The Story Behind New York City's Cabaret Law

Photo of Julia Goicochea
20 August 2017

Home to artists, writers, dancers, and more, New York City has always been a haven for creatives. One antiquated law, however, is threatening to change that. From its problematic past to the surrounding present-day protests, here’s everything you need to know about New York City’s Cabaret Law.

It was nearly a century ago that the Roaring Twenties descended upon New York City, bringing with them more evolved social attitudes and an invigorated nightlife scene. With the jazz genre growing in popularity, lines drawn by the segregated nation’s government began to blur; more and more, audiences of all ethnicities were embracing the African-American population, a group credited with introducing and nurturing jazz music in America. As Harlem nightclubs and the musicians within attracted increasingly mixed-race audiences, prejudiced New York City officials conceived of a way to intervene.

Jazz musician Louis Armstrong l | © WikiCommons

Simply put, the Cabaret Law deems dancing by ‘more than three persons’ in any publicly-accessible space illegal without a cabaret license. Passed in 1926, the statute was a transparent, and unfortunately, largely successful attempt to close down black jazz clubs. Discriminatory lawmakers owed their success in part to the circumstances surround cabaret licenses themselves: in order to obtain the license, establishments must devote an inordinate amount of money to enhancements, such as security guards. Like Prohibition and segregation laws, the Cabaret Law is outdated by modern standards, yet for some reason, it is still on the books today in New York City.

Dance club l | © Pixabay

Fortunately, the law may be on its way out. Today, more than 22,000 bars and restaurants in the city are in violation of the Cabaret Law, yet it’s reported that citations are predominately issued to ethnic establishments, such as Latino and black clubs. It’s this continued injustice that has attracted the attention of present-day New Yorkers, including local council member Rafael Espinal. This year, Espinal proposed a bill to finally repeal the law, which he classifies as being ‘archaic, racist, [and] homophobic’. Given the law’s history as a weapon wielded against businesses in the 1920s and again in the 1990s, Espinal’s claim is not without justification.

Dancing l | © Pexels

In fact, the New York City council member isn’t the only local who’s speaking out against the Cabaret Law. Groups including the Dance Liberation Network and NYC Artist Coalition have worked to have the law repealed. These groups, and others like them, assert that a biased statute like the Cabaret Law has no place in modern-day New York, and that local businesses deserve to conduct themselves without fear of arbitrary and unjust enforcements. Since its institution over 90 years ago, we are the closest we’ve ever been to abolishing the Cabaret Law, and that is something worth dancing about.

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