Features I by I 12.02.19

Los Angeles nightlife is getting its shit together

From clubs and warehouse parties to immersive theater and sober raves, nightlife is constantly at odds with daytime culture in sun-drenched LA.

The city has very few clubs, a small circuit of illegal venues and a relatively very low percentage of full liquor-licensed establishments; alongside is a saturated and sagging underground, a variety of other consumer options for Angelenos to get culture, the increasing privatization of public space and the fact that legal drinking ends at 2am in California. This past November, the Los Angeles Nightlife Alliance (LANA) hosted an inaugural town hall to discuss how the city’s nightlife interests can build the political power. The collective is comprised of promoters, creatives, DJs, journos, and other stakeholders trying to put the pieces together of a fractured nocturnal landscape.

The drinking curfew was very close to changing recently, but former governor Jerry Brown vetoed bill SB 905 that would have allowed seven cities to decide if they want to expand alcohol sales to 4am with the rationale, “I believe we have enough mischief from midnight to 2 without adding two more hours of mayhem.” California’s newly-elected governor, Gavin Newsom, on the other hand is a fan of mischief and mayhem — we’ll see how this plays out.

These local obstacles are compounded with problems everyone else in clubland around the world seems to be facing: GHB and fentanyl overdoses, high visa fees, representation imbalances, overexposed markets, rising cost of living and the growing difficulty of doing business on a budget. The LANA organizers were inspired by the political evolution of nightlife in cities like Berlin, London, Amsterdam and New York where collective power has been formally been built over the past decade. Ghost Ship was another catalyst, a missed opportunity when the LA underground could have captured the moment to build more visibility and solidarity instead of having to go further underground to elide political crackdowns.

A large part of the first event was spent crowdsourcing problems and tactics to remedy them. Suggestions like forming delegations to build relationships with neighborhood and city council members helped newer folks get an idea of how traditional hyperlocal organizing functions. Yet this through-the-front-door approach usually only works in LA if you have money or power; right now, this group has neither. Speakers also dipped into waters of harm reduction, mental health, and changing the perception on nightlife and its connection to drugs. And everyone could agree that re-introducing the 4am drinking law would be a major priority and its passing an inevitability.

Photo by: Derek Marshall

Another panel tackled the broader question of how this group of interests should come together and build power besides one reform or one piece of new policy in the next decade when the Olympics come to town. Many local interests from politicians and architects and designers at the AIA to law enforcement and the facilitators of youth sports have been starting to look towards 2028’s Olympics as a milestone for change and development from the angle of what the Games can do for each community for an event which creates a giant state of exception for well endowed special interests to reshape a city. I study and organize around how Olympics shape cities and regularly communicate with groups experiencing the hurt of these public-private mega-event partnerships that tend to crush the already marginalized (see: Rio, Beijing, Los Angeles in 1984). The special interests pushing the Olympics have a bad habit of flattening culture in cities, crushing artist spaces in London and rewriting policy or bulldozing cultural landmarks in Japan in the lead up to Tokyo 2020.

Most public cultural panels in LA on the 2028 Olympics have centered around the potential benefits, but today’s discourse was largely critical of what the Olympics are capable of, namely increasing unaffordable housing and spurring more gentrification, which ultimately exterminates underground culture of all stripes.

The Olympics’ role in gentrification formed a bridge to discussing electronic music’s role in gentrification more broadly. The underground — visual artists; musicians; queer, DIY dance music folk — has historically been a major driver of first-wave gentrification, helping convert working-class neighborhoods into palatable, comfortable spaces for the mainstream. LA is currently under the buckle of an historical housing and homelessness crisis (a fact which everyone in the room was acutely aware of) and much of it driven by city government that sold out on gentrification.

Azul Amaral, program manager at the all-ages park event series at Grand Park in Downtown LA explained: “I started in house parties. That’s a Los Angeles culture thing, which is telling my age. That’s where I started and graduated to clubs and then graduated to after hours. Gentrification helps stop after hours.” Clubs and DIY spaces, of course, help drive up the price of neighborhoods, eventually pricing out (or running out via noise complaints) promoters and venues.

The conversation then veered into Boyle Heights, a Latinx neighborhood adjacent to Downtown which has seen a fervent local opposition to gentrification focused on (but not limited to) space-invading coffee shops and art galleries. It’s inevitable that anti-gentrification and pro-nightlife forces will cross paths in the near future. It’s unclear if alliances will be forged.

Photography by: Derek Marshall

Questions mount: can there be a local DJs union? Does legitimacy kill the DIY culture? Do we even need unofficial culture if permitting and access to space is “affordable”? Can we move away from liquor as a model? Panelist and FACT contributor Michelle Lhooq recently tested the waters with a cannabis-focused rave in January.

As this coalition grows to include more interests — some of them potentially larger and more corporate — and works towards its goal of creating change like the loosening of liquor laws, it must confront and mitigate its role in community harm. Otherwise, it’s liable to help push out and threaten its own members, clients and communities. This idea came to bear at the end of the afternoon as one audience member commented, “There is a venture capitalist behind what we’re sitting in. This club has been renamed – it used to be Union – by someone who’s an avid Trump supporter, Steve Edelson.” This person continued, “There’s a difference, I think, between nightlife and community… and capitalism and community. No one wants to talk about who owns a club… they might not have the community’s best interest in mind.”

Edelson’s son Mitch owns another venue, Catch One, which was originally opened as Jewel’s Catch One in the early 1970s as one of the first-ever black discos in the United States — it was a major hub for queer black folks in Los Angeles. Mitch pays rent to his father, a Trump supporter and Boomer shit-poster. He eventually took the floor to address this critique and explained that his father made “stupid Facebook posts” that made a lot of people feel “uncomfortable”. He went on to explain that he’s a neighborhood council member and a member of the police community and gives to homeless charities. Edelson also said that if his family hadn’t saved this space we’re sitting in now, it would be a parking lot, another thing LA doesn’t necessarily need more of.

While his response seemed to diffuse the room, this question remains: who owns or controls (i.e. owns or polices) our spaces and what does giving them money or political cover do to our interests? It would be nice to see LANA tackle and articulate nightlife’s position vis-a-vis LAPD, America’s deadliest police force and a group that stands to gain a lot more authority and power over the next decade as Olympic militarization efforts ramp up.

LA culture, nightlife certainly included, is permeated by a front of posi-chill vibes where direct debate is often averted at all cost, so this sort of actual confrontation of ideas and ideologies is something we don’t get a lot of, especially on the cultural side of the dial. While nothing was decided or concretely set into motion today, there’s a tangible feeling, an organic need for these people to start making the party a political one and put the “disco” in discomfort. Today was the first raw, necessary overture in what will hopefully be a movement to push LA to be more accessible, freer, safer and open to those who need nightlife space the most.

Photo by: Chris Cruse

Jonny Coleman is a writer and organizer based in Los Angeles.

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