Gerard McNamee walks into a Starbucks in Manhattan's Chelsea neighbourhood looking like he has been up most of the night, which he has.
He is wearing a black leather jacket over a dark blue leather vest and there is a black bandana knotted around his neck. He has hurried over from his small apartment a block away, where his Harley Davidson motorcycle is parked outside. The bike looks old but it is not: Mr. McNamee has tricked it out for what he calls a "Mad Max" vibe.
Mr. McNamee ran a large nightclub and concert venue in the East Village for a decade, but now the Bronx native has his sights set on a job he feels he is destined to fill: the first ever "night mayor" of New York.
New York's reputation as the city that never sleeps is dependent on its nightlife, but now there will be a full-time job whose goal is to cultivate the after-dark economy. The night mayor will serve as a liaison between nightlife operators, city officials and community leaders with the aim of expanding the industry in safe and inventive ways.
The official name of the position is "director of the office of nightlife," which, as Mr. McNamee notes, means its acronym is "DON." "It's the sickest job title I ever heard in my life," he says with a grin.
Mr. McNamee, who has already had four interviews with city officials and penned a 1,500-word proposal on his vision for the job, is far from the only person in the running. At an event in November, Bill de Blasio, New York's mayor – the real, daytime one – quipped that the post was the "single most desired job" in the city and joked that he needed a police detail to fend off enthusiastic applicants.
(Ben Sarle, a spokesperson for the mayor, declined to say exactly how many people had applied for the job, except that it was "a lot." The city hopes to reach a decision on who will be the new night mayor within a "couple of weeks if all goes according to plan.")
In selecting a night mayor, New York is following in the footsteps of several cities in Europe including Amsterdam, Paris and London. Pittsburgh and Iowa City also have similar positions and Washington and Los Angeles are reportedly exploring the idea.
New York's search is an acknowledgment that nightlife is big business – officials estimate that it contributes $10-billion (U.S.) a year to the city's economy – but also faces particular challenges. Some issues, like the rising cost of real estate, will be tough for a night mayor to solve, but having an official dedicated to the such venues could yield dividends in other ways.
In Amsterdam, for instance, Mirik Milan, the night mayor – or nachtburgemeester – has been influential. He pushed for the creation of new licenses so that select venues could operate for 24 hours and introduced night-time "square hosts" who defuse problematic situations in the main entertainment district. In that area, incidents of alcohol-related violence have dropped by a quarter while nuisance complaints have fallen by nearly a third.
In New York, the drive to establish the night mayor job came from Rafael Espinal, a young city council member from Brooklyn. Mr. Espinal, 32, said in an interview that some of his formative experiences took place in clubs and bars. He looks back with particular fondness on a live music venue called Zebulon in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. It later shut down and relocated to a different state, pushed out by neighbourhood opposition, says Mr. Espinal.
"Nightlife is always a victim of its own success," said Brendan Jay Sullivan, a DJ and author who wrote a memoir about his experiences with Lady Gaga in the nightlife scene in the East Village. He notes that developers have featured nightlife venues – bars, clubs – in their brochures to lure buyers to new neighbourhoods. Then, as the areas gentrify, the rents rise, pushing out such venues.
Mr. Sullivan, 35, is another candidate for the night mayor job and has had three interviews with city officials. When we chat on the phone, he is getting ready for a gig that evening featuring Cardi B, the hip hop artist, at a mansion owned by a stereo company in SoHo.
Of special importance, he says, is the underground scene – unlicensed, do-it-yourself venues where many new performers get their start. Mr. Sullivan proposes a change in attitude: What if they were viewed as start-ups? "No one said to Steve Jobs when he was in his garage creating Apple, 'This is an unlicensed manufacturing plant,'" Mr. Sullivan says.
Nightlife operators grapple with several challenges, says Mr. Espinal of the City Council. The first is the ever-increasing cost of real estate, which makes it difficult to run a viable business. Another is heavy enforcement measures by municipal authorities, while a third is adversarial relationships with surrounding communities.
New York's new night mayor will have the job of bridging the gaps between the nightlife industry and City Hall and also finding ways to foster such venues without enraging the neighbours. And Mr. McNamee believes he is the ideal person for the job.
At Webster Hall, the music venue where Mr. McNamee was director of operations, he picked up some unusual skills. He knows how to defuse and address complaints from the neighbours, dozens of whom had his personal cellphone number. He had regular interactions with the police and emergency services and has dealt with scores of inebriated young patrons (sometimes, he says, that meant calling parents: "Hey, your idiot daughter has nine ecstasy pills on her. Want to come get her, ma, or shall I call the Ninth Precinct?")
Earlier this fall, Mr. McNamee, 48, spent a week in Europe meeting with night mayors there to get familiar with their work. Out of long habit, he still keeps night owl hours, going to bed at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. "That's how I rock," he says. He adds that he is more than ready to take on what would be his first real day job since his boyhood paper route (despite the title, New York's night mayor will work city hours when the sun is up).
"If this were an election where people voted, it's easy for me to say I'd win in a landslide," says Mr. McNamee of the competition to become night mayor. "I would kick ass."