a local coffee shop. But even before her dayshift ends, she’s fielding calls from business owners asking about liquor licenses, from police representatives, and from students and staff at the University of Iowa. She’s also dialing into phone conferences with other nightlife officials across the U.S.
“I think I’ve always been a pretty good listener, but I’ve learned to be a better one,” says Winnike, who has been Iowa City’s “nighttime mayor” for the past year and a half. As part of the downtown district board, Winnike stresses she has the interests of businesses in mind. But she’s also not afraid to “stand toe-to-toe” with the owners.
What’s clear about the differences between a night mayor and a real mayor is that the former rarely, if ever, wields legislative or regulatory authority. When tension arises, Winnike says her job is to get the two sides to talk to each other. Over the past year, she has organized forums between bar owners and the police to discuss issues like an ordinance banning anyone under 21 from being in bars after 10 p.m. It was a controversial attempt by the city to fight underage binge drinking, but it has also been credited with an uptick in the use of fake I.D.s. Bar owners worry that it’s easier for police to target the dozens of establishments rather than the thousands of potential underage drinkers.
“Really I’m there to be someone who translates how people talk,” Winneke says. “I’m not a decision-maker in the room, but I’m hoping the ones who are [will] understand each other.”
Yet being able to change legislation, or at least lobby for those changes, is what Milan envisions for nightlife officials as more cities adopt the position. Their power is currently limited, says Milan, who now runs VibeLab, an Amsterdam-based company that advises cities on their afterdark economy.
“When people hear ‘night mayor,’ they think this person has the power to change legislation, and when a borough, like in London, decides otherwise, there is the possibility for people to lose trust,” he says, referring to the backlash London’s night czar received in July after a new licensing law imposed curfews on new bars and pubs.
In truth, the issues go beyond just bars and clubs, and nightlife officials’ work will likely involve various social issues, including women’s rights, racial equity, and public transit, to name a few.
“I’m using the term ‘life at night’ a lot more than ‘night life,’” Pittsburgh’s Harnden says. “It’s also about everybody having access to social options in their city on a timeframe that works for you, if you work on a different schedule other than 9-to-5. So how does that change the way we do city government?”
For Milan, nightlife officials can even offer a chance to demonstrate the value of local institutions.“This is the moment where a lot of young people, and also older people, are super engaged with local politics,” he says. “And I think [this position] can be a really strong tool.”