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Behind Amsterdam’s thriving club scene, this ‘night mayor’ keeps the peace

For more than a decade, Amsterdam has had a ‘nachtburgemeester’ or ‘Night Mayor,’ an official charged with being the bridge between the nightlife economy, city officials, and sleeping residents. Now, the Dutch concept is starting to spread across Europe. This story is co-reported with City Lab, which covers all things urban from the Atlantic, and is part of NewsHour Weekend’s “Urban Ideas” series.

Read the Full Transcript

  • By:

    Sam Weber and Laura Fong

    From its marijuana-filled coffee shops to its prominent red light district, Amsterdam's bustling nightlife has long been a destination for revelers from all over the world.

    But a thriving nighttime economy can present issues for the city's residents, from loud noise to zoning problems.

    To respond to these challenges, a unique public official is charged with helping manage the city's celebrated nightlife: the "Nachtburgemeester," which means "Night Mayor."

    Elected by an Internet vote and a jury of nightlife businesses, Mirik Milan is the current night mayor of Amsterdam. While Milan doesn't wield any official power in government, he says the role is crucial in making connections between different stakeholders around nightlife.

    "Where you have a problem at night, the first reaction of city officials or the mayor would be, 'Oh, we have to stop this,' instead of finding a solution," Mirik said. "Our function is to bridge the gap between all the sides."

    But finding common ground between the nightlife economy and the rest of the city's sleeping residents is not easy task.

    In Rembrandtplein Square, a popular destination for nightlife, Night Mayor Milan and the Mayor of Amsterdam helped install 20 "square hosts" to help monitor behavior on weekends. These hosts encourage imbibing patrons to "stay classy" and follow the rules.

    When Night Mayor Milan noticed that many problems in Amsterdam seemed to occur around the time when bars closed and patrons were all at once pushed out into the street, he proposed a solution: clubs that don't close.

    "If people can just leave whenever they want, you have really a lot less pressure on the neighborhood," Milan said.

    There are now 10 clubs in Amsterdam that are licensed to stay open 24 hours a day, all located outside of the city center.

    While the concept of the Night Mayor is predominantly Dutch, it has started to spread to other cities in Europe, including Paris. Last month the first-ever International Night Mayor Summit was held in Amsterdam, which brought together Night Mayors, activists, promoters, and researchers from all over the world.

    The actual Mayor of Amsterdam, Eberhard van der Laan, attended the summit and credits Night Mayor Mirik Milan as being a valuable partner in governing the city.

    "He's a kind of mediator," Mayor van der Laan said. "He gives ideas, he helps moderate the dialogue, he brings in experts, he gives good warnings when you need him."

    Another summit attendee was Chris Garrit, who serves as the Night Mayor in the northern city of Groningen. The city is known as a hub for live music and is also famous for not having any closing times for its bars and clubs. As Night Mayor, Garrit has had to mediate issues between venues and neighbors, but he also sees his role as a champion for independent and nightlife culture.

    "The culture always needs a voice to say something, because there's always more rules and regulations going on," said Garrit. "If nobody stands up, then the cultural climate can be going down."

  • Credit:

    NewsHour Weekend

    Read the full transcript below:

  • FEARGUS O’SULLIVAN:

    The Dutch capital of Amsterdam is famous for scenic canals, bicycle-filled streets, and museums of old master paintings. Amsterdam is also known for its "anything goes" attitude…with marijuana smoked in coffee shops and its red light district where prostitution is legal.

    Since 2003, Amsterdam has had a public official dedicated to making the city thrive after dark. Mirik Milan is Amsterdam's "Nachtburgemeester," which means "night mayor."

  • MIRIK MILAN, NIGHT MAYOR OF AMSTERDAM:

    The night is always treated differently than the day. Where you have a problem at night, the first reaction of city officials or the mayor would be, "oh we have to stop this," instead of bringing all the stakeholders together– and finding a solution. So our function is to bridge the gap between all the sides.

  • FEARGUS O’SULLIVAN:

    While night mayor Mirik Milan doesn't wield any official power, his job is to act as a liaison between government, residents, and nightlife culture.

    Milan is elected by a combination of internet votes, and a panel made up of nightlife business owners. Together, business owners and the city combine to pay the night mayor's salary.

    Are there any misconceptions or stereotypes about nightlife that you feel you have to dispel?

  • MIRIK MILAN:

    Yeah. Oh, of course. Yeah. Lots.

  • FEARGUS O’SULLIVAN:

    What sorts of things?

  • MIRIK MILAN:

    Oh nightlife is heavy drinking, puking on the street, trouble. That's what people say. Instead of thinking, oh, nightlife makes the city a nice place to live in, creates an area in which people can express themselves, and to connect with other people.

  • FEARGUS O’SULLIVAN:

    In a city that hosts more than five million tourists a year, balancing the needs of a thriving night time economy and the needs of the city's sleeping residents is no easy task.

    We're in "Rembrandtplein," in central Amsterdam. It's one of the busiest areas in the whole city for nightlife. The thing is that things can get a little bit rowdy around here, and that's why the Mayor of Amsterdam and the night mayor of Amsterdam got together to hire hosts for this square to make sure that things run just a little bit more smoothly.

    Twenty "square hosts" patrol this square on weekends from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., making sure people follow the rules: No biking after 11 p.m., "stay classy," and if nature calls, "use a loo."

    Lorraine Koorndijk is a patrol leader.

  • LORRAINE KOORNDIJK:

    We help people when they're looking for places to go, or transportation. We help people when they're feeling sick. Then we try, when they get into arguments, we try to calm them down. And after they're done partying, we try to get them home.

  • FEARGUS O’SULLIVAN:

    Another example: when the bars and clubs are mandated to close around 4am, masses of partygoers flood out into the streets at the same time. Night mayor Mirik Milan's counterintuitive solution? A plan to allow some clubs to stay open all night.

  • MIRIK MILAN:

    If the people can just leave whenever they want, you have really a lot less pressure on the neighborhood.

  • FEARGUS O’SULLIVAN:

    Radion, inside this former dentistry school, is one of ten Amsterdam clubs licensed to stay open 24 hours a day. Owner Staas Lucassen says one key advantage is that it's located in the less populated outskirts of the city.

  • STAAS LUCASSEN:

    Are you not going to make too much noise of the neighborhood? Is it outside of the city center?

  • FEARGUS O’SULLIVAN:

    Another factor helping it gain a 24 hour license is that Radion is not just a nightclub. After partying ends at 7 a.m., an area of the club transforms into a playroom for neighborhood kids.

  • MIRIK MILIAN:

    I think that's really like a modern day nightclub. So the people that live around it should also benefit from the fact that the nightclub is there.

  • FEARGUS O’SULLIVAN:

    the actual Mayor of Amsterdam, Eberhard van der Laan meets several times a year with Night Mayor Milan and credits him with helping to keep the peace.

  • EBERHARD VAN DER LAAN:

    He is the connection between those that go out in the night, and those that sleep in the night and work during the day. He's a kind of mediator. He gives ideas, he helps to moderate the dialogue. He brings in experts. He gives good warnings when you need him in specific situations. He's always there.

  • MIRIK MILAN:

    Welcome, welcome to the first ever night mayor summit.

  • FEARGUS O’SULLIVAN:

    And just last month, Amsterdam hosted the first international night mayor summit, bringing together activists, researchers, club owners, and night mayors from all over the world.

    Participants discussed topics like boosting infrastructure around transportation, the role of nightlife in marketing a city, and how to accommodate for demographic changes in cities due to gentrification.

  • One of the people attending the summit was Isabelle von Walterskirchen. She’s the president of Zurich, Switzerland’s “night city council,” which was started just last year.  It has a slightly different approach compared to Amsterdam:

    made up of all volunteers, it has no official connection with the city.

    Do you think there's an advantage to being independent in that way?

    ISABELLE VON WALTERSKIRCHEN, The big advantage is that we're not representing a branch, so we don't have to take care of needs of any stakeholder, but we can take care of the whole construct of nightlife.

  • FEARGUS O’SULLIVAN:

    In France, Paris and Toulouse are among the latest to install night mayors, and London is considering creating a "nighttime champion" position. But the concept remains predominantly Dutch. At least 10 cities in the Netherlands have night mayors, including here, in the northern city of Groningen known for its live music venues.

    Night Mayor Chris Garrit has had to deal with many issues, including noise.

  • CHRIS GARRIT:

    I think a good Night Mayor watches these two facts: people can sleep well and people can party hard.

  • FEARGUS O’SULLIVAN:

    Garrit took me around his city of 200 thousand people one sunday evening. First stop was a public arts center where more than 1,000 people had come out for a concert.

    Groningen has no rules about closing times, which makes the city a magnet for revelers across the Netherlands.

    The next stop, a local band was playing at a bar across town.

    Even in the small city of Groningen, a big part of the night mayor's job is being a mediator between clubs and neighbors who may have issues with the sound.

    After more than four years, Garrit is stepping down as night mayor this month, but still believes it's a crucial role.

  • CHRIS GARRIT:

    I think it doesn't matter how big the city is. The culture always needs a voice to say something. Because there's always more rules and regulations going on. If nobody stands up, then the cultural climate can be going down.

  • FEARGUS O’SULLIVAN:

    In Amsterdam, night mayor Mirik Milan says night mayors help cities promote the economic value of nightlife.

  • MIRIK MILAN:

    What people really often forget, is when there's lot of people dancing, there's a lot people working.

  • FEARGUS O’SULLIVAN:

    Amsterdam has a big nightlife industry. It has a lot of tourists. It has a soft drug scene. It has a sex industry that's quite active. A critic might say that the night mayor's role is just about making vice easier to access for partiers and tourists. Is that all there is to it?

  • MIRIK MILAN:

    When we see the night time economy, we see it as a place where a lot of development is happening for the creative industry. Think of all the photographers, filmmakers. Of course, DJs, and live musicians. They have a platform in which they can develop their talent. So that's the value that I see in nightlife.

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