Ariel Palitz doesn’t want to answer any questions until she’s had at least one taco. “I’m a major, major foodie,” she says. We’ve just been seated at Borrachito inside the Garret, a new Mexican restaurant in the East Village, but it’s already been a taxing day at work, and a taco is what Palitz needs right now. Officially, she is the senior executive director of the Office of Nightlife at the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. Unofficially, she is known as the “night mayor,” and now she’s facing down one of the city’s long-standing headaches: the never-ending war between its vibrant nightlife and its sleep-deprived residents.
When City Councilmember Rafael Espinal introduced the bill that created the nightlife mayor position in June 2017, he hoped it would indicate to nightlife operators that their businesses wouldn’t be policed out of existence. “The folks who own businesses never felt that the city was on their side and always felt that the city did everything they could to close businesses down instead of helping them keep their doors open,” Espinal explains. “And I thought it was important for someone in government to speak up on their behalf and make sure that over-enforcement is not killing businesses, but that the city was finding a way to be a mediator to any issues or concerns that businesses have, or even the local community has with those businesses.”
According to the head of NYC’s hospitality trade group, it’s a role that’s been necessary for a long time: “For nearly 20 years, we had been advocating for the creation of an office of nightlife,” says Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, so he’s elated that it finally exists. “We’ve spoken with different members of government about how this office of nightlife can help support the growth and vitality of the nightlife industry while addressing residential concerns,” he continues. “Making sure that we focus on planning and managing our nighttime economy before jumping to just police it.”
In practical terms, that means a person whose job it is to, for example, finally fix the decade-old problem that is Hell Square, the six-by-three block section of the Lower East Side overrun by rowdy partygoers every weekend. It’s a job for a person who can figure out why lesbian bars are facing extinction while gay bars are thriving, or save Bushwick’s disappearing DIY spaces. “I was born for it,” Palitz boasts. “Really, the job description was my résumé.”
Before accepting the nightlife-mayor gig and its six-figure salary, the 47-year-old Palitz ran her own consultancy, Venue Advisors, worked in real-estate services, and until 2014, owned her own nightclub, the Sutra Lounge, where celebrities like Solange, Questlove, and Joaquin Phoenix were known to stop by. Along the way, Manhattan borough president turned city comptroller Scott Stringer also appointed her to the liquor-licensing committee for Community Board 3, where she helped local nightlife venues deal with the State Liquor Authority. She says her time as a nightclub owner was necessary to “sharpen my knives and my ninja skills to be able to navigate politics and to really be direct and focused about the important work that needs to be done.”
According to Espinal, Ariel Palitz’s job will be to take full stock of the state of nightlife in all five boroughs over 18 months. (Already, she’s met with the NYPD, talked to other nightlife mayors, and even dropped by Bushwick to speak to 100 members of the NYC Artist Coalition.)
Along the way, she’ll consult with a 14-person advisory board, which includes Rigie of the Hospitality Alliance, before sending a report to the mayor about what possible policies and measures could be taken to improve the uneasy relationship between residents and the city’s nightlife. (Espinal cites the success of a nightlife office in Amsterdam, which helped decrease incidents of violence and noise by 25 and 30 percent, respectively, within two years of its establishment.)
Palitz’s recommendations could, say, include instituting more stringent “agent of change” laws, which would require residential developers to soundproof their buildings if they’re building them next to a nightlife area, while placing bedrooms at the back of a building rather than overlooking the street. Meanwhile, city planners might be tasked with creating special areas where people can easily arrive and depart from a neighborhood, preventing any noisy loitering while patrons wait for a taxi or an Uber. And, of course, Palitz must face the Big Issue that’s always plagued New York: Can residents and nightlife owners learn to coexist peacefully?
“Rather than being reactive and putting out fires left and right and navigating in the dark on what’s the best way to open and operate or to complain or to have a conversation,” Palitz says, “this office is an opportunity to establish a new mutual respect that has not really been established because everyone’s been out there surviving with the bar next door, with the chronic neighbor who’s always complaining.”
Palitz knows a thing or two about “the chronic neighbor who’s always complaining.” Shortly after she was appointed, the New York Post reported that as owner of Sutra Lounge, Palitz incurred nearly $30,000 in fines (including for serving underage patrons) and received 24 violations over the ten years that the club operated. At the time, Palitz blamed many of the complaints on “a single neighbor.” She also had run-ins with the LES Dwellers, a group of nimbys, who “intimidated” local nightclub owners and pressed them to withdraw applications for liquor licenses.
Her history with complaining neighbors has made Palitz a target for accusations of impartiality. One resident even called in to WNYC during Mayor de Blasio’s weekly appearance to tell the politician that Palitz was “very far from being a neutral, unbiased party.” De Blasio defended his pick, describing her as a “person who can find a fair approach.”
His commitment to making the role work, though, is as vague as that answer. Despite the “night mayor” title, Palitz cannot introduce bills or sign any legislation. Her role is purely advisory. “This is really intended to be an educated opinion that informs the administration about the issues for all the stakeholders and to be an advocate for the industry as well as the community in a way that has not existed before,” she says. “I’m a messenger.”
Rigie backs her up, insisting that “the legislation that created the Office of Nightlife was overwhelmingly passed in the City Council and signed into law by a supportive Mayor de Blasio.” It also has the full backing of the advisory board, which he says will “support Ariel and the mission of this office.”
Over tacos and elote, Palitz seems unfazed by whether the role is purely for show or a vehicle for change. She turned a failed nightclub into Sutra, one of the city’s loudest bars and its most popular. She proved to her parents, who never really understood what she was doing with her life, that there was always an endgame. “Everything I’ve ever done has prepared me to be somebody that, hopefully, the community and the industry can trust,” she says.
I ask if, having gone from nightclub owner to government official, she considers herself to be a New York City politician now. “I’m the people’s princess of nightlife,” she says, noting that this isn’t exactly an elected position. “Even as a community-board member, I was always a problem-solver and I had a bag of tools, but now I have power tools.”