2003-06-27 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular by Stuart W. Mirsky

The Rockaway Irregular by Stuart W. Mirsky

Is there a pattern forming in city governance lately? First we had a draconian smoking ban in public establishments and then enforcement of old out-of-date laws concerning how much (and what kind of) information commercial establishments could display on their street awnings. Following hard on those two heels, we’ve learned that the city has decided to impose and enforce curfews on our beaches! This last seems to be still under discussion. Local politicians like Councilman Addabbo have taken the issue under advisement . . . so we may yet see some change to the policy. But now comes a piece in Wednesday’s New York Sun by Manhattan-based writer Julia Vitullo-Martin concerning the city’s increased enforcement of old strictures on dancing in restaurants! Is there no end to it all?

It seems, as Ms. Vitullo-Martin tells us, that the City’s Department of Consumer Affairs is enforcing vintage 1926 cabaret laws that may have been passed to "regulate" Harlem jazz! Citing information provided by NYU professor Paul Chevigny, author of Gigs: Jazz and the Cabaret Laws in New York City, she notes that "some local legislators viewed ‘social mixing’ as a growing problem as jazz moved south through the city." The resultant laws, she goes on, "restrained jazz by requiring that any restaurant with live music hold a hard-to-get cabaret license." Although a New York State Supreme Court decision ultimately struck down some of the more onerous provisions of this law involving use of live musicians in 1986, it left in place the regulation on dancing which restricts a restaurant’s ability to offer this as part of its regular fare if the restaurant is not zoned correctly!

According to Vitullo-Martin, this restriction was largely unenforced in the Dinkins years, but Rudy Giuliani revived enforcement to go after "huge, noisy, drug-infested nightclubs." Although Giuliani’s administration is remembered now for its restoration of peace and civic order to New York’s streets, and this enforcement was certainly part of that, the city’s abrupt lurch toward nannyism under Giuliani’s successor, Mayor Bloomberg, which has seen increased emphasis on just these kinds of issues, has to give us pause.

Per Vitullo-Martin, the problem is one of governmental efficiency and business-friendliness. She notes that the restaurant industry is a major economic draw for the city and that dancing is a big piece of that. Under the law, she explains, restaurants must deal with the City Planning Commission on zoning issues, the Department of Buildings re: certificates of occupancy, and Consumer Affairs for appropriate licensing. Given the need to grow the city’s economy, Vitullo-Martin notes that this works against that by creating a "triple barrier to business."

Certainly this is a concern . . . but it’s only the tip of what now looks to be a growing iceberg. Instead of improving things by streamlining government functions and reducing the high costs of bureaucracy, our mayor has moved in what seems to be the opposite direction: going after the very public he was elected to serve by creating or reviving new laws that can be used to squeeze added revenues from "violators". Enforce and collect may have become the order of the day, replacing the call to make the hard choices involved in reinventing government. If you can’t tax ‘em anymore, then, by golly, summons ‘em! Raise fines and issue more tickets for everything. No smoking, no leisurely walks on the beaches or boardwalks after hours and, by golly, no dancing!

What kind of city are we becoming? There is a pattern forming here and it’s a disturbing one, especially with an ostensibly Republican mayor in office who, presumably, believes in more accountable and businesslike government. Aren’t the Democrats supposed to be the ones who call for higher taxes and more government involvement in our lives? And isn’t it the Republicans who stand for smaller government and less busybody interference? I must have missed something back in ‘01 when I pulled the lever for a Republican mayor. Maybe there ought to be stricter enforcement of the truth in labeling laws!


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