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City Reverses Stance on 'Racist' No-Dance Law, Says It Will Support Repeal

By Gwynne Hogan | September 15, 2017 11:57am | Updated on September 18, 2017 8:44am
 The now shuttered Manhattan Inn that closed after seven years in Greenpoint.
The now shuttered Manhattan Inn that closed after seven years in Greenpoint.
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Courtesy David Andrako/The Manhattan Inn

CIVIC CENTER — The mayor has thrown his support behind the repeal of a Prohibition-era law banning dancing in bars.

At a City Council hearing Thursday, representatives for Mayor Bill de Blasio came out in support of a bill that would roll back the Cabaret Law, which some have called racist because it was crafted to clamp down on Harlem jazz clubs 91 years ago. The new stance is counter to the city law department's defense of the law.

“We want to help the industry flourish while also ensuring that [establishments] are safe and secure,” Lindsay Greene, a senior policy adviser for Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, said at the hearing. “The administration strongly supports repealing the current Cabaret Law."

The city rarely enforces the law and the State Liquor Authority has only cited 36 bars from the beginning of 2016 to April 2017, according to its records. Some of those cases were dismissed.

These are the businesses that paid fines to the state for allowing dancing without a cabaret license from January 2016 to April 2017.

Just three months ago at an earlier public hearing about nightlife concerns, the same mayoral emissary had doubled down in defense of the Cabaret Law, so the about-face Thursday afternoon shocked Brooklyn City Councilman Rafael Espinal, the lead legislative drum-beater for the law's repeal.

"While I was a aware the administration was open to exploring the repeal, we didn't expect the administration to clearly state that they are supportive," Espinal said, who dismissed the city officials after only about 10 minutes of questioning.

He called the flip-flop, "very encouraging and a victory for the cause."

The bill introduced to the City Council by Espinal in June would repeal most aspects of the Cabaret Law except for some provisions about mandatory security cameras and certified security guards for venues with an occupancy of more than 150 people, though that is number is still subject to change, Espinal said.

Greene said that the city wanted to make sure that those, "necessary public safety measures are retained in a manner that is enforceable," referring to cameras and security guards. She recommended that those parts of the law be added to the public safety code and thus enforceable by police.

Here are the businesses cited for dancing without a permit in violations that were eventually dismissed:

A coalition of bar and venue owners, patrons and DJs who've been organizing against the Cabaret Law since the spring argue the process to getting a Cabaret License is costly and out of reach for many small business owners, needlessly complex and impossible to obtain because of zoning.

The combined barriers to getting a Cabaret License are evident in the mere numbers. As of early September, just 104 establishments had active cabaret licenses and another 20 with pending applications.

While the city doesn't actively enforce the Cabaret Law by fining establishments without the permit, according to the City's Department of Consumer Affairs which issues them, the State Liquor Authority, which enforces local laws, does.