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.
New York is the first major American city to create an official body to oversee nightlife. Here’s what it can learn from the European cities that have tried it so far.
Nightlife is often a tricky beast for city leaders. Allow it to blossom and it can be an asset that appeals to residents and tourists alike. Let it run wild and it can attract nuisance and crime. Crack down on it and risk cutting off a vital part of the experience that brings many people to live in cities in the first place.
Without special guidance, city administrations almost invariably fail when it comes to managing cities by night. Politicians often aren’t the type to be deeply familiar with nightlife, and their understanding of how it’s organized and who engages in it is necessarily limited. Too often, the default attitude is to treat nightlife solely as a problem.
But in recent years, some European cities have turned this dynamic on its head. From Amsterdam’s “night mayor” to London’s “night czar,” Berlin’s Club Commission, and others, the concept takes many forms, but the underlying idea is the same: give nightlife a clear, respected voice in city hall.
And now this concept is coming to America. On August 24, the New York City Council voted to create the Office of Nightlife, scheduled to start operating this winter. The first major North American city to adopt the idea, the office will tackle issues such as improving conditions for nightlife workers, investigating the effects of zoning laws, managing noise and trash nuisance, and making conditions easier for artists and smaller-scale night businesses.
“NYC’s nightlife culture is an integral part of its identity, yet bureaucratic red tape, rising rents and lack of community planning has made it increasingly difficult for venues that contribute to our iconic nightlife to stay in business,” City Councillor Rafael Espinal, who proposed the office, said in a press release.
These problems will be familiar to city-dwellers across the country, and New York’s attempts to address them will be watched closely by other cities. But questions remain for cities considering the concept. Why should a city take such a concentrated effort to manage nightlife? And what prevents a night mayor (or a nightlife office) from being a mere lobbying operation for local bars and clubs?
To understand how this idea works in practice, CityLab checked in with several of Europe’s current urban nightlife bodies to see what American cities interested in the concept should pay attention to. Here are the key points they came up with.
Learn to Value the Night
The most obvious question is, why have an office to protect nightlife at all? While it’s not always considered reputable, nightlife is a vital element of what makes a big city into a great city. It’s not just about providing people with somewhere to have fun. Nightlife provides spaces for many people—especially minorities—to make connections with support networks of kindred spirits who they wouldn’t necessarily come across in the daytime.
And while, from the outside, it may look like a lot of people getting wasted, nightlife is also a creative space where new directions in music, design, and fashion germinate, ultimately feeding back into and enriching the city’s life and economy as a whole.
Places where nightlife occurs, meanwhile, are as vulnerable to urban pressures as anywhere else. Displacement and gentrification pose threats to its vitality and existence. Indeed, if you find yourself walking past some huge, crass-looking nightclub, it could well be that this mass money-making machine has displaced a smaller, more distinctive establishment that’s gone under due to spiraling rents or distrustful officials.
This is a sphere that’s worthy of protecting and managing. But simply relying on a city department or a business association may not be enough. Indeed, among Europe’s night mayors, maintaining some distance from both of these kind of bodies is a basic cornerstone of the job.
Keep Some Independence
“It's so important that the role should not just be a political tool to raise votes or whatever,” says Amsterdam Night Mayor Mirik Milan. “It should be used to deliver a long-term vision. Nightlife is connected to the whole city.”
That might seem to contradict the use of the term “mayor,” which Amsterdam itself popularized. But most of the European nightlife organizations are in fact independent NGOs or associations rather than official arms of city hall. Amsterdam’s Night Mayor and Berlin’s Club Commission both receive some funding from the state, but are in fact steered by independent boards that are responsive to—but entirely autonomous from—city authorities.
This is important. It helps to further develop civil society by creating an institution guided by a wider spectrum of representative voices, including ones with genuine roots in the city but not automatically dominated by the political machine or the immediate needs of the more influential business groups. Any initiatives proposed by these night mayors have an eye on the long-term and are less likely to be junked the moment the current mayor is voted out of power.
Nightlife offices don’t typically have political power, of course; their role resembling something more like an independent lobbyist. Still with a figure such as Amsterdam’s Night Mayor, the unusually broad coalition of people on which his office’s recommendations rest—people with whom city halls often have little direct contact—means that proposals coming from him typically carry some weight and are respected, if not always observed to the letter.
A lack of real independence, meanwhile, can be a serious drawback. It may well be the case that London’s Night Czar, who is appointed directly by the mayor and has an office in city hall, may have her work hampered by being tied too closely to officialdom. Night Czar Amy Lamé was appointed by Mayor Sadiq Khan last November, and her close ties with Britain’s Labour Party have already made her position more heavily politicized than elsewhere. From the outset, she has been a proxy target for political attacks on Khan himself, and thus her future and those of policy recommendations she makes, might be too closely linked to Khan’s political future to outlive his tenure. It’s still too early to say for sure if this will damage her mission. The London Mayor’s Office has rejected or ignored multiple requests to interview Lamé since she took her post in November.
Will New York avoid this pitfall? As a city hall-appointed official working within the Mayor’s Office of Media Entertainment, the city’s Director of Nightlife position looks like it’ll be closer to London’s Night Czar than the standalone position of Berlin’s Club Commission.
Councillor Espinal’s proposal suggests a useful counterbalance that should increase the office’s autonomy and legitimacy: The Office of Nightlife’s director will also work with a 12-member Nightlife Advisory Board, comprised of zoning experts, artists, community representatives and nightlife workers, among others. While four of these members will be selected by the mayor, the remaining eight will be chosen by New York City Council, in theory preventing the Office of Nightlife from being a mere echo chamber for mayoral diktat.
Look at the Bigger Picture
Nightlife offices can win successes with small issues, like better soundproofing or better communication with neighboring daytime businesses. To really fulfill their potential, though, they have to look at their city as a whole. For Berlin’s Club Commission, London’s Night Czar, and Amsterdam’s Night Mayor, this means devising strategies that could help prevent (or at least lessen) the damaging effects of gentrification on the availability and diversity of nightlife.
This is a key issue for all nightlife offices. When rents rise, many night businesses are forced to close. This makes cities duller, more monotonous places, reducing the number of people on the streets at night and thus simultaneously reducing the perception that these streets are safe, well-frequented places. A nightlife office’s work thus needs to go deeper than getting clubs to line their DJ booths with noise-dampening egg boxes. It has to look at creating a climate in which the social role of night business is valued and protected.
London already has some legal tools in place that can work to this effect. In one key, unresolved case, the city rejected plans to redevelop the site of a queer venue in East London, saying the new project needed to continue offering meaningful facilities to LGBT communities. The applicable laws predate the arrival of the night czar, but demonstrate the city’s desire to protect nightlife spaces that serve a demonstrable, hard-to-replace role in the community.
In Berlin, meanwhile, the Club Commission’s insistence on seeing the city’s music scene as more than just a narrowly defined collection of venues has helped officialdom to see the variety and complexity of the scene on which much of Berlin’s tourist revenue rests.
“We always had an eye for underdogs—such as Berlin’s free open-air scene, which doesn't make any money and just wants to build a reputation or use public space for their art,” says Club Commission spokesman Lutz Leichsenring. “We also lobby for them, an approach which could potentially make our other members actually lose money.”
Even in terms of naked self-interest, this is a good idea. Berlin’s attractiveness as a place to live and visit rests partly on its reputation as a place with a nightlife and music scene that values quality over money-making. Allowing this scene to thrive is in everyone’s interest, and making sure that fringes of the scene put on their events as responsibly as possible improves the working atmosphere for everyone. The openness of this attitude has helped ensure that, despite gentrification, none of the media-identified “New Berlins” have taken over from the actual Berlin just yet.
Put your money where your mouth is
“Cities have to be careful that they don't just use the night mayor concept as a flag to wave saying ‘look at how vibrant and open we are!’” says Mirik Milan. Indeed, Amsterdam’s success with the concept is, in part, because it takes it seriously. Its scheme to introduce night-time “square hosts”—people who offer advice and help diffuse potential antisocial behavior—in the city’s busiest bar strip at Rembrandtplein cost €400,000 to fund, contributed partly by bar owners and partly by the city. Many cities would be happy with the idea of creating a post for a nightlife champion, but would balk at this level of commitment.
Still, Lutz Leichsenring notes that winning public money isn’t always an unequivocal victory, because it comes with strings attached.
“It's not always so easy to use government money to do good stuff,” he says. “We had, for example, to do an event app with state money because a Berlin senator wanted us to—even though there are 20 companies already doing something similar on the market... our members see us gaining income from the city without always realizing that the projects we are allowed to spend it on are often quite limited. This year we are trying to do far more grown-up projects with genuine relevance.”
At least at the outset, New York’s Office for Nightlife won’t have the funds to manage anything especially ambitious: it’s on an annual budget of just $300,000, contributed by the city. Most European night offices, meanwhile, receive money from private sources—Berlin’s Club Commission (which, it should be stressed, has an unpaid volunteer board) gets much of its income from sponsorship of conferences or events it runs. In Amsterdam, businesses around Rembrandtplein were a major contributor to the square host program. If New York doesn’t find a way to augment its funding at some point, however, it’s likely to remain more of a referee than an actual player on the field in finding ways to make the city’s nights run better.
Reflect your own city’s DNA
A cookie-cutter approach for this role is never going to work. Amsterdam’s success has no doubt been fed by the city’s distinct mix of liberalism and pragmatism. In another city, an organization like Berlin’s Club Commission, with only night businesses as members, would be a straightforward trade association. It’s largely thanks to the deep roots of Berlin’s night scene in alternative culture that it has also emerged as a protector for non-commercial nightlife as well, and a defender of cultural values against the push for pure profit.
Even the closeness of London’s night czar to the city’s mayor may be an inevitable product of London’s local character. In a place where local boroughs have more power than city hall, a nightlife reformer without strong political backing might struggle to be heard.
Where could American cities’ DNA differ from all the possible templates available so far? Amsterdam’s Mirik Milan suggests some common threads.
“As I learn more about U.S. cities, I find that having police commissioners on board is especially important,” he says. “An American approach might focus a bit more on legislation, on crime reduction, on creating a trade-off. One the one hand, you could making sure alcohol-related violence goes down, that crimes go down to make things safer for residents. In return, you would require some money from the state to help young creatives to develop their talents.”
In other words, it looks like future breed of America’s nightlife overseers, will have a charge that’s distinctively different from their European predecessors, and that’s as it should be. The nightlife office concept isn’t about creating a one-size-fits-all template to negotiate the urban night. But in creating mediators that sit somewhere between businesses, residents, nightlife users, and politicians, nightlife offices at least open up a fresh new space in which cities can discuss constructively how they want their night-times to run.