The L.A. underground is under siege from local authorities who are cracking down on unlicensed DIY and warehouse venues and events in the wake of December's Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, which killed 36 people. No one is particularly shocked that agencies like Vice, Building Y Safety, LAFD and LAPD are putting extra scrutiny on the underground; the Ghost Ship fire was an avoidable catastrophe that is virtually unprecedented. But is the answer trying to shut down this notoriously diffuse scene, or going the other direction and rethinking what roles these spaces can have in a city like Los Angeles?
While some underground promoters have opted to go dark for a while until Ghost Ship is less fresh in people's memories, a handful of others are trying to use this opportunity as a chance to reform some of California’s woefully conservative laws regarding alcohol sales and after-hours permits. Many believe such laws fuel demand for underground, unlicensed spaces that, because they operate outside existing laws, can stay open past the standard 2 a.m. closing time. There are also calls to establish some sort of intermediary — a nightlife czar or commission — which would act as a conduit between the underground and authorities to try to figure out paths to permit these events more easily and affordably.
Peter Sanders, spokesman for the LAFD, told the Weekly in a statement, “The Los Angeles Fire Department is working in conjunction with our partner agencies to ensure the safety of all Angelenos at events across the city now and in the future. We look to find collaborative solutions to some of the challenges facing events at various spaces throughout the city.” On its surface, this is an encouraging statement. But we really need the laws themselves to be restructured by the politicians, and not rely on local agencies to, in essence, create de facto laws via different enforcement strategies.
Promoters across California are hoping a new state bill nicknamed LOCAL (Let Our Communities Adjust Late Night Act) can pass, as it would allow local city governments the option of extending the hours of liquor sales to 4 a.m., or possibly even later. LOCAL is sponsored by Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and can be read here. The bill left committee last week, so now is the time to contact your state senator or assemblyperson (every California resident has one of each; check here for yours) if you have strong feelings about the bill one way or another.
Wiener’s office responded via email to a request for comment on LOCAL, writing, “We have bipartisan support on this bill, so whether you are represented by a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican, call their offices and tell them you support SB 384.” However, even if the bill passes into law, Angelenos will still need to make a monumental effort to persuade Mayor Eric Garcetti and the L.A. City Council to adopt a later cutoff time.
As it stands, you can’t legally purchase alcohol anywhere in California between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., thanks to a state law that has been on the books since 1935. That law has stayed in place in part thanks to anti–drunk driving coalitions and politicians more eager to punish alcohol-related crimes than to invest in sensible public safety, substance abuse and crime prevention measures. As with the prison-industrial complex as a whole, the focus on criminalizing alcohol sales outside of certain hours misses the point and offers no proof that it makes the roads safer.
The conservative logic is that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the time you’re legally allowed to purchase booze and the number of drunk-driving accidents and deaths. Although this sounds reasonable, no scientific, cause-and-effect linkage has ever been established conclusively between “last call” times and the frequency of drunk driving–related accidents or deaths. For example, when Sen. Wiener's office crunched the numbers from a 2015 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report, showing the percentage of drivers involved in fatal crashes with a blood alcohol count of .08 or higher, they found no correlation between the states with the fewest drunk-driving fatalities and those with the earliest last calls.
“The states with the highest rates of DUI-related fatalities skew more toward having service hours of 2 a.m. or earlier, and the states with the lowest rates, other than Utah, allow for later service hours either statewide or through local control,” a representative from Wiener's office told the Weekly via email. “That's not to imply that states with later closing hours have fewer DUIs, just that there is no clear correlation between later service hours and higher DUI rates, as some critics claim.”
There’s also an argument to be made that “24-hour cities” with many late-night activities are safer for everyone, not just motorists. Jessica Lall, president and chief executive of the Central City Association, a downtown L.A. business advocacy group, made the case on KPCC's AirTalk last week that downtown Los Angeles is already becoming a 24-hour district, and that making L.A. an all-night city will attract more businesses to open up and create safer neighborhoods thanks to there being more people on the streets at all hours. This is a commonly held tenet of modern urban planners, who understand that some amount of 24-hour public activity directly establishes a safer, stronger social fabric.
“I do firmly believe having a 24-hour city makes the city safer,” says local promoter Derek Marshall, who spent a decade in Berlin, a model 24-hour city, and now runs the L.A. incarnation of Ostbahnhof, a queer underground event series inspired by Berlin's performance art scene.
You’ll probably hear the argument, “Well, if bars are closing at 4 or 5 a.m. now, that just means more drunk people on the road at 4 and 5 a.m.” A few things on this beloved straw man. First, there are now more public transit options starting as early as 4 a.m. in Los Angeles than there are at 2 a.m. Los Angeles public transit still sucks way more in the middle of the night than it does in very early morning hours. Second, we live in a culture where urban 20- and 30-somethings are overwhelmingly choosing ride-hailing services such as Lyft and Uber as their nightlife transportation of choice, pumping more taxable income into the economy and eliminating many drunk drivers from the roads.
So in reality, what we've effectively done is waged a war on a certain time of night, not a war on drunk drivers. As one of the promoters I spoke with asked, “Why do we criminalize certain hours of the day?”
Another, often overlooked, factor is that the legitimate, licensed club system in Los Angeles is very expensive to penetrate — and, thanks to skyrocketing rents and real estate prices, it's only getting worse. One underground promoter (speaking on condition of anonymity — let's call him Bruce) has investigated the cost of going legit. Bruce says, “A lot of people don’t understand how a club buyout structure works. I have to rent out the room — I’m going to pay $7,000 for the main room on a Saturday night. That includes security, turning on the lights, sound and their insurance. They keep the whole bar. So I have to sell $7,000 of tickets at the door just to get the space.” Oftentimes, a promoter's outlay is $10,000 before factoring in artists' travel costs, booking fees and production. (Bruce shared the rate sheet from a popular L.A. nightclub with L.A. Weekly to confirm that the numbers he cites are legit.)
You could argue that if you can't afford to book a legitimate venue for your party, maybe you shouldn't have your party. But people will always make culture, regardless if it’s accepted or supported by mainstream institutions. Since it has become prohibitively expensive for most promoters to use the legitimate club and music venue circuit, of course they're going to bypass that system. And as Marshall explains, “In trying to disrupt the natural flow of community, that’s when we become less safe.”
And as Bruce notes, the city government's response doesn't have to be only to enforce old rules. Oakland responded to the Ghost Ship fire “by spending money and trying to help these places come up to code, become legal, rather than punishing them and shutting them down,” he points out. “They didn't necessarily go on a witch hunt to unilaterally shut things down that resembled the variables at play.” Which appears to be exactly what is happening in L.A.
If LOCAL passes, Los Angeles could open up a conversation between Mayor Garcetti — the guy pictured above, who ran on a pro–entertainment and culture platform — law enforcement and the underground via a nightlife czar or nightlife commission to find a safe but more progressive vision of the city's future. London, Amsterdam, Berlin and other cities are working on some version of this, as they realize it’s a mature way to approach this aspect of culture that historically doesn’t have a seat at the table.
If L.A. really wants to get fancy, we could follow the lead of Germany, whose court system officially recognized Berlin's Berghain — the most famous club in the world — as a venue of “high art” in 2016. While L.A. doesn't have any clubs that come remotely close to Berghain (“L.A. clubs are all profit-driven,” Bruce explains; “there is no physical, legal venue in L.A. that is creating culture on the regular”), it doesn't mean we can't start thinking about this part of our culture as art. It’s not just a nice gesture, either: The German high court's designation also gives Berghain the same tax status as theaters and museums. This is a place where people party all night to techno music — which our culture still tends to view as a dangerous, lawless activity, but in Germany, because the underground is out in the open and regulated, it's as safe as any rock concert.
Perhaps an all-night dance club as a temple of “high art” is too progressive an idea for California, but Marshall has hope in the youth. “I think we’re having a time in our history where we’re trying to rethink older mores and older morals,” Marshall says, optimistically. “For me, I find it really hard to think of where the opposition will come from. For the younger generations, it seems like they get it.”
The ultimate failure of our current system is that it is so expensive, outdated and puritanical that it’s practically begging people to take more risks and go the DIY route. What it purports to do for the sake of public safety is actually making people less safe. Regardless of class, color, sexuality, gender or any other categorization, we should all be allowed to congregate at any hour of the day — whether we're drinking or not — as long as we don't pose a credible threat to anyone else.
Our self-defeating alcohol regulation system seems to define our counterproductive culture as a whole, but thanks to LOCAL, it's up for grabs, at least at this moment in California. Extending the legal hours of alcohol sales won't fix our system's broken approach to underground culture and nightlife, but if we are trying to counter Trumpism by creating a stronger local fabric that reflects and respects its citizens’ lifestyle preferences, maybe it's a good place to start.