A Town Hall on New York’s Nightlife is Quite the Spectacle

By Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio

The Office of Nightlife held its final listening tour at the Town Hall in Midtown on Nov. 28. (The Ink/Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio)

Blue and red strobe lights beamed onto the center stage. Disco music played on the speakers. Hundreds of New Yorkers perked up in the red velvet-lined seats. 

It wasn’t a musical. It wasn’t a Broadway show. It wasn’t a concert.

It was a town hall meeting held at The Town Hall in midtown Manhattan, the theater that has hosted the likes of Billy Joel, Whitney Houston and Louis Armstrong, to name just a few artists who have performed at the famous venue. 

But a different kind of spectacle took place there Wednesday night as the New York City Office of Nightlife held its final “listening tour” of the five boroughs. With about 350 people crowded into the hall, it was the largest  of the five Office of Nightlife town halls, according to Katarina Mayers, press secretary at the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. 

Neighborhood residents, business owners and artists, among others, stood up to talk about issues ranging from noisy bars and rowdy partiers on the streets to protections for those that run the nightlife scene.

“Small venues have been closing for a while, and it’s particularly hard for low-income musicians,” said Chris St. Hilaire, 33, as he dropped a comment card in the box designated for questions and suggestions before the town hall began. “I want to suggest a government subsidy program and government protections for these artists,” he said.

St. Hilaire belongs to a collective that helps independent musicians manage their careers. This was the second Office of Nightlife town hall meeting he attended—he also went to an Oct. 2 meeting at LaGuardia Community College in Queens. 

The Office of Nightlife, established in 2017, currently has four staff members. It is part of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment and is led by executive director Ariel Palitz. In July 2018, the mayor’s office also created a 14-member Nightlife Advisory Board comprised of artists, musicians, health professionals and others to advise the Office of Nightlife and communicate with residents. The listening tour, which started off in Brooklyn in October, was meant to provide a space for New Yorkers to voice different perspectives on improving the nightlife scene and the effects of social late-nights for local residents, said Mayers.

The Town Hall doors opened around 4:45 p.m. Participants stepped onto rolled out red carpets as organizers offered them lemon or apple-cinnamon infused water while they scurried to check in their names on the RSVP lists. Friends greeted each other and chatted at the entrance of the hall, many of them sporting bright green bandanas wrapped around their arms, necks or tied around their heads.

“They’re to show support for our neighborhoods,” said Cor Hazelaar about the bandanas. She is a member of Neighborhoods United, a group that organizes to halt the growing number of bars opening in New York City. “I’m here tonight because our neighborhoods feel like the deck is stacked against us,” said Hazelaar, who lives in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

As the meeting began, several City Council members discussed ways local residents and businesses can work together to increase safety, preserve the cultural aspect of New York’s nightlife and keep bars from encroaching on residents’ personal lives. Representatives from the New York Police Department, the New York State Liquor Authority and other agencies were present to answer questions.

Many participants expressed frustration with a rapidly-growing bar scene they said is taking over living spaces and changing neighborhoods around the city. 

“The over-saturation of these bars is bringing a lot of problems to our community,” Lower East Side resident Deborah Gonzalez told city officials at the meeting. “It’s killing our neighborhoods. There’s a new hotel in front of my apartment—it has seven bars. Seven.”

Gonzalez was met with rowdy applause from the audience. As she walked up the aisle to her seat after speaking, participants offered congratulations and patted her shoulder affectionately as she sat down. 

Other speakers said they were worried about alcohol consumption near their homes. Multiple participants shared stories about men urinating near their doorsteps, college kids throwing up at the entrance of their buildings and loud club music keeping them awake all night. At least half a dozen residents told officials they want liquor licenses to be curbed or revoked from several bars. 

“The use of alcohol is really something you should be examining,” said Pete Davies, who lives in SoHo. “This is coming from someone who lived in a family torn apart by addiction,” he added, his voice rising as he spoke into the microphone and looked directly at the state liquor authority representative. 

“Alcohol is an optional choice,” responded Palitz, head of the Office of Nightlife. “People can choose to opt out of it.” She offered to talk to Davies after the meeting and suggested he also discuss substance abuse counseling options with the representative of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene attending the event. 

Participants bickered, cheered and riled each other up. Palitz asked attendees to settle down multiple times. “This is getting unruly,” she told the audience sternly towards the end of the meeting, which ran past its scheduled 8 p.m. end time. When Palitz announced it would run over to accommodate the 25 people who had yet to speak, the audience let out a communal groan.

The gathering wrapped up at around 9 p.m. “That was really entertaining,” said St. Hilaire, of the musicians’ collective as he left Town Hall. “Out of all the things to choose to be angry about right now, noise complaints and alcohol don’t seem like the most important to me. But, you know, everyone has a voice.”

Though attendees were skeptical, city officials promised residents the possibility of change—both for those who wanted to see nightlife culture scaled back and those who wanted to see it enhanced. No further listening tours are currently scheduled, but organizers encouraged participants to reach out to continue expressing their concerns over the coming months.