Thinking About Nightlife

Seize the Night

By Gamal Hennessy


When you think of “nightlife” what goes through your mind?

Do you imagine drunken scantily clad women gyrating in a pitch black room to a deafening sound that can scarcely be referred to as music? Do you picture husbands on the prowl at sleazy bars buying drinks for women half their age when their wives think they are working late? Do you assume that nightlife is the domain of thugs, criminals and celebrities who want to be photographed in compromising positions? Is your concept of nightlife synonymous to a modern den of inequity?

Or is your image of nightlife different? Perhaps you see nightlife as fertile soil that has produced some of the most dominant artistic movements in modern history. Maybe you recognize that nightlife is a multi billion dollar industry that provides valuable jobs, tax revenue and support for other local industries in every city it exists. On a deeper level, you might see that the reputation of a city and its ability to attract tourism, new residents and prestige is in many cases tied to the strength and depth of its nightlife. Do you consider nightlife a fundamental component to the identity of a city?

The first view is the more popular one. The second view is not recognized or discussed. This book seeks to change that.

It is true that there have always been elements of the chaotic and immoral in nightlife. There is a side of nightlife that is subversive, banal and even criminal. But those elements do not define the entire environment or everyone in it. The idea that nightlife is completely (negative) is a caricature that threatens a vibrant and creative culture.

I have three goals in writing this book. The first goal is to show the cultural and financial benefits that the nightlife industry brings to the city. The second goal is to spotlight those aspects of nightlife that are seen as negative, strip away the sensationalism and misguided perception and place these (things) in their proper context without trying to minimize them. The third goal is to motivate nightlife natives to actively support and protect the treasure they enjoy. My hope is that after reading Seize the Night, more nightlife natives will be prepared to take action on behalf of our culture.

Before anyone can be ready to defend something, it helps to know exactly what you are defending. What do we mean when we talk about nightlife? Under the broadest definition nightlife could encompass any activity that happens at night, but we will be more specific here. For our purposes, nightlife refers to adult activities outside the home that revolve around social connection. Our primary focus will be on nightclubs, lounges and bars and their numerous variations to the exclusion of other forms of entertainment. While restaurants for example play an important role in the culture and economy of New York, I don’t refer to them as directly in the nightlife sphere because children are present on a regular basis. In addition, internet use and watching TV are not part of nightlife because they are primarily done at home (unless you’re surfing the net at the bar). At the same time, sports or music arenas are not included in this definition of nightlife because the primary goal is not connection with other people there, but access to the live performance. While there is a very thin line between a band performing at the Knitting Factory and the same band performing at Madison Square Garden or watching a game at a sports bar versus watching it at Giant Stadium, for purposes of discussion the distinction between them is specific enough.

Within the broad umbrella of nightlife there are a large number of activities we can consider. Drinking, dancing, dating, smoking, eating, listening to music, performing, socializing, communicating and rebelling are inherent to the culture. Each one has a rich history connected to nightlife and would be poorer without this setting to nurture its development. The first part of this book will describe the historical and cultural contributions nightlife has made as a part of its natural evolution.

The economic and financial impact of the nightlife industry is just as significant as the nightlife culture is to the life of the city. Nightlife produces jobs in the hospitality field and tax revenues for the state. The industry also promotes secondary economic activity because people don’t just magically appear inside a club. Local hotel, restaurant, transportation and retail industries all benefit as people are motivated to spend before and after their nightlife experience. There is also a less direct economic benefit when a city’s reputation for nightlife helps attract tourists and talent to its businesses and nightlife becomes a mental and emotional release for residents. In terms of both hard dollars and secondary influence nightlife is pivotal to the prosperity of its city.

Nightlife naturally attracts a wide range of people and personalities into its world and some of these people are detrimental to the health and reputation of the whole. This book divides the nightlife population into four parts; natives, operators, amateurs and fanatics. While the differences between each one of these types will be discussed specifically in Section 3, it will suffice to say here that natives make exposure to nightlife a normal part of their social life, operators work in some capacity within the nightlife industry, amateurs do not have the experience to avoid the potential negative effects of nightlife, while fanatics know what to avoid and chose not to.

The distinction between different types of nightlife patrons is important when discussing the social problems that nightlife generates. Nightlife as a whole is often targeted as a breeding ground for abuse of all kinds ranging from noise and pollution to alcohol, drug and sexual abuse. This book will attempt to point out that while these detriments do exist in the nightlife space, they are activities that come from by and large from one specific subset. We will go on to argue that the actions of that subset should not discount or nullify the cultural or economic impact of the industry or nor should they overshadow the activities of the rest of the culture on a nightly basis.

The actions of fanatics and the popular perception of nightlife make it an easy target for those who are looking for a villain to bolster their agenda. Local government goes after nightlife to appear tough on crime. Community boards seek to suppress nightlife in an unrealistic attempt to alter the city to fit their image of it. Real estate developers push for rezoning and increased land charges that push nightlife spaces out of business. And all these attacks are supported by the unspoken proposition that nightlife deserves to be attacked and suppressed because the business of pleasure is inherently evil.

The reason I felt that this book needed to be written is because if nightlife is going to be the sacrificial lamb of local politics and diluted to the point of banality then we need to know what the cost of that sacrifice will be to all of us, whether we patronize clubs or not. If we understand that nightlife is a hub for art and culture we might be more enthusiastic to protect it. If we know that our financial future can benefit from nightlife we might be less willing to passively watch it decline. If we know that the positive effects far outweigh the negative ones we might be more rational in our approach to it. And perhaps most importantly, once we know that we have something valuable we might take more time to enjoy it.

Have fun.
Gamal Hennessy
November 2008