Another Architecture

by Mitch McEwen

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    Interracial Dancing and Use-Based Zoning

    Mitch McEwen
    Oct 29, '19 8:20 PM EST

    Note: This is an excerpt from a 2015 article that I am updating to reflect that the cabaret law was finally over-turned in New York City in November 2017.  I am posting it after presenting an 8 minute talk related to this subject for the Urban Design Forum. 

    In the summer of 2001 I visited New York City from San Francisco and dropped in on an East Village lesbian night at Starlight. It was probably Sunday. I know it was the spring or summer of 2001 because neither
    Bloomberg nor 9/11 had happened yet.

    The place had a lounge in the rear with a DJ and sometimes a flutist, a bar and coat-check in the front. It got crowded. I was dancing near the front bar, close to the coat-check when the coat-check woman looked at me, and said “Please don’t dance.” I said “What?” She pointed to a sign on the wall to her left. It said “No dancing.” I stared at her in disbelief. “How does anyone even define dancing,” I asked? “How does anyone know the difference between me dancing versus walking and gesturing rhythmically?” She said, “It’s not up to us. We’ll get fined. It’s [Mayor Rudy] Giuliani. Please, stop.”

    Up until the repeal in November 2017, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs presented this Cabaret License Description: Any room, place, or space in New York City in which patron dancing is permitted in connection with the restaurant business or a business that sells food and/or beverages to the public requires a Cabaret license. (1) This bizarre practice dates back to a law created in 1926 (2) designed to control jazz cabarets in Harlem. This regulating and criminalization of dancing occurred at a moment of intense cultural transfer between New Orleans and New York (3). Jazz lounges were popular not only for their music, but as racially integrated spaces of socializing.

    The Cabaret law emerged within two years of the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act that instituted landuse-based zoning.(4) Once regulated, dancing while drinking or eating could then be assigned to land use
    zones. Cabaret licenses were limited to Use Group 12 (5), which includes manufacturing zones. This would, later in the 20th century, eventually generate the protocols for urban phenomena such as the Meatpacking District, as only a huge dance floor tended to justify the additional cost of the cabaret license, and these could only locate legally near heavy manufacturing.(6)

    The Cabaret law was challenged in the first few years of the 21st century on 1st amendment grounds of free speech, but the constitutional argument failed. (7) The plaintiff's brief in that 2005 case articulated,

    This action challenges the constitutionality of New York City's cabaret law and provisions of the New York City Zoning Resolution which, taken together, regulate the circumstances under which participatory social dancing may be permitted in eating and drinking establishments, and the location of those establishments throughout New York City. 

    The spatial authority of land-use, in conjunction with the Cabaret Law, rendered non-professional dancing effectively illegal indoors in New York City, save for a few licensed venues. Until the repeal of the Cabaret Law in November 2017, there was no recourse for constitutional protection against the law because, according to the courts, ‘social dancing’ is not speech-- it is leisure. (Pursuit of happiness?....)

    As this illegalization of the dancing body entered the 21st century, the cabaret license in its last decade required digital video surveillance. Significantly, even as Mayor De Blasio over-turned the Cabaret Law in November 2017, the requirements for video cameras and security remain in place (8). The body must be surveilled upon entering the space in which it might legally dance.  The body that consumes food or liquor in the proximity of dancing, the satiated dancing body, the intoxicated dancing body-- also surveilled.  Throughout the 20th century and even into the 21st, zoning became the organizing medium, the spatial legal substrate, through which such criminalization and surveillance of dancing could be coded at the scale of streets and buildings and dispersed through the city.


    1) accessed March 2015

    2) Municipal Assembly of the City of New York, Aldermanic Branch 1926
    Report of the Committee on Local Laws in Favor of Adopting a Local Law to Regulate Dance Halls and Cabarets and Providing for Licensing the Same City of New York, (7) December

    3) The Jazz world of New Orleans spread to New York City and Chicago and other large cities in the 19teens, at the same time that the Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson had reduced the nation’s racial categories to one color line after 1896. The Cabaret law remained on the books through Prohibition and eventually got codified into urban planning around land use.

    4 accessed Mar 2015
    5  ie regional commercial centers and amusements (uses 10-12),  accessed Mar 2015
    6  accessed Mar 2015
    7 http://decisions.courts.state....   accessed Mar 2015 accessed Oct 2019. "Establishments previously required to obtain a cabaret license must continue to abide by these requirements. Establishments must install and maintain security cameras; and if they employ security guards, the law ensures such security guards are licensed pursuant to state law and to maintain a roster of such security guards."


    • correction - that constitutional challenge to the law was 2005, ie first decade of 21st century, not second.

      Oct 30, 19 3:01 pm  · 
      Happy Anarchy

      mitch, because I like you, read this, and ask Archinect to delete when you read it...if I want to search a property who do I call? (with no warrant) you'll figure it out. (I'm posting this because that's how Happy rolls)

      Nov 9, 19 10:57 pm  · 
      Happy Anarchy

      non? ;)

      Dec 12, 19 12:05 am  · 
      Happy Anarchy


      a funny aside, one of my favorite violations on a property was the illegal occupancy in a factory/office building.  they were doing agriculture.

      like this

      of course, the only thing the building official could write them up for after entering the property due to a complaint was - illegal occupancy.

      no farming bruh.

      Nov 9, 19 11:06 pm  · 
      Happy Anarchy

      you have to know where nico lass, they live

      Nov 10, 19 12:13 am  · 

      Q/speculation: Were block parties in part the response to cabaret laws?

      Nov 21, 19 6:30 pm  · 
      ( o Y o )

      the pic of 3 white dudes jumping around does not support the article title

      Nov 22, 19 7:12 pm  · 
      Happy Anarchy


      Nov 23, 19 2:24 am  · 
      Happy Anarchy

      how you know the person wearing pants is white? on the left.

      Nov 24, 19 10:28 am  · 

      yeah, it does.

      Nov 24, 19 6:07 pm  · 
      Happy Anarchy

      see oyo, white people are dancing in the photo, now read the article.

      Nov 25, 19 10:47 pm  · 

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Posts are sporadic. Topics span architecture, urban design, planning, and tangents from these. I sometimes include excerpts of academic articles.

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