Recently California Senator Mark Leno proposed a bill that would allow cities in the state to grant selected restaurants and nightclubs permission to extend the serving of alcohol later into the night. The new suggested limit would be 4 am rather than the 2 am dictated by the current regulation. The bill, Leno’s press release stresses, would allow the California cities a fairer standing vis-à-vis other global metropolises in the economically important competition to attract pleasure-seeking cosmopolitans and their money.
Supporters argue that the bill would benefit the economy as well as provide cities with the traffic-planning advantage of being able to have different clubs close at different hours and thus spread out the flow of people heading home. The opponents, on the other hand, in dramatic images of blood, fire and sirens in the night, want us to consider risk, health and public order (“the streets of Los Angeles at 4 a.m. will look like a rerun of Demolition Derby”), as well as the economy, though this time in terms of the increased state expenses the escalated night-time ravage of the extended service hours would cause.
As a foreigner accustomed to going out in Copenhagen and other European cities, one of the most apparent differences in the flow of things, that I experienced subsequent to arriving in California last fall for a year-long study abroad was, indeed, the very abruptly ending nights out. Imagine something like having finally obtained the warm and buzzing sensation the combination that drinks and good conversations can facilitate, maybe having established some nascent feeling of connection with an interesting stranger or perhaps almost being ready to immerse yourself in the crowd of the dance floor just for the lights to be turned on and a resolute doorman letting everyone know it’s time to go home. Entire stages of the journey that is a Friday or Saturday night out are simply never even allowed to begin here.
And however much the supporters might imagine that keeping the taps flowing for two more hours would propel San Francisco and LA into the top of some global party circuit, compared to many European cities 4 am is actually still not very late.
One of cities that Leno’s press release imagines the Californian ones to be on level with if the bill is passed is Berlin. But in terms of alcohol laws Berlin is much more similar to Las Vegas in that there isn’t no such thing as a set cut-off time for serving. Thus, certain clubs are able to operate, and sell alcohol, continuously for several nights and days. The liberal laws of the German capital, together with other factors such as low rent and cheap airfare, have provided the conditions for an extremely vivid and cultivated scene for nightlife and club culture as well the establishment of an image of the city as the party capital of Europe, that allows its inhabitants and many visitors to drink and dance to loud music in sweaty rooms (or outside in parks, on boats, by lakes, or on rooftops in the summer) at any time of night or subsequent day for however long their bodies are capable of.
Compared to this, then, the bill indeed appears as a very modest proposition, perhaps suggesting something about how an American puritan legacy disparaging pleasure might still play a substantial role in conditioning and constraining the premises of political debate, even in California.
Along these lines, it’s worth noting that the supporters of 4am predominantly argue in terms of economy and practical convenience. (Admittedly these are principles that dominate many European debates too, though Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit’s 2004 designation of his city as being poor but sexy stands as a beautiful exception). What is largely absent from the discourse is how the diverse collection of aesthetic forms, interactions, sensations, feelings, and bodily movements encompassed in the term ‘partying’ might actually have cultural and existential values too, values that a societal debate could acknowledge as ends in themselves rather than merely means for economic ones.
When they work well, bars and clubs late at night can be very special spaces that give rise to unique situations and experiences, spaces that enable more overt expressions of affection and connection, spaces that allow playing with identity and self-staging, improvisation and loosening of boundaries, explorations of sexuality and intimacy. And they can be spaces of experiencing the body’s ability to gradually attune to and inhabit rhythmic movement facilitated by a collective of other bodies – often a process that can unfold over several hours if allowed.
And though drinking is not crucial to any of the above (indeed a lot of dance cultures utilize several other drugs, and perhaps even more so in the US as an effect of the strict alcohol laws), alcohol does often play an important role in transforming the situation into something distinct and different from everyday life, giving it a more ritualistic tone. And being allowed to serve does, in practice, seem to be what is necessary for most clubs and bars to stay open and keep the number of people required to hold the collectively charged atmosphere together.
Perhaps nightlife could be valued a little more – and the intoxicating substances involved in it be despised a little less – if we also think of it in terms of citizens sharing a quasi-public urban space, being able to experience one another as a sources of pleasure and communal ecstasy, and ultimately getting a strengthened sense of social commitment.
Photo by icanteachyouhowtodoit