In March 2018, Ariel Palitz was named the city’s ambassador to nightlife, aka the first nightlife mayor—a key liaison between the city and the clubs. With Gotham’s club landscape long in crisis due to economics, zoning, and challenges created by the Internet and hookup apps (who needs to go out to a club and stay until closing to find someone to sleep with when you can just swipe right?), her appointment was a refreshing lifeline to a vital part of the city’s culture. A native New Yorker, Palitz worked at NYC clubs like Mars, the Tunnel, and S.O.B.’s; she owned Sutra Lounge in the East Village for 10 years; and she was also on a community board, so she certainly has the background for the job. (“And I live above a loud bar,” she says, laughing.)
This May, I helped organize a panel (which I moderated) produced by Palitz’s office about the state of queer nightlife and how it can be improved. I contacted her again to catch up with how she and the nightlife are doing.
Michael Musto: Your appointment seemed to prove that Mayor Bill de Blasio cares about nightlife.
Ariel Palitz: I don’t think there’s any doubt. For years, there was some feeling that “New York is dead” or “There’s no respect for the industry; it’s been criminalized.” I think the creation of the Office of Nightlife has been a sign to the industry and the cultural community that this is an asset of our city’s identity that has a newfound respect and appreciation.
When we first came to office, we released an economic impact study, to emphasize and quantify how important nightlife is to our economy. There is $39 billion in revenue, also 300,000 jobs, and $700 million in tax revenue. As we see maybe a retail crisis, not just in the city, but globally, nightlife and hospitality is a rescuing industry for many cities. The city recognizes what we have lost with a strictly enforcement approach. The office is here for reinforcement. I am extremely optimistic and energized, and I feel very good.
Musto: Alas, the Manhattan dance club scene seems like a sliver of what it was. Is the golden age over and never coming back, or has it all just moved its borders to Brooklyn?
Palitz: I think it’s changing, not dying. It’s a human need and right to socialize and dance and meet a stranger. The way nightlife evolves is very organic and can’t be predicted—though technology and the economy will always have an influence on that—but that need to be together is primordial, and I think it will always be there and people will always find a way.
I think [the dance club scene] is changing, not dying. It’s a human need and right to socialize and dance and meet a stranger.
Musto: When you meet with club owners, what are their biggest concerns?
Palitz: We’re not a responding agency in the traditional sense, like 911 or 311. We’re in the position to identify what are these recurring issues and how to solve them. Trying to coordinate and streamline city services so they’re not redundant. Also, quality-of-life issues for residences, as well as for venues. Developing what we think is a void in the complaint system, which is communication and mediation. And dealing with LGBTQ+ rights or proportionate enforcement with regards to racial issues.
Musto: So you feel cops come down too hard on clubs with people of color?
Palitz: It’s not what we feel. It’s that we hear complaints that venues believe they’re targeted for whatever reason—that they’re LGBTQ+ or black-owned or their crowds are black and brown or a woman-owned business. A white establishment might face the perception that they have a lot of money and they’re being used as a piggy bank. Sometimes complaints can be motivated by bias themselves.
I want to make sure not just LGBTQ+ and black and brown, but all oppressed and marginalized communities do not stand alone. This office is about fairness and justice for everyone.
Musto: How do you do that?
Palitz: Part of what we’re doing is to redefine what nightlife means or how it’s perceived by people. Most people tell me, “Oh, nightlife mayor. That means you go out every night.” It’s funny and sometimes true. I always say, “Not more than usual.” I try to make people understand how integral our nightlife is, how it creates safe spaces for our community and diversity. People in DIY underground spaces cultivating culture—these are important places that need to be protected and supported in a new way.
Also, we’re working at harm reduction—a more realistic approach to drug use—and being able to work with other agencies like the Department of Health. We want to be able to communicate that nightlife spaces are an opportunity to look out for ourselves, our friends, and even strangers.
Musto: A more realistic approach to drugs?
Palitz: In the past, there’s been a very criminalized approach to those who use drugs in venues. Of course, it is illegal. This is not in place of enforcement when maybe there’s an issue for dealing. But the Department of Health is saying, “We understand there is social drug use, and although it is illegal, we’re here to give an awareness campaign to let you know, in order to save lives, that cocaine is being cut with fentanyl, which is an opiate.”
The Department of Health has a standing prescription at pharmacies where people can get Narcan, an inhalator, so if a person is overdosing, someone who has actual training knows how to identify that and administer the Narcan. Last month, the DOH expanded its overdose prevention campaign to North Brooklyn. People do cocaine everywhere; they even do it at work. People say bartenders very often are your first therapist and sometimes your last. We want to educate them to identify when people are in need and be able to direct them to resources.
People say bartenders very often are your first therapist and sometimes your last. We want to educate them to identify when people are in need and be able to direct them to resources.
Musto: You certainly received valuable interactive experience as the owner of Sutra Lounge. But didn’t you get a lot of noise complaints?
Palitz: Yes, that’s what activated and politicized me. My bar was subjected to the most 311 calls—not because we were the loudest, but because we had a chronic caller. I became really activated to help identify what determines a good and bad operator, and how certain systems designed to help people can be weaponized to hurt them. As a native New Yorker, an operator, a community board member, and someone who’s gone out all my life, [I want to] identify and crystallize the issues and to find solutions. We’ve all been to meetings and know what the issues are. We’re out of the discovery phase. We’re all in what I call the #NowWhat phase. Now let’s find the solutions; let’s utilize communication, mediation, and a MASH approach—Multi Agency Support for Hospitality. If a venue has an issue, we can call the Department of Buildings or the Department of Transportation and go in there and try, through supportive measures, to support them to compliance.
Naysayers say, “You’re just here to help the nightlife community. What about residents?” I try to emphasize that if we’re helping venues to be supported and better operated, they will be better neighbors, and this will mitigate the quality-of-life issues. Coexisting is key to ensure that nightlife culture and identity thrive in New York.