Official Wetlands Press
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Monday July 30, 2001
NYC's LEGENDARY WETLANDS PRESERVE ROCK CLUB FORCED TO CLOSE ITS DOORS
AFTER ALMOST 13 YEARS
New York, NY-- Landmark live music venue and activism center Wetlands
Preserve will be turning out its environmentally-friendly lights on
September 15th, 2001. After close to thirteen years at 161 Hudson
Street in TriBeCa, the gentrification of the Manhattan loft set has caught
up with the venerable club. The building is being sold and turned
into residential condos and the venue is being converted into office and
Since opening on Valentine's Day in 1989, Wetlands has become an
institution among musicians and fans, and has been frequently lauded for
its eclectic music programming. Wetlands has achieved national
prominence as the home of the burgeoning Jam Band scene through the
emergence of Dave Matthews Band, Phish, Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic,
Spin Doctors, and the many other improv-oriented rockers who performed
regularly at the venue in the 90s.
While serving as the "must play" venue for jam bands nationwide,
the club is also proud of its development of artists from a broad spectrum
of musical genres--Rock, Punk, Hardcore, Hip Hop, Reggae, Ska, Funk, Jazz
and electronic music. Some of the most prominent bands in
contemporary music were booked at the 500 person capacity club early in
their careers. For example, Pearl Jam, Sublime, Travis, David Gray,
Counting Crows, and Rage Against the Machine had their first NYC shows at
Wetlands. Oasis' first two shows in America took place at Wetlands.
"Wetlands is known worldwide as one of the most successful venues for
developing talent that the music industry has ever seen," said talent
agent Jonathan Levine of Monterey Peninsula Artists.
Konkrete Jungle, the first American weekly drum and bass party, called
Wetlands home for its first three years. And, just last year, The
Roots hosted a month long residency at the club that morphed into their
heralded weekly BlackLily party which featured an open-mic for female
talent, including Jill Scott, Macy Gray, and Erykah Badu. The club
has hosted numerous matinee shows on weekends, where the leading ska,
punk, and hardcore bands played scores of shows for packed audiences.
For the past several years, live electronica bands such as The Disco
Biscuits, The New Deal, Lake Trout and Sector 9 have also had numerous
sold out shows at Wetlands. The club was also the home of "Deadcenter",
which for ten years was the longest running and largest weekly gathering
of Grateful Dead fans in the country.
In an age where clubs are designed to cater to a niche demographic,
Wetlands welcomed everyone without the ego of a velvet rope at the
entrance. With a capacity of 500, Wetlands is the largest all ages
live music venue in New York City that is open every night of the week.
Wetlands has always encouraged the use of DJs before, between, and after
bands' sets to enhance the live music experience. While most clubs would
just have the sound engineer put on a CD between bands, Wetlands prides
itself on hiring a DJ for every show to accent the vibe of the evening.
Larry Bloch founded the club as a neighborhood watering hole for activists
and a center for environmental activity. Bloch's intention was to open a
club and to use revenue from the club, regardless of profits, to fund the
Activism Center at Wetlands Preserve, which is still a major part of the
club's operations. Since 1989, Wetlands has spent in excess of one million
dollars running the center, which is contained in-house and supports four
part-time employees as well as an army of volunteers and
interns who earn high school and college credit for their work at
Wetlands. The activism center works tirelessly on direct actions,
letter writing campaigns and petition drives to raise awareness of a
myriad of environmental and social justice issues. Every Tuesday since the
club opened, the downstairs lounge has been the host of Eco-Saloon
meetings. Each week features a different topic, and many nights have
featured special guest speakers (ranging from Timothy Leary and Allen
Ginsberg to Jello Biafra, Julia Butterfly, and William Kunstler), as well
as educators, activists, and indigenous people who would talk about issues
and share ideas of how to make the world a better place.
Some of the Wetlands Activism Center's more notable successes have
included lobbying successfully with the New York Times to get them to
cancel their contract with MacMillan Bloedel, a paper supplier who was
clear-cutting the Clayqout Sound, an old growth forest in British
Columbia.. They were also successful in persuading Home Depot, the largest
retailer of old growth rain forest wood, to cease the sale of wood from
environmentally sensitive areas by 2002.
"They don't make rock clubs like Wetlands anymore," says current
owner Peter Shapiro (who took control of the club in 1996). "Now it's
more about trendy lounges and carpeted live music venues. There's
something really special about going to the bathroom where the walls have
been graffitied and stickered on for 13 years, and where the bandroom has
seen nearly 20,000 guests over the years. There is a special feeling
in the air at Wetlands that is hard to describe, it's the kind of
thing that only happens after having shows every day for more than a
decade in the same room, and it's a feeling that very few other music
venues have." Shapiro adds, "At Wetlands, we tried to
create a kind of marriage between a neighborhood bar and a live concert
hall. A place where people come to meet, socialize with friends, and
dance to great
Shapiro and the current Wetlands management team (including General
Manager Charley Ryan and Talent Buyer Jake Szufnarowski) plan on
continuing to use the Wetlands name to promote shows, and are looking for
a new space to call home in Manhattan. Recent Wetlands Presents shows have
included Sheryl Crow at Shine, as well as last month's Jammy Awards at
Roseland. Shapiro also produced the recent IMAX concert film ALL ACCESS.
Former Wetlands Talent Buyer Chris Zahn has rejoined the Wetlands team to
book some "special" shows featuring the club's alumni in the
club's final weeks at 161 Hudson Street.
For more information contact:
From New York Magazine
Aug 3rd 2001 issue
By Logan Hill
"Damn! What are we going to do with the van?"
Twenty-eight-year-old club owner Pete Shaprio is distraught. He's just
discovered that the Wetlands Preserve, his thirteen-year-old jam-band club
and save-the-world hangout on Hudson Street, is falling victim to over
development, much like the spotted owls it once championed. The
shuttering of "the 'Lands" means the club's psychedelia-splattered,
activist-pamphleted VW bus must be towed from its stage-left parking spot
by mid-September. Then the building will be converted into luxury condos
and the club's hallowed hippie space on the ground floor - where floral
murals of Jerry Garcia and Santana still hang - will become office space:
from Deadhead to Dilbert. "We kind of knew it was coming," says
Shapiro, who recently produced the IMAX concert film All Access. "In
New York, the live-music venue is an endangered species."
Wetlands was pretty darn important," recalls Phish's Trey Anastasio,
who rode the crest of the jam-band craze starting in the eighties.
"If there was a scene, it kind of congealed there."
Now the "lands, which Blues Traveler's John Popper nicknamed
"Sweat Glands" because of its one-time lack of air-conditioning,
is closing - but Shapiro is already scouting real estate for another
activist club, a non-profit "Lincoln Center for rock music."
He's lined up support from enviro-friendly fashion designer Todd Oldham and
is in talks with Island Records founder Chris Blackwell. "We want it
to be huge," he says, "but you can't build another Wetlands - it
takes thirteen years to get that kind of graffiti."
Meanwhile, he's calling Wetlands vets like Dave Matthews and Rancid,
hoping they'll play in the club's last days. But he doesn't plan to follow
Twilo's lead and auction the van on eBay. "The "Lands isn't
really like that," he says. "We'll probably just give it to a
From New York Times
July 30, 2001
Vanishing Wetlands of the Musical Sort
By NEIL STRAUSS
Peter Shapiro knew the life of the club he owns, Wetlands, was drawing to
an end when he saw scaffolding and other signs of urban renewal slowly
working their way northward along Hudson Street in TriBeCa. Last week the
construction frenzy finally reached the doorstep of Wetlands, at the
corner of Laight Street, and the office building that houses it was sold
to an architect and a group of local residents who want to convert the
space into apartments. The club, which was on a short-term lease, is to
announce today that it will be closing in mid- September. For music fans,
already reeling from the loss of a number of clubs in a city whose
administration is seen as hostile to night life, the shuttering of
Wetlands, which opened in 1989, is a major blow.
"They called the other day to say they were closing their doors, and
I was devastated," said Marc Brownstein, the bass player in the electronica-fueled
jam band the Disco Biscuits. "I've been going to
the club since its opening, when I was in high school, to see this band
called the Authority. I was so amazed. It seemed like the biggest, most
prestigious venue in the country. When I got a band, our only goal in life
was to play Wetlands."
Nowadays the Disco Biscuits perform at far bigger clubs, like Irving Plaza
and Roseland, but they and scores of other bands credit Wetlands, which
holds 500 people, with nurturing them to national success. The club
remains best known as ground zero for post-Grateful Dead jam bands, and
the place that kick-started Blues Traveler, the Spin Doctors, Phish, the
Dave Matthews Band, Joan Osborne, and Hootie and the Blowfish. To
concertgoers, the name Wetlands evokes not just a room and a sound system,
but a wide-reaching genre of semi- improvisational music and a dedicated
audience of neo-hippies, who are often at the club as late as 5 a.m.,
watching the explorations taking place onstage.
For many of these late-night revelers, Wetlands is a way of life. Joe
Sarkis figures he has attended more than 900 shows at the club. "It
was my home," said Mr. Sarkis, known in the live-music world as
Concert Joe. He is best known for trying to get in the Guinness Book of
World Records for attending the most live-music shows in a single year
(though Guinness has yet to create such a category). When he hit his
1,000th show one year, Wetlands staff members prepared a ribbon outside,
which Mr. Sarkis broke as he entered the club to introduce the night's
performer, Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane. "Most people get
thrown out of a club," Mr. Sarkis said. "Wetlands is the only
club that I ever got thrown into. They said that I had
paid more than anyone else to enter the club, and I didn't have to pay
anymore. I told them I was paying anyway, and two bouncers picked me up
and threw me in. Wetlands was the only place that ever let me in for
In recent years the club has bred a new generation of jam bands, many of
which dip deeper than their predecessors into eclectic musical styles,
like bluegrass, electronica, funk and jazz. These bands include the Disco Biscuits,
Moe, the New Deal, Lake Trout, Sound Tribe Sector Nine, Soulive,
the Slip, Carl Denson, Deep Banana Blackout and String Cheese Incident. In
addition to jam- rock, however, Wetlands attracted other genres and their
cult followings, from hard- core rock to ska to hip-hop. Even Oasis, Pearl
Jam, Sublime, Rage Against the Machine, the Wallflowers and Counting Crows
all played their first New York shows there.
"People think of Wetlands as a new-hippie thing, but they did a lot
of hip-hop too," said Richard Nichols, who manages the rap act Roots.
"Other clubs are regimented and corporate, and Wetlands was way more
free-flowing and relaxed. It was actually one of the best sounding rooms
in the city."
Peter Moore, the architect who engineered the purchase of the building,
said he was trying to help the club find a new home, perhaps alongside a
youth hostel that is being built in a nonresidential neighborhood.
Speaking of the building's future residents, Mr. Moore said: "They
weren't going to buy the building unless Wetlands left. They go out to
clubs. They don't want to go to clubs within their own building."
In the ground-level corner of the building where Wetlands sits, an
engineer who designs microscope parts plans to open an office. So, Mr.
Moore said, the club has gone "from head banging to head
Wetlands was opened in February 1989 by Larry Bloch, who returned to
Manhattan after a decade in California to rear a family and, with no prior
experience, start a club. For eight years he created a tight knit family of
bands, fans, environmental advocates and loyal employees. In the mid-90's
he announced that he was leaving the world of night life to spend more
time with his son.
He spent nearly two years searching for a successor willing to carry the
environmental torch as well as maintain the musical legacy of Wetlands. He
found Mr. Shapiro, a freshly matriculated Northwestern film student with
absolutely no experience in running a bar or club. "I made it easy
for Peter," said Mr. Bloch from his home in Brattleboro, Vt., where
he owns an ecologically minded clothing store and activist center called
Save the Corporations. "He was young and naïve and idealistic. It
seemed more likely that somebody young like him would have a chance to learn
and become more
aware of the environmental and social conscience issues. Most of the
people wanted to buy the name and good will of Wetlands. They didn't want
to commit to what he committed to."
Among those commitments were to illuminate the club with only
energy-efficient light bulbs; use recycled paper for business cards and
stationery and in copy machines; allow groups like Greenpeace, Amnesty
International and the Rainforest Action Network to meet and recruit at the
club; and to have paid employees run the club's environmental center. Mr.
Shapiro had only just made his final payment for the club this month when
he discovered that he would have to close it. He said that he planned to
bring back some of the bands that made Wetlands famous (and that Wetlands
made famous) for a closing week blowout. Afterward, Mr. Shapiro; the
club's booker, Jake Szufnarowski; and longtime manager, Charley Ryan, will
be looking for a new Manhattan space, which they hope will house a bigger
and better Wetlands.
But as any promoter can tell you, with resistance from community boards
and city licensing authorities, opening a club in Manhattan is a
challenge. "It's a drag," said the guitarist Warren Haynes, a
club regular who has performed there with Gov't Mule and the Allman
Brothers Band. "It was such a friendly atmosphere, and we loved
playing there. I'm going to hate to see it go."
From New York Post
MEMORIES FLOW AS WETLANDS DRIES UP
By DAN AQUILANTE
July 31, 2001 -- THE Wetlands Preserve is hard to find, the sightlines
inside are only fair, it is hot in the summer and hotter in the winter. It
is downright uncomfortable and has that faint odor of sweat and stale
The place, located on a desolate part of Hudson Street, is like a rock
roadhouse in upstate New York rather than one of Manhattan's intimate
So why will New Yorkers miss it so much when it closes on Sept. 15?
"It had magic," said owner Pete Shapiro.
The Wetlands' flame was blown out by the winds of commerce and the
continuing gentrification of TriBeCa. The building's new owners are
planning to build condos, and will use Wetlands' street-level space to
make a lobby area and build offices.
It's an ironic end for this club, when you consider that making money was
never its primary objective.
"It had a special vibe about it because it was real," said
Shapiro, who was just 23 years old when he bought the Wetlands in '96.
"Every Tuesday, we got together for discussions and lectures at our
environmental center. We really did all of our printing on recycled paper.
We really did use the club's profits to try to make the world better.
"What we did at the club is see what could happen."
What could happen? He convinced Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir to invite
the boy rock band Hanson to jam there three years ago during the club's
10th anniversary celebration.
That show, which Shapiro recalls as one of the club's crowning moments,
"was what the club was about."
"Bob Weir and Hanson! It shouldn't have worked, it could have sucked
big time, but it didn't. It was great," Shapiro said. "We saw an
opportunity to see what could happen, and we took it."
Talking about the club's closing, Shapiro betrays a hint of denial that in
just over a month, the music is going to stop.
When asked if he had shed any tears, he just said, "I'm trying not to
think about it too much. You work in a club and you never have time to
stop. I'm trying not to stop, because I will start to think about it.
"The Wetlands is my life. It's part of me. My work and social life
are not separate. I don't want to think about what's going to happen after
our last show. That's when it's gonna hit me."
From Jam Base
As a pragmatist, I know that loss is, in many cases, inevitable. It's
logical in the repetitive nature of things. As one cycle ends, another
begins and, if you dwell on the passage of it's predecessor, you lose
precious moments of your current experience. As a Gemini, I'm also very
sentimental. Although I wasn't there when the home I grew up in was sold
and all evidence of my childhood was removed, I wax on it now and again.
That episode has taken on greater significance as one of my current homes
is about to be emptied and changed to new owners who have decidedly different
intentions for the place.
As of September 15th, 161 Hudson St. will no longer rock as Wetlands
For thirteen years,
Wetlands has undergone it's own evolution, constantly
giving life to bands and activist energy. As a weekly meeting place for
the political and environmentally minded, Wetlands has always taken
serious account of it's responsibility to give back graciously instead of
merely sleeping off the party until the next one. That sense of heart has
also been evident to me in the staff and how they care for the place and
those that visit. From Kregg & Michelle at the front door, Lance &
Paulie on inside security, the bartenders, Jake doing booking &
promotions, Dave in the DJ booth to Peter Shapiro, the club's owner, and
everyone else in the cast that I didn't mention, the walls were made
softer not to accentuate the acoustics
in the air but those ruminating inside each person who came to have a good
Most weeks, I spend more waking hours at Wetlands than I do in my own
apartment. The music comes with me wherever I go but it's not always
possible to provide myself the ample diversity that I can when I walk
through the doors of this venue. It's like having a live music changer
readily available any night. There's never just one band playing and
there's never just one type of music. Wetlands became famous for launching
such classic jam acts as Blues Traveller, Spin Doctors, Phish & Dave
Matthews Band but, all the same, the club has also hosted and developed
bands in every other area of musical creativity. Mostly, when such extreme
qualifiers are employed (like "every"), it's an exaggeration to
provide deeper emphasis. Not in this case, though. I challenge anyone to
find a form of music that hasn't been played there (well, maybe polka but
I wouldn't be surprised if that was there at some point, too). Wetlands
Preserve isn't just some house of eclecticism, it's a womb capable of
producing genealogies as diverse as the ingredients that have excited the
air from the lounge to the mainstage to the DJ booth.
Most recently, Wetlands has been a major force in the burgeoning
electronic movement. Through much of the club's life, it's rooms were
booked by Chris Zahn, who went on to manage The Disco Biscuits and is now
promoting various new bands. His position has been filled for the last
bunch of years by Jake Szufnarowski, whose dedication to the New Deal
helped the Toronto live breakbeat house band gain a large audience in this
area. Jake's strategies for placement are a direct representation of his
love for music and the game that's live. Within the house of diversity,
Jake's been the ringleader, helping to develop local/regional acts such as
ulu, RANA, Brothers Past and Soulive. He also brought in legends like
George Clinton, Ike Willis, Melvin Sparks and Dick Dale. I think one
recent episode characterizes Jake very well. Finnish surf metal band Laika
& the Cosmonauts were touring in the area and Jake's wide vision
caught this. Always on the lookout for a way to bring something special to
the stage, he made room for this band to play a set and give us a chance
to experience a band we definitely wouldn't have without Wetlands being
there. I'm lucky to have found a cherished friend in him who's also an
endless fount of inspiration.
The club's ethic also recently made the jump to the big screen through All
Access, the IMAX film made by the Shapiro brothers. While it visited other
stages, the idea of bringing different artists and styles to the people
was what it was all about. Many nights, anyone in the club could have the
opportunity to bend an elbow or just chat with one of the artists who'd
just performed. All Access brought the viewers behind the scenes and right
up on stage to get that same intimate feel that Peter and his staff
supported at Wetlands. The movie also flowed from one artist to another,
from Sting to Kid Rock, from Macy Gray to Moby and highlighted
combinations of new and old as it worked out with the teaming of Dave
Matthews Band and Al Green. Wetlands has been the NYC music scene's most
willing canvas, lending it's space to anything that any artist wanted to
be for that moment. From guest spots to all out open jams, the aura of
open possibility flows through the club's veins at a quickened pace.
There will be a noticeable hole in the scene as September cruises downhill
toward it's end. There will always be multiple somewheres to host the
music, whether it be in your mind or a more outwardly sheltered spot, but
character is subjective and the passing of Wetlands Preserve takes away a
unique being; a part of the family that's mother and sibling for everyone
who loves music. I had a conversation the other night with one of the many
musicians who filled that room with beautiful sound and we had a difficult
time thinking of any other venue in NYC that can step up closely to
helping the coming gap fill even partially. After almost eight years of
Rudy Napoliani's work on this city, the climate is very socially
conservative to the point that neighborhoods don't tolerate the noise and
traffic that a late night club generates. It will be tough to find a new
area willing to approve the zoning for the next incarnation of Wetlands
Preserve but that's not going to abate my hope that we'll all gather again
in an atmosphere created by the
same folks I so enjoy spending my time with now at 161 Hudson.
The next month and a half will not see the house of Preserve go down
quietly. The mainstage has been a spot of aspiration for many musicians
over the years so now it's just a matter of finding time for as many of
them as possible to make it back. As it stands now, plans are for the
bands to take us up to the last couple of days. The second to last will be
the ultimate jam session and the last day will be DJ Dave's chance to play
music recorded in the club over the years. I'll be there for as many
nights as possible over the next few weeks and take time off from work to
be there for all of the last two. If you're reading this, even if you're
not in the NYC area, come on down and experience a bit of history that has
nothing to do with souvenir plates, but everything to do with getting it
As the streets get colder and my feet shuffle through the indications of
the changing seasons, my steps won't take me to that part of Tribeca
anymore. Every time I remember it's not there, the memories of Wetlands
will be a mix of joy and sadness but emotion is what births creativity,
just as it has at the club. It's nurtured thousands of bands and,
personally, has been my teacher. I've learned so much about so many
different ways to bring the music and now the pupil gets to push off from
that foundation and further find his way through the world, using the
lessons I've gathered. Luckily, the bands and the people associated with
Wetlands will also live on, all with the very positive pedigree of having
been a part of something that special.
There are countless things that can be said about Wetlands Preserve; what
it was, what it is and what it's closing means but I think what sums it up
best is a quote I heard at the club recently that I'll leave unnattributed:
"Fuck it. ROCK N ROLL!!!!" Howie Greenberg
JamBase NYC Correspondent
Go See Live Music!
Submissions are accepted by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday New York Times
- Style Section
August 5, 2001
A NIGHT OUT WITH PETER SHAPIRO
Death of a Deadhead Dive
By ALEX BERENSON
THURSDAY, 11:45 p.m. at Wetlands, aka Wetlands Preserve, aka the TriBeCa
club that is closing Sept. 15 to make way for yet another set of
Blueground Undergrass, a six- man band from Atlanta, was about to play.
"Let's check out some tunes," Peter Shapiro said.
Mr. Shapiro, who bought Wetlands five years ago from the club's founder,
Larry Bloch, waded into the small but enthusiastic crowd in front of the
stage. As the lights darkened, he stepped forward in anticipation, beer in
hand. The band began to jam, and the crowd swayed in mellow synch to a
sound that was eerily like the Grateful Dead.
For 13 years, seven days a week, Wetlands has been a place for New York
music fans, kids from New Jersey and Long Island and overage hippies from all
over to listen to live bands of the kind that prefer extended jam
sessions to tight set lists or screaming guitars. With its battered bar
random Christmas lights, Wetlands has been a refuge from the moneyed
attitude of trendier boîtes like NV and Jet Lounge a few blocks north. At
this club for the neo-hippie set, patrons do not wear $700 distressed
or designer tie-dye. Just old jeans and T-shirts.
Perhaps 10,000 bands have played here, including Pearl Jam and Rage
Against the Machine. It may be the only club in the world with an "activism
center," where between sets, the young and idealistic can sign petitions to stop
"It's been my life," said Mr. Shapiro, a scruffy blond who is a
Around 12:30, with Blueground Undergrass in full swing, Mr. Shapiro made
his way to the band room.
"This is where I like to hang out," he said, plopping down on a
aggressively ugly orange and gray couch. This colorfully dingy room
behind the stage is covered with thousands of band stickers and obscure
graffiti that's piled up over the years. "Every night, it's like
party," Mr. Shapiro said. He made his way back to the stage. About
100 fans stood out front, swaying, as the band launched into an extended jam with
Mike Gordon, the bass player from Phish. A couple of marijuana pipes
worked their way through the crowd. One was offered to Mr. Shapiro. He declined.
The nights blur together, Mr. Shapiro said, good and bad, though a few
stand out. On the club's 10th anniversary, Bob Weir, of the Grateful Dead,
played with the Hanson brothers. At 1:30 a.m., Mr. Shapiro was keeping the party
alive. "More shots," he yelled, corralling employees, who
gathered for a toast to the club.
Then Blueground Undergrass took a break, and some of the audience filed
into the night. Mr. Shapiro left with them. He still had one more club to
This club is very new. It does not yet exist. A developer planning to put
a commercial building on a parking lot a few blocks from Wetlands has
asked Mr. Shapiro to help create a 1,500-person venue for live shows.
Of course, community boards must be appeased and financing arranged at a time
when finance is increasingly scarce. The odds are long. But Mr.
Shapiro has faith.
"I could see in my head the stage right here," he said, leaning
chain-link fence protecting the lot. The new club will be big and modern,
but suffused with the same gentle energy that filled Wetlands. Bob Dylan
four nights, intimate shows with artists like Sheryl Crow.
"This is my dream," he said, looking at the delivery trucks
on the asphalt. "To take the spirit of what that place is and take it
Saturday New York Times AUG
Now Playing in Clubland: Hard Times
By MIREYA NAVARRO
When Wetlands, a TriBeCa club famous for
fostering the careers of quirky bands, announced this week that it was
closing, music fans were devastated, but those in the industry were hardly
The building on Hudson Street that houses the
club was sold to a group that wants to convert the space into apartments,
and Wetlands and its late-night revelers didn't exactly fit into its
To club owners, it is a familiar situation. They
say it has become harder for nightclubs to survive in New York because of
steeply rising rents and changes in zoning that have allowed residents to
move into areas that used to be the preserve of industry and business.
With residential neighbors abhorring the same
things clubs covet — crowds, traffic, noise — and with community
boards exerting considerable influence on state and city licensing
agencies these days, many areas of the city, especially downtown, are now
virtually off limits. Other areas are willing to accept only clubs that
open in existing nightclub space, owners say.
"This is the toughest atmosphere for
nightclubs in New York since Prohibition," said Robert Bookman, the
lawyer for the New York Nightlife Association, a group representing about
The city's Department of Consumer Affairs, which
issues cabaret licenses, says that 319 establishments hold licenses this
year, including nightclubs, strip clubs and other businesses with dancing,
like restaurants, down from 333 last year.
Club owners say what is more telling is that
fewer businesses even make it to the licensing stage because of the
difficulties of finding a location. They note that the number of clubs
remained virtually flat in recent years while the city itself was in a
long period of economic growth.
But if the nightclub industry is looking for
sympathy, it will be hard pressed to find any in the city, where
quality-of-life issues became one of the hallmarks of the Giuliani
The association of nightclubs said business
became trickier in the early 1990's, when new city and state legislation
made it harder for a club to obtain a cabaret license for dancing or a
state liquor license. One law has also empowered the local community
boards to reject a club that wants to open within 500 feet of three
existing businesses that serve liquor.
"Residents and clubs just don't mix,"
said Madelyn Wils, the chairwoman of Community Board 1 in Lower Manhattan,
which has successfully fought the openings of clubs. "Nine out of 10
times there are problems."
The Copacabana, the granddaddy of dance clubs in
the city, exemplifies the struggle that club owners say is driving some of
them away or out of business. In many ways, the Copacabana is in a
category of its own. It has operated since 1940 (with a three-year hiatus
in the 1970's after its original owner died) in a business where 5 to 10
years is considered a healthy life span. And it has served up the same
music for the past 20 years — salsa and merengue — in an industry that
caters to the latest fad.
But this year, the Copa became just another club
pitted against the realities of the city's real estate market. Its rather
unglamorous neighborhood of car dealerships and parking lots near the
Hudson River suddenly became more economically desirable. So after nine
years on a block of low buildings on West 57th Street, the club was forced
to move out last month to make way for two new office towers.
John Juliano, who owns the Copa with two
partners, said the search for a new home started about a year and a half
ago after he was notified by the property's new landlord that the club's
10-year lease would be terminated early. The owners looked at more than 50
locations in spaces ranging from parking lots to the former Studio 54,
which was tied up with the musical "Cabaret."
The search was restricted not only by residential
encroachment, but also by the club's needs. The owners wanted at least
25,000 square feet. After holding 10-year leases at two previous
locations, this time they wanted a lease no shorter than 25 years. They
settled for a 47,000- square-foot building at 570 West 34th Street, near
11th Avenue, that used to house offices. The Copacabana will reopen at the
new site next summer. In the meantime, it has moved its live music to
another club, Ohm, on West 22nd Street, four nights a week.
"It's been a nightmare," said Glee
Ballard, the Copa's general manager. "The biggest problem is that you
have to go to an area available for a cabaret and a liquor license and
then you want a wide open space." She said that the new spot, at a
rent at least five times as high as the old site's, is in an industrial
area where the club "can't annoy anybody."
"There's no such thing as going to
prestigious neighborhoods," she said. "You can go there with a
McDonald's or a big department store, but clubs, no. Everybody acts as if
entertainment is not desirable."
Deputy Police Commissioner Thomas Antenen, the
department's chief spokesman, said both the police and residents had
become less tolerant of problems associated with clubs. "It's not so
much what happens in the clubs," he said, "but the stuff that
happens in the immediate areas: fights, people hanging out, making noise,
Marty Arret, owner of the Latin Quarter on the
Upper West Side, said that in his neighborhood, gentrification had drawn
neighbors who opposed his club. The club, at one time known as Club
Broadway, has a mostly Hispanic clientele and has been at the same spot
for 20 years.
"They call us and say, `Why don't you go to
the Bronx?' " he said.
As it turns out, the Latin Quarter is shutting
down on Aug. 31; its landlord decided to rent the space, on Broadway near
West 96th Street, to a bank. Mr. Arret said he was looking for a new
location but had found that most available places were going for at least
double his current monthly rent of $25,000.
David Rabin, who is the president of the New York
Nightlife Association and an owner of Lotus, a supper club, said it took
him three years to find a site for the club. Lotus opened about two years
ago in a former strip club on West 14th Street, in the meatpacking
district in Manhattan. Since then, he said, rents per square foot have
more than tripled in what used to be "a block full of prostitutes and
Mr. Rabin said he spent $5,000 a week on security
and faced constant police inspections. He said he was pursuing his next
business deal in Las Vegas.
Kathryn E. Freed, a city councilwoman who
represents Lower Manhattan and has been a plaintiff in court cases against
several clubs, played down the clubs' concerns. She said clubs and
residential neighbors coexisted peacefully in many parts of the city,
usually because the clubs had made an effort to minimize any disturbance
to the neighborhood. "Night life doesn't have to be disruptive,"
Ms. Freed said there was still room for
improvement. She said she favored tightening noise regulations and
requiring waiting areas inside the clubs to eliminate the velvet rope
Neighbors like Ms. Wils say noise is not the only
problem; they cite alcohol, drugs, lewd behavior and sometimes even
shootings outside the clubs. In New York, as in other areas of the
country, the rising popularity of Ecstasy and other illegal drugs has
drawn a police crackdown.
Police officials said that in the past year and a
half they had sought to close at least five major clubs for allowing the
sale and use of so-called designer drugs on and around their premises.
George A. Grasso, deputy police commissioner for legal matters, called the
problem a continuing concern, but said it was not necessarily worse than
in past years.
Club owners concede there are bad apples among
them, but say the clubs need more police presence. In 1999, the nightclub
association asked to hire off-duty uniformed police officers, as clubs do
in other cities, but the Police Department declined. In a letter to the
group, the department said the proposal was not "legally
permissible" and could expose the city to "substantial
additional risk of civil liability."
Mr. Bookman, the lawyer for the nightclub
association, said the city's world-famous reputation for night life was
bound to erode unless zoning variances were reined in, the police helped
out and there was "respect for the industry as a taxpaying
industry." According to a study by the night life association, the
industry funnels close to $3 billion a year into the city's economy.
Mr. Juliano at the Copa said he regretted not
having bought a building years ago. Now, he said, it would take $10
million to buy one and $5 million to renovate it.
Even for the Copa, that is out of the question,
he said. "Just don't have the money."