They like the nightlife: ‘Night mayors’ revive cities after dusk

Cooperation Society

They like the nightlife: ‘Night mayors’ revive cities after dusk

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Since the pandemic devastated downtowns, night mayors have relied on the power of persuasion to help cities regrow their nightlife in ways that respect all parties.

“There was an agreement that there would be a group text,” says Ms. Palitz, who was executive director of the New York City mayor’s Office of Nightlife from 2018 until earlier this year. “It’s about being able to create a system of communication that is effective and mutually respectful … so that when there is an escalation of sound, or any kind of disturbance, they can communicate directly and not through the authorities.”

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Ms. Palitz was part of the first wave of night mayors around the world. Amsterdam pioneered the position in 2012; now more than 50 cities have one. At first, night mayors narrowly advocated on behalf of the hospitality sector. They’re increasingly adopting a more holistic vision of how 24-hour cities depend on harmonious relationships between nighttime businesses, city departments, and residents. Instead of imposing bureaucratic edicts, they’re ushering in collaborative governance. Instead of chief party planners, they are becoming midnight mediators.

“A nighttime economy manager looks at the nighttime economy across disciplines, across city agencies [and] works to facilitate dialogue,” says Ben Van Houten, president of the Night Time Economy Culture and Policy Alliance. “The nighttime economy is an area of city life that is both integral to vibrant cities, but also hasn’t really been fully studied, understood, planned for in cities.”

That’s starting to change. The devastating effect of pandemic lockdowns on nighttime economies raised awareness of how vital those sectors are to the lifeblood of cities, says Mr. Van Houten, who is also the business development manager for nightlife and entertainment in San Francisco. 

Many city offices closed for good during the pandemic. The ones that remained have often shifted toward a hybrid workweek in which employees return to cubicles Tuesday through Thursday. In hubs such as Boston and Philadelphia – each of which recently hired night mayors – that’s impacted the ecosystem of hospitality and entertainment businesses clustered around business districts. Foot traffic is down. People still hanker to go out at night, so the challenge for night mayors is to make their cities safer and more inviting destinations. 

In Philadelphia, Raheem Manning is bringing a synergistic approach to that assignment. Over the past year, the nighttime economy director has made over 200 stops to talk with cabdrivers, nurses, DJs, trash collectors, restaurant owners, retail workers, and residents. 

“One of the biggest revelations that people have when they talk to me on tour is they are surprised that the city, the Commerce Department, wants to see them thrive and have resources to make it happen,” says Mr. Manning during a Zoom call. “I don’t have a vision that I would implement for what Philly’s nighttime economy looks like. I am a conduit to implement the vision of the stakeholders.”

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“The hours of a vampire”

Mr. Manning is part of a worldwide WhatsApp group for night mayors who help each other with advice. Many of them have prior experience working in the after-dark hospitality industry. (“You become a nightlife mayor because you keep the hours of a vampire,” says Ms. Palitz.) They’re gregarious social creatures with good people skills – and glamorous Instagram accounts with photos of festive soirees. Mr. Manning has been in conversation with Amsterdam about the teams it employs to make the city safer after sunset. The Netherlands capital deploys red-jacket hosts to offer advice about local attractions, assist overly inebriated revelers, and de-escalate drunken brawls. Mr. Manning hopes to roll out a similar initiative called the Corridor Ambassador Program. 

“If you are at a restaurant and it’s late … you can grab a corridor ambassador and say, ‘Hey, I’m a couple blocks over; could you walk me to my home?’” says Mr. Manning. “[The idea] was sparked from Mirik Milan, the first night mayor in the world. His host program at Rembrandt Plaza really helped transform how people felt about their entertainment district.”

For some cities, the biggest post-pandemic issue is noise. In Barcelona, Spain, residents had become accustomed to quiet nights during lockdowns. Then the revelers came back. In April, Barcelona announced that it would appoint a night mayor after discovering that the Spanish city’s nightlife hot spots exceed the sound levels recommended by the World Health Organization.  

Last year, Andreina Seijas, a renowned consultant on urban planning and nightlife governance, coordinated a series of workshops to help Barcelona devise a vision for the city after the sun goes down. Participants hailed from a variety of demographics and seemed to have little in common. But they shared one desire: They wanted to change the image of Barcelona as a city where merrymakers are welcome to misbehave, says Ms. Seijas in a Zoom call. 

“One of the things I’ve been trying to do in Latin America, and in Spain more recently, is incorporate elements from collaborative governance into nighttime planning,” says Ms. Seijas, a Venezuelan who has a doctorate in urban planning from Harvard University. “The formula that I’ve been using is essentially just creating spaces for people to listen to different interests.”

Power of persuasion vs. the “hammer approach”

In Britain, Sacha Lord, Manchester’s night mayor, has been practicing that principle since 2018. When Mr. Lord became the city’s night economy adviser, he convened a group of members of the National Health Service, local councilors, licensing solicitors, hoteliers, restaurant owners, and nightclub owners. The voices in the task force are important to Mr. Lord, because “I like to think I’m always right. I’m not.”

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Mr. Lord, an entrepreneur who co-founded the city’s popular Parklife music festival, isn’t a city employee. He lobbied Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, for the job of an unsalaried adviser because he was frustrated that individual boroughs weren’t coordinating policies in unison. Mr. Lord has never forgotten a piece of advice he received from Mr. Burnham.

“He turned to me and said, ‘It’s much easier to work with people than against people,’” says Mr. Lord.

Mr. Lord has tackled everything from trying to reform tipping for nighttime workers, to battling energy companies over electricity prices on behalf of the hospitality sector, to advocating for more public transport for late-night workers. (The role of night mayor does not typically include moonlight ribbon-cutting ceremonies.) Because he doesn’t have formal power, persuasion is key to getting buy-in. 

“Occasionally you do have disagreements in closed rooms, but it is much better to try and work through those rather than just being stubborn and [saying], ‘No, it’s not happening,’” he says. “You try and reach something that works for everybody.” 

Night mayors often remind residents and businesses that they ultimately share a common goal of wanting to make their city a great place to live. New York City’s MEND program has dealt with negotiations, misunderstandings, and disputes between residents and businesses, commercial tenants and landlords, and businesses neighboring other businesses. The mediation process has an 80% resolution success rate.

During her tenure, Ms. Palitz also introduced MASH, which stands for Multi-Agency Support for Hospitality. Every six weeks, she convened the heads of 25 city agencies to talk about how to resolve issues through collaboration rather than enforcement – or, as she puts it, the “hammer approach.” She sought to put a human face on the hospitality industry.

“I really saw meaningful change in the way that the city interfaces with this industry,” says Ms. Palitz. “Industry people tell me that they … feel that they are appreciated and respected in a way they never were before.”


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