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How night mayors are proving the economic and cultural value of robust nightlife

While nightlife often gets stigmatized and undervalued, progressive club coalitions and night mayors are making an economic and cultural argument for a vital after-hours economy

For all the value city dwellers place on great nightlife, it often feels like the venues, artists, and creatives behind this vital part of urban life are often misunderstood at best, and criticized at worst, by city governments. Recent evidence in cities across the country and the globe suggests as much.

In London, the iconic nightclub Fabric, arguably one of the most famous in the world, is facing a licensing hearing after a pair of drug-related deaths killed two patrons earlier this summer; an outpouring of support, including from newly elected Mayor Sadiq Khan, still hasn’t saved the venue. In Chicago, county officials are levying a retroactive amusement tax on smaller clubs that play dance music and hip-hop, among other genres, arguing that these types of music aren’t "art"; the ruling means these small businesses lose a vital tax exemption and could be driven out of business. And, in gentrified corners of many cities, such as Williamsburg in Brooklyn, music venues are battling rising rents and slimmer profit margins.

Nightlife can have its share of issues. But according to Lutz Leichsenring, a former promoter and now spokesman for Berlin’s Clubcommission, an industry group that lobbies for pro-nightlife legislation and serves as a voice for the community, much of it is based on poor communication and misunderstanding. Proactive engagement between the club and music community and city government can dispel stereotypes, and help others see the true value of these institutions, cultural touchstones that fuel the creative economy.

"It’s not just drug-taking young kids making a lot of noise and litter," says Leichsenring. "Nightlife influences the character and culture of a city. We started the Clubcommission 15 years ago, when some people thought nightlife was just about entertainment and strip clubs. Now, it’s one of the three main things that draws people to Berlin, both tourists and the creative class."

Leichsenring is the public face of Berlin’s Clubcommission, a group of 170 promoters and venues that banded together 15 years ago. In the face of a series of police raids of clubs in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, the nightlife industry decided they needed a change and a voice. When representatives approached city politicians, who, like their colleagues around the world, weren’t as familiar with their own city’s club scene,they were told the city didn’t want to talk to individuals, but the organizations that represent them. The group came together shortly thereafter in 2001, and has help foster and support Berlin’s internationally recognized club scene, and make its impact more visible to politicians and city leaders.

Lutz Leichsenring of Berlin's Clubcommission

The Berlin lobbying group is one of the most visible and well-organized of a web of new advocates, including night mayors, lobbying groups, and scholars, making similar arguments about the value of the after-hours economy. Night mayors now exist in cities such as Paris and Cali, Colombia, and London put out an open call for a night czar. Perhaps the most well-known of this new breed of city official, Amsterdam’s Night Mayor (or Nachtburgemeester) Mirik Milan, organized a Night Mayor summit this past April that brought together 20 leaders from around the world.

While every city is different, Milan says that they’re all dealing with similar issues, including licensing, security, and gentrification, and can provide similar benefits to their cities.

"Nightlife adds value and human capital," says Milan. "There’s a lot of talent development here; think about the club scene in New York in the ‘80s, and all the filmmakers, photographers, and fashion designers who came out of these venues. It’s my story as well; I was a club promoter, became an organizer, than started organizing fashion shows. That’s what nightlife brings, it’s adds value."

To make that pitch work at a municipal level, however, takes understanding, outreach, and partnership. According to Leichsenring, the Berlin group focuses on access, awareness, and education, offering a credible, independent voice and working with city officials, such as Katja Lucker, president of the city’s Music Board. Attacking drug abuse by raiding clubs isn’t effective, he says, since drug use is likely to merely move elsewhere; instead, the Clubcommission has worked with bouncers, bartenders, managers, and other club and bar employees on medical training. If you want to change, he says, you need to educate. Amsterdam’s club scene, often stereotyped as a "hedonistic Valhalla," jokes Milan, has also worked on public health and harm reduction.

Milan agrees that a "bridge of trust" between the music scene and city mayor, which he’s built since being appointed to his role in 2014, are key to get government to see the value of a healthy, thriving nightlife scene. The Dutch dance scene employs roughly 13,000 full- and part-time workers and brings in $674 million annually.

"Nightlife has always been seen as something bad, and I think we really changed that around," he says. "Investing in the community, and in these subcultures, is now popular and important. People in nightlife are the type of proactive, open-minded people municipalities want."

The lobbying has worked for nightlife in Berlin because the group not only represented a diverse array of stakeholders, but has constant dialogue with the city. Leichsenring doesn’t want to be a firefighter and react to problems; he wants to work on them before they come up, discussing licensing issues, and even meeting with developers to explain the value of building around existing clubs to preserve neighborhood character.

His group has lobbied to create a map of music venues that developers must consult before breaking ground on new projects, to avoid retroactive noise complaints when new residential buildings bump up against established clubs. He’s also helping a cluster of venues near the proposed site of a new highway, or autobahn, relocate before the roadway is finished, in some cases, years before workers begin laying asphalt.

Relocating clubs to maintain their cultural capital is part of Leichsenring’s theory of a creative footprint. Like a carbon footprint for emissions, the creative footprint concept says that if you uproot a club or creative space somewhere, you need to replace it, to invest. Like a Richard Florida for the dance floor, he argues that cities require a certain amount of creative space to thrive. And it’s important not to value clubs strictly on the number of people they employ and tax revenue they bring in. The creative draw of these venues provides a magnet for visitors—Berlin, which records roughly 30 million overnight stays a year, is the third most popular city for tourists in Europe behind London and Paris, in part because of its nightlife—as well as commerce and development.

Leichsenring is quick to define a difference between what he calls discotheque and mainstream clubs—huge venues downtown playing top 40 hits—versus more artist-focused, experimental clubs away from the city center, where Djs, and musicians are playing original music. He believes the later truly provide the value to the city, giving Berlin the creative, DIY, freedom-oriented culture that not only makes it attractive to young adults and tourists, but the kinds of startups and creative enterprises that city officials around the globe are striving to attract.

"We’re a good partners in bringing together creatives and real estate developers," he says. "We say that creatives can help increase the value of your property if you give them discounted rent. If you want something unique, special, and experimental, you need to subsidize. You can’t buy creativity; you need to provide the space for it. Cities struggle with encouraging creativity, but this is the investment that you have to make."

Going forward, Milan believes improved community outreach and interaction goes both ways, and club communities that work with politicians and neighborhoods in good faith can reap the benefits. He's worked to promote 24-hour venues across the city and suburbs, and his group piloted a program in a busy nightlife area that let residents lodge noise complaints with an app. Those bothered by loud noises after hours could simply lodge a complaint and dispatch a security guard with the push of a button, instead of having to dial up the cops and involve the police.

"We’ve realized some key takeaways since we started, and the most important is serving people with facts, instead of emotions," he says. "The drug debate, the stereotypes of nightlife, they’re surrounded by emotion. We need to focus on showing how creative nightlife is vitally important to a creative city."