Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill creating the Office of Nightlife and the Director of Nightlife, colloquially the “Night Mayor,” in September. Since then there has been little news about the search for NYC’s first Night Mayor.
We got in touch with Brendan Jay Sullivan. Sullivan is Lady Gaga’s former DJ, a music producer, an author, and most recently a Night Mayor candidate.
What drove you to apply to New York’s new Night Mayor position?
When I started in the DIY scene with Lady Gaga, we had just all of three options for where to go.
We didn’t come out of the box fully formed, we didn’t have our show together. But because we had options in nightlife, we were able to develop into something that no one expected. We had her immense talent and we had some pretty wild spaces where they just wanted people to come and do anything.
I’ve seen those options become more limited in New York City, and this is the first time I’ve seen somebody who’s there to do something about it.
What places were you playing with Lady Gaga?
They’re all gone. But there were travelling parties. One of the big parties was called “Motherfucker,” which had a great history. It was part of the club scene, but it was out of the scene. It was gay, straight, rock kids dancing.
We would go and it wasn’t your typical scene where everybody knows everybody, or everybody dresses the same, or everybody shops at the same mall. It was truly diverse, really exciting.
It started at a club called Mother. Even then—that party was somewhat pre-internet, pre-social media—nobody thought, “We’re not going to get sponsors if we call it ‘Motherfucker.’”
At the time, it was perfect. It was always on a three-day weekend. Back then, I’m 21 and I’m broke and I just moved here and I don’t know anybody, so nobody’s taking me to their parents place in the Hamptons. You just meet really great people, more diverse than you’d ever see. It was rock kids and hip hop kids and performance artists.
And then it would germinate—those kids would meet people in the Williamsburg scene. A lot of this came out of this classic party called “Squeezebox,” which is the party that turned into “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” the musical, but also out of Shea Stadium, which closed, and Market Hotel, which does great shows.
So you’ve got some deep roots in the scene?
I understand you recently had a phone call with Mirik Milan, Amsterdam’s Night Mayor.
Yes. Amsterdam is a smaller city than we think, so they have different needs. I asked him, “How do you take this office from zero to 100?”
And his answer?
Oh, he was great. Mirik was the one who was most forceful in saying I should study other cities. He told me you could always judge whether an initiative worked by how well it helped the underground. So one of my proposals would be that New York City develops an agent of change law.
What’s an agent of change law?
San Francisco has one. In San Francisco, if you’re a developer and you go open a building next to a legendary rock club, it’s the developer’s responsibility to soundproof their new building from the rock club, as an “agent of change.”
Now, I value this idea and I think a similar one could work in New York City, but in San Francisco what you find is that it does help old venues stay in business, but it doesn’t help DIY venues with any of their landlord problems. So an agent of change law in New York would have to be developed with our underground and our DIY scenes in mind.
What we have to understand is these DIY spaces are not illegal spaces, they are startups. The point of this is to take the nighttime economy out of the shadows.
Other than people having spaces where they can pursue their cultural and artistic interests, what larger roles, if any, do the underground and DIY scenes play?
We celebrate Gay Pride in cities across the world on the anniversary that Stonewall Inn was raided. We have civil rights, in a very specific way, because of what came out of the Harlem Renaissance. We are talking about violence in America on ESPN every Sunday because of a voice that hip hop gave to underground communities specifically.
A lot of the way New York City looks is because of how Robert Moses built it, and he built it not with people in mind. Jane Jacobs was a woman in the West Village who stood up to him at a time when other people’s voices were being silenced. Jacobs was big on public life, and that included things that people didn’t normally think about. She thought about where sidewalks went, because this was when they were retrofitting New York City for cars and it was becoming hard to be a pedestrian. She said, “Lowly, unpurposeful, and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.”
It is the same for nightlife. Lowly and unpurposeful and loud at times that it might appear, nightlife interactions are the small change in your daily routine that become the small change in culture that become the small change in society. Just as Stonewall led us to have Gay Pride in cities all over the world, what we do in nightlife now will lead us into the future.
One concern I’ve heard voiced again and again is that the Office of Nightlife and the Night Mayor might pursue policies that leave venues and spaces owned and frequented by people of color behind. Thoughts on that?
The first phone call I made after I applied for the nightlife position was to [legendary DJ] Chuck Chillout. I said, “Hey, Chuck, I need you to tell me what I don’t know. What’s going on in Queens, what’s going on in the Bronx?”
Making sure that everybody has a seat at the table at this point is the most important step for righting a wrong.
In the ‘90s, many of the big nightclubs were owned by a man named Peter Gatien—Palladium, The Limelight, and a place called Tunnel. [Tunnel was famous for hip hop shows and for drawing gay audiences.] In 1999, Tunnel Club was raided and shut down. Just to reopen, there were body searches at the door, you would have to open your mouth. It was like you were visiting someone in prison just to go to a hip hop show in Manhattan.
It was a wrong against nightlife and against people of color by a mayor who didn’t value nightlife. With Mayor de Blasio bringing more of us to the table, this is our chance to right a wrong.
Another concern I’ve heard is that large, established business groups could have sway over the policies the office pursues. The NYC Hospitality Alliance in particular has been named as one such group. Any thoughts here?
I spoke yesterday with NYC Hospitality Alliance CEO Andrew Rigie. We had a great meeting. I spoke with him about adopting his nightlife best practices booklet, which he developed with the NYPD. He was very open about it and he just gave it straight to me, so that the Office of Nightlife will be able to [use it to] develop a handbook for a venue of any size, a party of any size. There’s not just DIY, there’s also pop ups [and so on].
While I was out there doing all the wildest things with Lady Gaga and riding around the city on my Vespa, I was working in NYC restaurants. I was working at The Modern when it won a James Beard award. I worked for a man named Danny Meyer, who developed Shake Shack as well.
When you go to those restaurants, they’re very different but your experience is very similar, because Danny Meyer gives a speech to all of his employers [about how] hospitality is what happens when everyone feels like you’re on their side.
Would they have an overly weighted influence on your Office of Nightlife?
Let’s be honest, a lot of people in the DIY scene work in a restaurant during the day.
All nightlife is hospitality. Even just having diverse nightlife options, that alone is hospitality because that takes care of the scene. So the Director of Nightlife should practice hospitality by letting everyone know he or she is on their side.
But, as Mirik Milan told me [on Monday], you can always check if your plans are successful not by how much they help the big players but by how much they help the little guy.
You’re still in the interviewing process, but do you have any particular plans you’d pursue as the Night Mayor?
This position is more about making sure a plan isn’t complete until it’s complete for everybody.
I only can say it having been in nightlife for 15 years. If you go to a party and all your friends can’t get in, all of a sudden that party becomes less fun. If we’re building nightlife up and not making sure its inclusive, guess what— your friends can’t get in.
Any final thoughts or parting words?
What I’ve told people in the DIY scene is, of course I want this office to be led by one of us, someone in the creative nightlife community. And if it’s not one of us, I want it to be somebody who’s listened to us, heard our ideas, maybe even made them better, and runs with them.
What we do in the underground scene is we set the new standards. In the underground scene, that’s the first time you saw trans people out on the dance floor before they were out to their families. There were gay people out at night before they were out with their parents. There were more interracial couples [in the scene] than there were in the New York Times wedding announcements.
What we do in the underground scene is creating the perfect niche to develop a better world.
Cover image courtesy of Brendan Jay Sullivan