Repeal the Cabaret Law - Letter to NYC City Council Member Espinal

April 18, 2017

Honorable Rafael L. Espinal Jr.
New York City Council Member
250 Broadway Suite 1880
New York, NY 10007

Dear Council Member Espinal Jr. :

The New York City Artist Coalition would like to thank you for working on the repeal of the Cabaret Law, a de facto New York City ban on social dancing. We advocate for the safety and preservation of informal community-driven spaces of cultural production that are critical to our city’s artistic vitality and life-saving for the people they serve and support. Many such spaces are victims of arbitrary enforcement of the Cabaret Law. The criminalization, shutdown, and loss of these spaces pushes our community further ‘underground’ and into more unsafe environments. Repealing the Cabaret Law will increase safety and transparency for all.

Created in 1926 with racist and discriminatory intent, the Cabaret Law has been systematically used as a conservative strategy to decimate cultural life. During the 1920s and 1930s it targeted African American jazz establishments and was used to halt interracial dancing. In the 1990s, it was redeployed by Mayor Giuliani against New York City’s thriving nightlife culture and to target gay and lesbian bars. For almost a century this law has been used to intimidate marginalized groups and stamp out locations where culture thrives. We believe strongly that there is no place for such a law in a contemporary civil society.

Currently it is nearly impossible to receive a Cabaret License due to a combination of constraints and onerous zoning requirements. In fact, in many NYC Council districts, there are no legal locations for dancing. Among the thousands of places where New Yorkers dance, only 88 have such a license. The Cabaret Law is so unreasonable that it is only honored when it is breached. Some fear that repealing this law will increase noise and unsafe nightlife environments. However current building, fire and noise codes, as well as other requirements such as certificates of occupancy, public assembly permits and SLA licensing ensure the safety of all and protect the public from disturbance. The NYC Artist Coalition has mapped out the data available on the scarcity of Cabaret Licenses and the zoning requirements that make it illegal to dance in most neighborhoods.

Beyond denying to all New Yorkers a fundamental right of cultural expression, this law also directly affects the livelihood of many: DJs, music and dance performers, sound and light engineers, waiters, cleaning and security personnel as well as the collectives behind cultural spaces and the owners of commercial nightlife establishments. Every time a venue is shuttered because of the Cabaret Law, all these New Yorkers lose their jobs.

We were delighted to have you with us at our town hall meeting on March 30th and to hear that you share our dismay with the persisting existence of the Cabaret Law and the ways it is often used to target and discriminate against the most vulnerable New Yorkers. We look forward to our meeting with you and your staff to discuss next steps and a roadmap for a long overdue repeal of this abysmal law.

Thank you in advance,

NYC Artist Coalition


Active Cabaret Licenses

in New York City Council Districts

Source: NYC DCA Business License Appilcations

Zoned for Cabaret Licenses

in New York City Council Districts

Sources: Zoning Resolution 32-21, Cabaret License Checklist, and NYC GIS Zoning Features

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We are an emerging coalition of artists, creative organizations, community leaders, activists, policy makers, and specialists providing mutual support and advocating for informal and affordable community spaces in NYC. Join us in protecting spaces where all can be who they are.

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