The city’s nightlife has served as the cradle of American culture from jazz to hip-hop and vaudeville to Broadway.
NEW YORK — New York City has long been a place that comes alive after dark.
But as the coronavirus pandemic places an indefinite hold on any kind of indoor crowd, hundreds of nightclubs, music venues, performance spaces and swaths of Broadway itself are at risk of vanishing — bringing down with them one of the central pillars of the city’s economy.
The city gradually started reopening in recent weeks but pressed pause as the coronavirus surges throughout the U.S. — despite New York’s recent success in keeping new infections low. Owners and industry leaders say the finances of these spaces don’t pencil out at reduced capacity, and many don’t plan to reopen until they’re able to do so fully — which may not happen for months or longer.
“Our business is based on people being comfortable to gather in large groups,” said Jared Losow, marketing director at Le Poisson Rouge, an eclectic and popular performance space in Greenwich Village. “Suddenly that was the thing that was most targeted by the virus and the shutdown.”
The city’s nightlife has served as the cradle of American culture from jazz to hip-hop and vaudeville to Broadway. And for more than a century, live performance has been the central draw for tourists and residents alike.
“It’s such a fundamental core of who we are as a people,” said Andrew Rigie, head of the influential New York City Hospitality Alliance.
But the crisis has all but depleted revenue sources for the live entertainment industry for the foreseeable future, while most businesses are still on the hook for rent and other costs, posing a serious threat to their viability. The impact could last well into 2021.
Broadway, Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center have all announced they are canceling fall programming. Owners of other smaller concert venues and performance spaces say they don’t anticipate resuming in-person shows or events before the spring of next year. While some have experimented with live streaming and other virtual events, that presents a danger for performers, and simulating the live experience has proven difficult if not impossible.
A recent report from the mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment said the nightlife industry supported 299,000 jobs in 2016 and generated $697 million in tax revenue for the city. The report, part of efforts by the de Blasio administration to better support nightlife spaces, used a broad definition of nightlife that includes the economic activity occurring in a range of performance, arts, food and drinking establishments and other recreation spaces between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Without the draw of performance spaces, the nearby restaurants and bars that rely on their crowds — already consigned to outdoor service only — have lost the traffic that came from entertainment.
“The impact has been devastating and there’s so much uncertainty, businesses have no idea when they’re going to be able to reopen,” Rigie said. “There’s the economic impact, but nightlife means so much to people culturally.”
Le Poisson Rouge originally rescheduled shows for the end of this summer, but has now pushed them back to April and May of next year. In the meantime, the space isn’t making any money. A recent Kickstarter fundraising campaign has raised about $54,000, but that isn’t enough to cover even one month’s rent for the space. Still, the question of whether to reopen at reduced capacity, even if they’re given the green light to do so, is not an easy call.
“Realistically there aren’t many venues that can open at less than 100 percent capacity and actually survive, they aren’t built that way,” said Brett Tabisel, senior music director of the venue. “Almost everything we have is a fixed cost, including paying artists.”
For other spaces, the question of reopening amid social distancing and capacity restrictions goes beyond the financial challenges.
“Even if you had a hundred people in a space that’s supposed to be 200, are they really going to keep six feet apart?” said Kae Burke, co-founder and creative director of the Bushwick dance club and performance space House of Yes. “A lot of people expect a nightclub to feel a certain way and have a certain kind of energy. If we are going to reopen at a reduced capacity it will have a different feeling, it will have a different vibe to it.”
Burke said spaces like hers feel forgotten in the conversation around reopening.
“It seems to me that the people making these guidelines haven’t even gotten to the point to consider nightclubs or how people interact in these kinds of spaces,” she said.
The demise of these venues would have a significant cultural impact. Beyond the industry’s economic output, the appeal of music, literary and theater venues has been what drives many people to come to the city — and what helps justify the steep rents once they’re here.
“The city is facing a budget shortfall but at the same time really needs to prioritize the cultural landmarks that have for decades drawn people to the city and have convinced people to stay in the city,” said Daniel Gallant, executive director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, a longtime poetry slam and performance space in the East Village. “If the city doesn’t invest in this huge prime driver of tourism dollars, tax dollars and student dollars, then it’s going to be much harder to convince people to stay in the city and to come back after whatever point the Covid pandemic lifts and folks are able to be out and about again.”
For the time being, performers, producers, bookers, bartenders and countless others whose livelihoods are wrapped up in these spaces are in limbo — both financially and creatively.
Eva Price, a Tony Award-winning theater producer and head of Maximum Entertainment Productions, said it’s been possible to do some work over Zoom on shows in earlier stages of the development process. But there’s an end point to how much can be done without a clear sense of when theaters will be allowed to reopen.
“I don’t know when that will be so I can’t plan, I can’t cast it, I can’t contract it, I can’t properly define it in an extension of the rights agreement,” she said.
Beyond planning for the future, many businesses are unsure whether they’ll be able to keep their spaces afloat for much longer, particularly once evictions resume. One group of nightlife owners has launched a campaign calling on the state and federal government to institute a forgivable rent relief program until they’re able to open without any restrictions.
“Given the way the reopening trajectory is going, we’re not going to be able to reopen for a much longer period of time than other businesses, so we need tailored solutions given that reality,” said David Rosen, a Brooklyn and Queens bar and restaurant owner, and a member of the city’s nightlife advisory board.
While several venues and theater companies have received federal Paycheck Protection Program loans, the measures are a stopgap, providing little relief for an industry whose product relies on in-person participation. Without more substantial relief, the survival of many beloved spaces hinges on a forgiving landlord, or philanthropic generosity.
The historic Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village was at risk of closing for good due to the shutdown before receiving a $250,000 donation from the Gill Foundation last month. Others haven’t been as lucky.
“A few of the establishments I work with frequently are now closed for good or will be closed for good,” said Maria Garcia, a DJ who goes by the name Rimarkable. The shutdown has “completely cut off all of my work, the way I earned my money is gone.”
Garcia has started doing virtual shows, and said she expects streamed events to be a bigger part of nightlife culture going forward.
“Not everyone is going to jump right into club going, not everyone is going to jump right back into nightlife,” she said. “We have to start really fine tuning and utilizing the live streaming aspect of partying.”
Others are more optimistic the value of in-person performance and gathering spaces will remain despite the shutdown.
“I haven’t given up that we will be able to perform live theater in the way that we remember it,” Price said.
“Theater in its original form is a thousand heartbeats beating at the same time responding to a moment in a story,” she said. “Those tenets are just not possible without being in a theater together.”