New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaking on the cabaret law flanked by police officials.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaking on the cabaret law flanked by police officials.

Did you know you can dance in New York City?

While that may seem like an obvious statement, for 91 years, that was not necessarily true throughout the city. The city, up until Tuesday, still carried a Prohibition era law on its books that forbade dancing in bars and venues that did not have a special “cabaret license.” The law originally was designed to explicitly target speakeasies and it is believed to have been implicitly designed to target Harlem jazz clubs. Currently 97 licenses are in circulation. There are about 25,000 establishments in the city affected by the law.

The so-called “Cabaret Law” was not an archaic law that just happened to be on the books. While selective, the law was still actively enforced right up until the present day. In the 1990s, under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the city used the law to shut down numerous clubs as part of the citywide effort to be “tough on crime” and “improve the quality of life.”

Even under Mayors Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio, the law had been used to selectively target clubs in generally arbitrary way. This continued enforcement has cast a pall over club owners, placing them in constant fear of being fined or shut down by police. In a still ongoing lawsuit, Andrew Muchmore of Muchmore’s in Brooklyn is challenging a fine he received under the law in 2013, in which a police officer investigating a noise complaint used the cabaret law instead to issue a fine for “swaying” to the music when the noise complaint was allegedly found to lack merit.

Repeal bill sponsor Councilman Rafael Espinal.
Repeal bill sponsor Councilman Rafael Espinal.

The bill to repeal the cabaret law was introduced by Rafael Espinal, a council member from Brooklyn whose district includes Bushwick which is a currently a popular neighborhood to open new clubs. The bill that was voted on by the City Council on Tuesday will likely be signed by Mayor de Blasio, whose office indicated support for repeal a couple months ago after spending most of his term up until that point dodging the question.

With the end of the cabaret law, New York can file that dark part of their history into “absurd trivia” and dance the night away.


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