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Fighting For the Right to Party All Night

The question of how cities regulate night-time behaviour is a very old one, but it has emerged as the focus of innovative thinking in the last two decades. The conflict between a growing market of young people demanding late-night entertainment and gentrified homeowners complaining about noise is being handled in various ways across the country.

In the press conference this week unveiling her platform as candidate for the Montreal mayoralty, Mélanie Joly announced that one of her priorities for the city would be a "Charter of Nightlife." As every encounter in Quebec these days explodes in discussion over the government's "Charter of Values," a Charter that would simply address the ways in which Montreal handles its nightlife seems innocent enough. In Montreal, however, as in so many cities around the world, the night has become a key focus of conflict. Already enacted in several municipalities in France, Charters of Nightlife bring together those who work, play and live in the urban night to find consensus on how they might peacefully co-exist.

In 1952, Jean Drapeau, the man who would become Montreal's long-serving mayor, belonged to a group of reformers called the Comité de moralilté publique (the Committee for Public Morality). Members of the Comité were obsessed with the fact that so many Montrealers stayed out late into the night, drinking and revelling in bars and restaurants which seemed to never close. To document these infractions of law and morality, Drapeau and his colleagues themselves stayed up late. Night after night, they drove around Montreal, making lists of places that were still open and describing, in long reports, what was going on in or around them. "3:50 am - Macombo," one entry read, referring to one of Montreal's best-known nightclubs. "Wide open, crowd at the door entering and leaving, taxis parked around. This grill is known to be frequented by prostitutes catering to young people from the east." These lists, preserved in archives, now serve as enticingly detailed guides to this Golden Age of Montreal nightlife.

The question of how cities regulate night-time behaviour is a very old one, but it has emerged as the focus of innovative thinking in the last two decades. In the early 1990s, some city governments in the United Kingdom and elsewhere stopped seeing night-time culture as simply a problem to be controlled. Social scientists began calculating the value of what they called "night-time economies," measuring the contributions made to city coffers by restaurants, nightclubs, taxi services and other purveyors of nocturnal services or entertainment. Police authorities experimented with stretching out the night, through later closing times for bars, rather than compressing it with early closures that inevitably sent large numbers of drunken youth out onto the street at the same time. When Victoria, British Columbia was faced with instances of alcohol-fuelled disorderly conduct a few years ago, the proposed solution was to offer more options for night-time amusement rather than fewer.

A second wave of new thinking about the urban night has come in the last decade, as younger people move back into cities. Attracted in the beginning by the presence of constant nightlife and other distractions, these people often find themselves, with time and the arrival of children, at odds with nightclub owners and festival organizers over noise and other disruptions of their domestic peace. A notorious headline in the New York Times in 2009, referred to Paris, France as "the city that always sleeps." The one-time city of lights was now painted as a dull, lifeless city, in which gentrifiers had shut down nightlife through unending complaints about noise and cigarette smoke drifting up from street level into freshly renovated apartments.

The new thinking for addressing these conflicts involves putting the key players around a table to work out a set of protocols by which their various needs might be met. One year after the New York Times obituary for Parisian nightlife, the Mayor of Paris held a high-level General Estates on the Parisian Night with representatives of the police, night-time entertainment industries, LBGT communities and others. This search for consensus seems preferable to the activity of les Pierrots de la nuit, a group of mimes who run around the Parisian night holding their fingers to their lips and exporting those who make too much noise to cease.

In Montreal, in 2010, the public exploded over the noise made by bars in the city's Plateau neighbourhood. Various resolutions to the noise question were proposed: government financing of sound-proofing for bars, rezoning of the Plateau as a 24/7 "fun district," and so on. None of these went anywhere. Rumours circulated in the independent music scene that the city wanted all music activity moved to the new Quartier des Spectacles and would not defend the continued operation of clubs and festivals in other parts of the city.

More recently, popular bars in newly gentrifying Montreal neighbourhoods like Mile Ex find themselves under attack by loft dwellers whose idea of a funky neighbourhood did not include lively night-time commerce. As the transformation of industrial buildings into living spaces moves north in Montreal, bars and clubs will follow (or lead), and conflicts over noise will continue. Mélanie Joly's call for a Charter of Nightlife in Montreal deserves a response from all those seeking the mayor's chair.

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