Op-Ed: It’s Time for These Prohibition-Era Laws to Go

Op-Ed: It’s Time for These Prohibition-Era Laws to Go

October 03, 2011 at 6:00 am

City Winery founder Michael Dorf pouring wine from one of the caskets at the winery. Dorf says that Prohibition-era laws, like cabaret licenses, need to be rethought. Photo courtesy of Michael Dorf.

I never would have thought that Prohibition would still affect opening a New York City nightclub in the 21st century — but it does. We’re still suffering from Prohibition’s lingering collateral damage to this day!

The aftershocks of Prohibition still reverberate in the Department of Consumer Affairs’ archaic “cabaret laws”, are still embedded in the Department of Buildings’ codes and continue to linger in the regulations of the Fire Department.

Here’s how I know. I founded The Knitting Factory, a live-music venue, in the East Village in 1987 and rebuilt it in TriBeCa in 1994. (It subsequently moved to Williamsburg after I sold my interest.) In 2008, I also created and built City Winery, the nation’s first urban winery — complete with bar, restaurant and performance space for live music.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a very firm believer in building the safest facilities possible for public gatherings. I believe in strict rules governing construction, whether they dictate the latest sprinkler systems be used or that multiple exits be available; I could not go home at night if I were worried about the basic safety of the people who patronize my businesses.

It is 2011. Booze has been legal again for more than 75 years. The cabaret laws are obsolete.

Many disasters, like the devastatingly speedy fire in 2003 at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I. that killed 100 people, can been avoided when smart regulations are in place and enforced.   Obviously no one wants a tragedy like that.

Michael Dorf and others load grapes at City Winery. Photo courtesy of Michael Dorf.

Nevertheless, there are a few throwbacks from the Prohibition-era that we could do without.

Cabaret Laws

I will never forget a particularly ridiculous violation the Knitting Factory received when Rudy Giuliani was mayor. Two older couples, who likely were born around the time of Prohibition, were swinging their tushies to some klezmer music during a concert. But it turned out that, by law, this harmless act of fun constituted dancing and thus a violation of the Prohibition-era laws commonly known as the “cabaret law.”  Our occupancy permit and public assembly license allowed for eating and drinking with entertainment, but not dancing.

The cabaret laws used to be even more strict. When we first opened the Knitting Factory, the laws stipulated that any performance of live music with three or more musicians present required a special cabaret license. Many venue-owners and music-lovers protested and the laws were amended. But they still regulate dancing.

The real question is, why is are the cabaret laws still on the books? Well, it is true that liquor has always been associated with live music and dancing. During Prohibition, the only way to find the nightclubs supporting the sale of illegal booze was through the Buildings Department, and their laws are enforced by the FDNY. The fire department monitors and enforces the certificates of occupancy and public assembly permits.

City Winery when it was under construction. When Michael Dorf opened the Knitting Factory in 1986, more than two decades earlier, he ran into problems with the FDNY. Photo courtesy of Michael Dorf.

But now it is 2011. Booze has been legal again for more than 75 years. The cabaret laws are obsolete.

Other Prohibition-Era Throwbacks: FDNY and Building Codes

Unfortunately, our inheritance of Prohibition-era laws doesn’t stop with the rules regarding dancing. It also extends to the various code requirements that both the  FDNY and the Buildings Department enforce.

The really tricky thing is, both departments play by their own rules, which again are antiquated (even with a great mayor like Michael Bloomberg, who has tried to extricate us from all this red tape), and they are not in synch.

As an example, when we opened the Knitting Factory on Leonard Street in TriBeCa in 1994, I wanted to be sure to meet every code requirement. The Buildings Department code calls for the required fire alarms to use wire treated with a special kind of Teflon coating. Then, the wiring was supposed to be put behind fire protected sheet rock. So, that’s exactly what we did.

And guess what? FDNY’s requirements oppose the Buildings Department codes. Their code requires the wiring to be in steel conduit — not Teflon  — and to be on the exterior of the wall (so they can see the lines) not the interior, as the Building Department had specified. FDNY shut us down until we reinstalled the entire alarm system, which took about three days and caused us major losses.

The main bar at City Winery at 155 Varick Street in SoHo. Michael Dorf opened this venue in 2008 after contending with various regulations that are a remaining legacy of Prohibition. Photo courtesy of Michael Dorf.

We did eventually make friends with the FDNY. Once, when someone complained that we were too crowded, a fire chief came to check us out. He knew from our earlier saga that we were a safe venue and that we were trying to do the right thing. We knew they were just doing their job. When the chief realized that Lou Reed was playing that night, he radioed for the rest of his team — all in their full regalia — to meet him at our place to watch. And on 9/11, when we were one of the few place in Lower Manhattan that stayed open, we served free drinks to many of those same fire companies.

Looking Ahead

Despite the issues surrounding these throwback laws from Prohibition, things are better for owners of venue like mine than they were. It used to be that there was so much corruption in the various city agencies that the best way to get past the laws was through the mafia. Since the 1980s, the city has really cleaned up and you don’t see that kind of public corruption anymore.

Michael Dorf at City Winery. Courtesy of Michael Dorf.

Still, the next step is to repeal the cabaret laws, and for all these various city departments to work together to ensure that all of their requirements are in synch, so that businesses like mine can prosper in ways they couldn’t back in the Prohibition era.  At least, not officially.

Michael Dorf founded The Knitting Factory in 1987. He is also the founder of City Winery, which opened in 2008 and where he produces an annual series of tribute concerts at Carnegie Hall that raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity.