Could Expanded Bar Hours Help Transform California’s Independent Nightlife Culture?

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The proposed California bill would allow some venues to serve alcohol until 4 a.m.

A proposed bill in California would extend the hours that 10 cities throughout the state are allowed to serve alcohol — expanding the time limit from 2:00 to 4:00 a.m. Authored by California state senator Scott Weiner, this so-called "4 a.m. or last call" bill would create a pilot program to test these expanded hours in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Sacramento, West Hollywood, Long Beach, Coachella, Cathedral City, Fresno and Palm Springs.  

While advocates and opponents have debated the bill's potential economic, tourism and public safety impacts, a group called the Los Angeles Nightlife Alliance (LANA) is exploring the effects this bill — officially called SB-58 — could have on local, independent nightlife culture. 

On July 11 at Los Angeles nightclub Jewel's Catch One, LANA hosted a presentation outlining the potential cultural benefits of this bill, with guest speakers including Weiner; former Amsterdam night mayor Mirik Milan; trans activist, performer and drag queen Miss Barbie-Q; and California Assembly member Miguel Santiago. These speakers argued that implementing the bill in independently owned establishments focused on local culture would strengthen each city's creative community, help foster city identity, protect marginalized communities and improve the economic bility of independently owned businesses. 

Of course, any given city's nightlife scene is intimately connected to electronic music, which lives largely after dark in bars, clubs and other venues. Supporters of the SB-58 believe that strengthening such artistic communities is particularly important given nightlife's history as a place for people — particularly those from LGBTQ communities — to find safe spaces and like-minded individuals. Miss Barbie-Q spoke about the importance of having venues that understand and cater to such communities, particularly to queer people of color, citing incidences of discrimination and coercion that can take place when venue owners do not. 

"Nightlife spaces have long been meeting places and houses of expression for the queer community, and as the city gentrifies and changes, these space often get lost," Miss Barbie-Q said during the event. "As rents rise, it's harder for people creating and promoting culture for those on the margins to keep the lights on, to pay acts like me fairly and to contribute to the culture and the economy of our community."

During the event, Senator Weiner, who is gay, discussed first seeking out gay bars as a closeted college student in Durham, North Carolina, saying that when he found these places, he also found his people. 

"I think that I understand, like a lot of people do, that nightlife is not just about the money or economics, it's about the culture and it's about finding a community," Weiner said, "and that gets lost in the debate and dialogue around nightlife so much." 

Supporters of the bill say that it's crucial that the expanded hours are extended to independently owned cultural institutions, as well as larger corporate owned clubs and venues, in order for cities to grow their own unique cultural identities and support emerging and underground artists. 

"So many forms of music have created the culture: from punk from London, hip-hop from New York and techno culture from Berlin," former Amsterdam night mayor Milan said in an online presentation. "This is music that turns into a lifestyle and a culture of its own."

The issue is particularly prescient as cities throughout California, particularly Los Angeles and San Francisco, face increasing gentrification and a subsequent housing crisis, with soaring rents forcing venue closures and driving away artistic communities. 

"What some [independently owned venues] have said is that two more hours of operation — in addition to being good for nightlife in general — will help them remain profitable so they can stay in existence," senator Weiner told Billboard Dance. "If cities do it in an equitable way, where it's not just big mega-clubs or the hotels [getting these permits], but also the smaller community driven bars and nightclubs, then I think it won't have a gentrifying effect." 

The California State Assembly will vote on the bill in early September, but this is the third time Weiner's bill has come up for a vote. Most recently, California's then-governor, Jerry Brown, vetoed it last year, noting, “California’s laws regulating late-night drinking have been on the books since 1913. I believe we have enough mischief from midnight to 2 without adding two more hours of mayhem.” Such sentiments have been echoed by elected officials who worry about the potential increase in drunk driving incidences if bars are allowed to serve alcohol until 4 a.m.

If the bill does pass in September, there will be a two-year "ramp up" period, in which the 10 pilot cities can make a decision whether to opt in, while local city councils create and confirm implementation plans. Individual venues will then have to apply for extend hour permits. All 10 cities on the pilot list have confirmed interest in these expanded hours.

The plan will be tested for five years before potential statewide expansion. Currently, a handful of U.S. locations have laws allowing alcohol to be served past 2 a.m., with some cities like Las Vegas, New Orleans and certain neighborhoods in Miami having 24-hour policies. 

Weiner notes that the bill passed with bipartisan support in 2018 before being vetoed by Brown, and that new California governor Gavin Newsom may have a different perspective on the topic. "I'm confident that people will see that the sky didn't fall and that the bad things opponents are saying will happen don't happen," Weiner told Billboard Dance, "and then we can perhaps expand or continue it." 

Founded in 2018, LANA has roughly three dozen active members from across the spectrum of L.A. nightlife, with some active members currently working for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, UCLA and other local political, educational and cultural institutions. The organization advocates and organizes around issues related the city's nightlife and cultural communities, with special focuses in safety, government relations and event permitting. 

Weiner continued, "When you look at some of the great nightlife cities like New Orleans, Miami, Las Vegas or New York City or cities around the world, they have late nightlife, and so part of it is looking at the cities that are really known for their nightlife and have that flexibility of late nightlife."