Title

Zoning out dance clubs in Manhattan: Gentrification and the changing landscapes of alternative cultures

Date of Award

2007

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Geography

Keywords

Neoliberal, Gentrification, Alternative cultures, Zoning, Muncipal law, Dance clubs

Subject Categories

Geography | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Urban Studies and Planning

Abstract

This dissertation examines controversies and conflicts over the cabaret law that regulates spaces for social dancing in Manhattan. It further investigates the ways in which the dynamic relationship between space, culture, law, and rights, works to constitute a new urban condition created by a new capitalism. The main research question that animates this investigation relates to how changes in the economic, social, and cultural geography in NYC brought about by gentrification since the 1970s have transformed the notion of legitimate urban rights, like the right to social dancing.

Since the late 1970s, the city government sought to overcome the financial problems caused by a decade of deindustrialization and the mid-1970s fiscal crisis by restructuring the city's economy toward postindustrialization and neoliberalization. Gentrification became a significant "spatial fix" to accomplish these goals. Derelict inner-city neighborhoods became the primary targets of gentrification due to the greater profitability created by "rent gaps" in these places. In this process of gentrification of inner-city neighborhoods, the image of alternative cultures and the vibrant nightlife that characterized these neighborhoods, was effectively deployed to allure yuppies by tapping into their proclivity for the consumption of urban lifestyles.

However, as new residents settled in the neighborhoods, nightlife establishments including dance clubs conflicted with new neighbors mainly due to the noise, crowds, vandalism, and other "nuisances" that these establishments ostensibly abetted. To fix the nightlife problem, the Koch administration revised the cabaret law at the end of 1980s to dramatically reduce the planning zones that allowed spaces for any size of social dancing. Later, starting in the mid-1990s, the Giuliani administration, an urban regime that heavily drew upon "Quality of Life" as a key political mantra, abused the social dancing provision of the cabaret law, cracking down on any nightlife establishments in the newly gentrifying areas on the grounds that they allowed more than three patrons to dance without a cabaret license. Such enforcement had a particularly deleterious impact on small, dance- and music-oriented clubs that were already struggling with skyrocketing rents. With such governmental abuse, the city's political arena soon became the site of fierce controversies regarding the importance of social dancing. Arguments for social dancing as a fundamental human right and important urban right that fulfills many functions including enabling socializations unique to urban life, providing diverse and organic cultures, and even encouraging progressive politics, were either ignored or resisted by the city government that drew upon diverse laws and regulations - even those that criminalized social dancing - in order to create a beneficial environment for new residents and their desired quality of life.

Anti-cabaret law activists made political efforts to eliminate or reform the provision of the cabaret law that criminalized social dancing. While they enjoyed vast popular support, it was next to impossible for such activists to make even the most modest modifications to the zoning provisions of the cabaret law. These activists' efforts to challenge the constitutionality of the cabaret law in court also failed because the court did not acknowledge the expressive element of social dancing.

This research connects the court's decision on social dancing with the brutal neoliberalization of social life that has granted immunity to municipalities' ungrounded regulation of a range of important social activities. Further, through an analysis of the various conflicts over alternative spaces in NYC, including spaces for social dancing, this dissertation shows, on the one hand, that the transformation of urban space through gentrification into an upscale heaven for middle-upper class yuppies has gradually transformed the notion of legitimate rights in urban space, and, on the other, how all of us are implicated in this process and why we should critically interrogate this process.

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