Friday, 23 Feb 2024

Six Takeaways From New York’s First Nightlife Czar

When Ariel Palitz tells people she is New York City’s first nightlife mayor, they usually respond, “That’s cool.” And then: “What does that mean?”

Some imagine the role involves barhopping and staying out until dawn. But it is very much a day job, and Ms. Palitz acts as a liaison, a peacekeeper, an educator and more.

The Office of Nightlife was created by Mayor Bill de Blasio to ease the strained relations between bar and club owners and the city. After all, it was illegal to dance in a bar in New York City not that long ago. Ms. Palitz, a former bar owner herself, helped usher in new thinking when she arrived in 2018. Her team created programs and initiatives to support business development and promote safety and harm reduction, and mediated conflicts between businesses and residents.

Ms. Palitz recently announced that she would leave the job, from which she had a unique perch to watch as the city was besieged by the coronavirus pandemic, and as it came chugging back to life.

In a pink velvet booth at a hotel bar seven stories above the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Ms. Palitz, a native New Yorker, recently described what she discovered about the city — and about herself.

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Nightlife is more than just drinking and dancing.

Ms. Palitz, who meditates often and wears a bracelet adorned with the Lion of Judah, has developed a philosophical-verging-on-evangelical ideology regarding nightlife: To her, it fosters creativity, cultivates identity and strengthens social ties.

Yes, New York City nightlife is a $35.1 billion industry that supports 300,000 jobs and creates $700 million a year in local tax revenue. But, she emphasized, it’s not just an economic engine.

“It’s deeper than that,” she said, pointing to the community-building and cultural innovation involved, from jazz clubs to hip-hop dance parties and beyond.

“That’s the beauty of New York — there will always be a place for you, and you can always find your people,” she said. A love of nightlife is not just about going out. “It’s about a love of life,” she said.

Her office created handbooks and checklists to help businesses navigate new rules during the pandemic and advocated for new policies to streamline the process for opening a bar or a nightclub. It started the Narcan Behind Every Bar campaign to promote awareness of the opioid overdose crisis. And she tried to reorient the way the city looks at those who come alive at night.

Previously, she said, “the entire approach was reactive enforcement — restrictive without any gratitude or recognition for what this industry contributes to the economy, the identity and the culture.”

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Not even a deadly virus can stop New Yorkers from partying.

When she was appointed to her position in 2018, Ms. Palitz said that “you can’t crush culture — or subculture — in New York.” She was right: Covid put some carousing on hold, but not all. “One of the biggest challenges we had was to be communicating to all the people who were still socializing underground,” she said last week. “And especially when you’re suffering, people want to be together.”

New York City lost approximately 4 percent of its restaurant and arts and entertainment businesses as a result of the pandemic, and jobs in those industries are still down approximately 6 percent from their prepandemic peak according to figures from the New York State Department of Labor. Some places that were previously open late are now closing earlier.

Ms. Palitz believes recovery is continuing: “I do think that we are still ramping up,” she said. “We are still healing.”

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There’s a worldwide shift toward understanding the importance of nightlife.

The approach to the nightlife industry in New York, as the most populous city in the United States and a magnet for people from all walks of life, inspires curiosity in officials from other cities.

“We were at the Consulate of Denmark two days ago,” Ms. Palitz said. “Next month, I’m going to Sydney. I just got back from London.” She noted that New York’s Office of Nightlife was created as part of a global movement, “and that movement is escalating rapidly.”

Local officials and law enforcement often have an antagonistic relationship with bar and club owners. In New York City, examples include the Cabaret Law, which prohibited dancing in public spaces without a cabaret license; it was enacted in 1926 and resurrected and enforced by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in the 1990s before finally being repealed in 2017.

“I do think we are in a very crucial moment,” Ms. Palitz said, “where this is about a re-education and a reframing and a new approach.” Her technique aims to treat venues and government as partners, “and not adversaries, because that’s the only way we can truly evolve.”

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The future smells like marijuana.

After the opening of the first licensed weed store in Manhattan in December, the cannabis scene in New York City is continuing to shift, change and grow. “Social consumption, social lounges — that’s going to be a new frontier in nightlife,” Ms. Palitz said.

Of course, she said, “these are things that people have been doing for years underground.” But legalization will alter the landscape.

That said, alcohol will remain part of the fabric of nightlife. Ms. Palitz said based on conversations with the State Liquor Authority, that the number of new liquor license applications is up. And, she mused, during the pandemic, would-be bar owners had time to dream: “Well, if I owned a bar, what would I do?”   

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Staten Island deserves more love.

Before she started working for the mayor’s office, Ms. Palitz’s day-to-day life was fairly hyperlocal: She lived right upstairs from the Lower East Side bar she owned. “Weddings and funerals were the only thing that would get me off the block,” she said jokingly.

But in her travels as the nightlife mayor, she made a discovery: “I learned that I love all five boroughs,” she said. And specifically: “I love Staten Island. The views!” she gushed. “They have great pizza. You take a ferry and you go by the Statue of Liberty. What an extraordinary experience — and way to live!”

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She may be leaving the job of nightlife czar behind, but not the nightlife. 

Ms. Palitz, 52, was coy about what’s next. A self-described Jewish-Rasta-Buddhist, whose childhood memories include witnessing her parents throwing big dinner parties before they headed out to Studio 54, Ms. Palitz intends to stick around as a resource and adviser in the industry. But first, after her last day on the job, in April, “you’ll be able to find me in Bali for a few weeks,” she said. Then, job-wise? Nothing is official yet. “The sky’s the limit,” she said.

Still, it’s obvious that she remains part entrepreneur, part bon vivant. Her eyes lit up when she mentioned a club she wishes she could have attended: Paradise Garage, which opened in 1977, less than 10 years after the Stonewall rebellion, and closed in 1987. It operated when there were still sodomy laws being enforced in New York City.

The space was a magnet for L.G.B.T.Q. New Yorkers, who found freedom by losing themselves on the dance floor. “It also showed the determination and tenacity of people to be themselves — and to risk being considered illegal,” Ms. Palitz said. She would have loved to be there, to see “the magic in the room that they must have been creating.”

Because even after a stint in government, the dance floor still beckons. A club with a good sound system and a great D.J.? “That’s my church. That’s my synagogue. That’s my spiritual place,” she said. “That’s my perfect night out.”

“When you become one with everyone in that room, and you’re moving to the same rhythm — it elevates your soul,” she added. “You walk out feeling better than you walked in.” 

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