Jitterbug dancers via Wikipedia
In reference to a movement that has been gaining momentum in recent months, Grubstreet reports on a petition to repeal the city’s archaic–and racially motivated in its origins–1926 Cabaret Law that requires an establishment to have a city license if more than three patrons want to move their feet. According to New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, “A Cabaret License is required for any business that sells food and/or beverages to the public and allows patron dancing in a room, place, or space.” The law, which prohibits any and all dancing in a business establishment without a Cabaret License, was originally aimed at jazz clubs born during the Harlem Renaissance.
Billie Holliday; image: Wikimedia Commons
The law wasn’t the only racist regulation of its day; a ban on saxophones and other instruments seen as “black” at unlicensed establishments went into effect, and a New York City Cabaret Card was required for performers–which led to musicians like Chet Baker, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Billie Holiday having their right to perform suspended. But the Cabaret License requirement is the only one left on the books–and enforced, though selectively–today.
A group called the Dance Liberation Network and the NYC Artist Coalition have started a petition to get the New York City Council to repeal the onerous and useless law based on its racist original intention, arguing that the law is out of place in a progressive cultural capital city like New York.
Today only 118 of New York’s 25,000 bars and restaurants hold a Cabaret License. Anyone active on the nightlife scene in the 1990s will remember its most notable recent enforcer, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who was a big fan of the law as part of his favored broken windows theory and used it to fine and/or shutter perceived nuisance bars, underscoring its use to selectively take action against marginalized groups.
Attorney (and proprietor of Williamsburg bar and music venue Muchmore’s) Andrew Muchmore filed a lawsuit in federal court in 2014 that attempted to have the law ruled unconstitutional, stating that it violates freedoms of expression and due process guaranteed by the First and 14th Amendments; the suit is pending with an answer expected sometime next year.
A recent Village Voice article points out that the law’s racist roots can still be seen in how the law is applied today and that obtaining a cabaret license is “nearly impossible by design.” All applicants for a cabaret license must be fingerprinted, provide extensive financial records, meet specific zoning, surveillance, physical security, fire, building, electrical, health and record keeping requirements and pay the fees associated with each compliance.
The petition, titled “Let NYC Dance,” can be found here.
- 1932 map illustrates a vibrant nightlife during the Harlem Renaissance
- This Illustrated 1926 Map of Manhattan Shows the City as It Was, Both Fanciful and Familiar
- Bed-Stuy: From Harlem and Hip-Hop to Hipsters, Hassids and High Rents