It is rare in urban politics to find a politician or policymaker who is willing to advocate for the right to hold a 24-hour liquor license or DIY warehouse party. Beset by negative data, like noise complaints and drunk driving reports, city governments often resort to methods of controlling nightlife, as opposed to understanding or supporting it. Since the 1970s, 15 Dutch cities—and an increasing number throughout Europe and worldwide—have established a position that connects city hall with denizens of the night. They are called — in what sounds too much like a pun to be real — “night mayors,” and they are proselytizing.
In April, a large group of European elected officials, municipal bureaucrats, professors, urban planners, club promoters, and the similarly minded gathered at De Marktkantine, a nightclub (of course) in Amsterdam’s Stadsdeel-West borough, for the first-ever “Night Mayor Summit” (subtitled “A Serious Playground”). The speakers ranged from Eberhard Van Der Laan, Amsterdam’s mayor, to Steven Raspa, the executive events producer for Burning Man. Workshops with experts focused on “Art Exploration,” “Housing Creativity” and “Influencing Policy-Makers.” The event promised to help the 200 participants from cities including San Francisco, São Paolo and Tokyo to learn how to install a night mayor in their city and “a bag full” of ideas for them to get started with.
“Day is police, government, rules and regulations. And night is the bars, the culture, the festivals, the whole experience of being alive,” Chris Garrit told Fortune last year, summarizing his perspective as former night mayor of Groningen, a mid-sized Dutch city. “The night mayor is between these two worlds and speaks the language of both.”
Despite the official-sounding name, night mayors do not hold office, and are not elected the way day mayors, actual mayors, are. Amsterdam’s Mirik Milan, for instance, was elected through a combination of an online poll, music festival attendee ballots and “a jury of five experts,” according to CityLab, and is paid by both the city and nightclub owners. As day mayor Van Der Laan said in an interview with PBS Newshour, “He gives ideas, he helps mediate the dialogue.… He gives good warnings. When you need him in specific situations, he’s there.”
Milan, who organized the event, is positioning himself as the movement’s public face—his website calls him “an ambassador of Amsterdam to the rest of the world, and will surely contribute to Amsterdam’s international renown”—and seems to be the most successful night mayor thus far, in terms of affecting city policy. One example: To deal with the issue of city streets suddenly overflowing with revelers at 4 a.m.—when all clubs were once required to close— he helped 10 venues secure licenses to stay open 24 hours, so patrons could leave as they saw fit rather than all at once.
The most high-profile night mayor outside the Netherlands has been less effective. Paris’s Clément Léon was elected the “maire de la nuit,” an unpaid position, in 2013 after two rounds of voting: once on Facebook and once in 45 bars around Paris. Though he assured New York magazine after his election that he had a “voice to put pressure on City Hall,” last year, Léon told a French news site that there still had not been any communication between him and Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo. He went on to boycott a city-run music festival.
On this side of the Atlantic, night mayors haven’t caught on as much, though some North American cities—Boston, San Francisco and Victoria, B.C.—have recently put together task forces to tackle nighttime issues. Will Straw, a communications professor at Montréal’s McGill University who blogs about urban nighttime policy, attributes the existence of the night mayors to the inclination for European cities to find “governmental” solutions to problems, ranging from noise complaints to public transit options to establishing better social services for homeless populations. “You get everyone around the table — the mayor’s office, the police, the club owners — and you try and work it out,” he said. “In the U.S. and Canada, these issues are solved in legal battles between police and club owners…. There’s very rarely an attempt to come up with an overarching framework.”
Historically, the only way cities interacted with nightlife was to criminalize it. Through the middle ages, curfews forced Europeans to stay in while special police forces called Watchmen patrolled the streets after hours. In the late 1600s, Western European cities like Amsterdam, Berlin, and London began installing dim lamps as part of a larger effort to make city streets safer. “This is the first time that cities actually actively encouraged people to be out at night instead of simply having curfews and discouraging nightlife,” says Craig Koslofsky, author of Evening’s Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe.
American attitudes, formed in response to the perceived decadence of European life, were harsher towards the night. “From a very early period in U.S. history, the night isn’t seen as something that’s going to help the city as a whole,” says Peter Baldwin, a University of Connecticut historian and the author of In the Watches of the Night: Life in the Nocturnal City. “It’s more of a selfish indulgence on the part of the individuals.” Because policymakers rarely interact with that culture, it remains transgressive.
Today, major North American cities, including Vancouver, Toronto and Montréal, are beginning to have serious conversations about the value of nightlife — not to mention the needs of millions of urban workers working night shifts. And in Austin, Texas there’s even a position similar to night mayor held by Don Pitts, who runs the Music and Entertainment Division of the city’s Department of Economic Development.
Pitts’s achievements include a microloan program to help venues in residential neighborhoods upgrade their facilities to mitigate sound levels (which is now seen as a model for cities around the country) and commissioning a comprehensive survey of the city’s artists, venue owners and audiences. “The United States is usually about three to five years behind the times when it comes to advancements on certain things” like crowd and sound management models and other nighttime concerns, says Pitts. “The challenge is that most of the policy-makers and decision-makers in government have no definition or idea of what the nighttime economy is.”
But even advocates for the night seem to have different definitions of who the night is for. As Milan told The Guardian in March, “Late-night people are typically young, educated, creative, entrepreneurial — people you want in your city, and who work in the creative industries and startups you also want. But as Straw points out: “Lots of people are out at night washing floors in office buildings or making bread for the next day — people who are generally not advantaged or well-off.” Often cities are more responsive to the needs of the nightlife economy than regular workers who just happen to work at night.
Case in point: London, where a “Night Time Commission” put together by former mayor Boris Johnson revealed that 40 percent of the city’s small venues had closed between 2005 and 2015. After taking Johnson’s job last month, London’s new mayor Sadiq Khan announced the creation of an official “night czar” position that will work to ensure “grassroots” venues stay open. In an interview with Dazed while campaigning, he said he was impressed with Milan’s work in Amsterdam and hoped to use it as a model. He also announced plans to make the London Tube run all night with a vague reference to making London a “24-hour city.” But when the city released its “night tube” plans last month, it was revealed that London would only become a “24-hour city” on Friday and Saturday nights, when clubbers are most likely to be out.
Straw refers to policies like Khan’s as having a bittersweet “trickle-down” effect. “The more there are services around clubbing and money, [the more] those services will then be available to those who are out working hard in the middle of the night,” he said. “They have the right to public transport and to policing and so on, but because they’re invisible, we don’t really see them as inhabitants of the night. Our idea of inhabitants of the night is young people having fun.”
Pitts agrees that transportation and services have to be part of the larger conversation around nighttime policy and wishes his office had more resources to dedicate to studying Austin’s nighttime. Since oftentimes, what policy-makers learn about what goes on in their cities at night is via crime reports and other negative data, the best success stories for getting politicians and policy-makers on board with his kind of thinking about the night, he says, have been taking them on “walkabouts” — literally forcing them to interact with the night. It would seem that many American cities are then in need of someone to liaise between nighttime residents and city hall; a night mayor, perhaps.
Sam Stecklow is a writer and editor in Chicago. He previously wrote about the video game starring the Clintons’ cat Socks for MEL