Oct 3, 2022
Diana Mora: The patron saint of New York nightlife
A wide-ranging chat about after-hours culture in 2022 with the force behind Friends and Lovers in Crown Heights and NYC Nightlife United
When Diana Mora co-founded the bar and music venue Friends and Lovers in November 2013 it was out of an impulse to create a safe and inclusive space for queer and BIPOC folks in Crown Heights, staffed by locals for locals. When the pandemic shut down Brooklyn’s nightlife scene, she co-founded NYC Nightlife United, an advocacy and action coalition created to bolster the ruptured professional nightlife community.
And this week Mora is my guest on “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast.” Mora is a 2022 David Prize finalist — meaning she is one of 61 New Yorkers in the running for a $200,000 no-strings-attached award from The Walentas Family Foundation — specifically for her work with Nightlife United and making sure the city’s nightlife is equitable and reflects and protects New Yorkers’ diverse, creative energy.
We will talk about that work, the current state of Brooklyn nightlife, what it feels like to be raided by the cops on a number of occasions — without explanation — and what her own favorite nightlife moments have been.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.
It’s two in the afternoon. Is this your early morning?
Surprisingly, I’m up pretty early. I’ve grown accustomed to sleeping in intervals of four hours.
Your bio says that you have a master’s in nightlife, what is that and how can I get one?
[Laughs] I have no idea who wrote that bio. But if a master’s means that you start in nightlife when you’re 16 and at 45, you’re still in it, then I probably actually have a PhD.
So you’re the owner and founder of Friends and Lovers. But I think it’s the work that you’ve been doing with Nightlife United that’s really interesting. It was born out of Covid. It’s really an activist and advocacy group for the professional nightlife community, specifically the more marginalized folks within that community. Is that accurate?
It is accurate, and Nightlife United was born out of Covid, but really inspired through our experiences at Friends and Lovers. So taking a step back through the time that we worked there, we really focus on hiring locally, which meant not coming in [and] becoming term gentrifiers. We really harness the community energy to do that. And in doing so, I will hands down say that we are the most diverse venue in all New York City.
Friends and Lovers?
How do you quantify that? Because I would love to put that to the test.
From staff to crowd. I quantify from my own field of research.
Where you apply your “doctorate.”
I go to other venues and just really see the effort that it takes to hire locally and to be a reflection of the community. It’s very important. Crown Heights is that diverse. So it wasn’t too hard to do that, but it does take effort to hire locally. So when Covid hit, at this point, our community became our family and we wanted to make sure that they were supported. When we started to realize how hard it was for them to get through unemployment, we started to figure out what do we need to do to make sure people could put food on the table outside of creating yet another GoFundMe?
At this point, Friends and Lovers had been around for what, seven years?
Throughout the seven years, we have been raided by the police and the fire department and the Department of Buildings two times. We were on the list for the third time, but they didn’t come in. That was really what sparked the activism fire in my belly because it became such a cryptic web that you could navigate to find out what triggered a raid.
Yeah, you guys were almost targeted in some way. It felt like it anyway, because they came in swift succession. They were really nit-picky about stuff. And you guys were just a bar.
It was mind-boggling to get tickets for a laminated liquor license.
Laminated liquor license. You had candles.
The funny part is we had another inspector come weeks later hoping to give us a ticket in candles. We went to battery-operated. He threw the candle on the floor.
He was mad [that you complied]?
I was like, “Really? I’m just trying to keep above board and now you’re upset that you’re not meeting your quota.”
Do you think that that is sort of a hallmark of gentrification? That new people are coming in and this neighborhood that has existed — the culture of the neighborhood that has existed — is too loud for them or whatever? And they want to complain. Was that it, or was it that someone ran afoul of the NYPD? What was it?
It could be any of those things. In any neighborhood, it could be a series of 311 calls, a series of 911 incidents that they like, “Okay, we should check this place out.” It could be an open violation for a door that needs to be expanded two inches, which was our case. But no one was able to tell [us] what triggered the raid. No one came to us, no one sat with us. So the stripping of the humanity side of it was the issue that I reacted to. The first raid, Stretch Armstrong put the needle on the record and he had to lift it back up because 26 people in sweat jackets walked in. I was like, “Holy smokes. What’s happening?” We grabbed all the cash that we had and all the safe. I said, “Take this tote bag filled with cash and leave. I don’t know what’s happening. You might have to bail me out of jail.”
Because I had no idea what was happening. And I for some reason said, “Maybe someone’s running an illegal cocaine ring under my notes and I’m not aware of it.” I went to the cops the next day with the stack of minutia paperwork, because the Department of Health inspected us, didn’t like a light that they saw in the basement over the storage facility. They wanted it to have a light cover. So we got a violation for that. We got a violation for a laminated liquor license. They didn’t like the size of the food that we had. We were serving burritos. This enormous man held the burrito and said, “This is too small, this is not food.” Then I held it next to my head. I’m like, “It’s food for someone who’s normal size.” So I have to negotiate with every single person there. They wanted to see all of the invoices for all of our liquor orders for the previous six months. I said, “Sir, you know that the world has gone digital, right?” So I just dumped the box of paperwork on the table. They said, “That’s enough,” and then they walked away. So when I went to the police the next day to sit down with them, I said, “I want to know what happened with the raid.” This one specific officer just said, “What’s the point? It already happened.”
So this is what really was that driving impetus ultimately behind Nightlife United?
Right. Spanish is actually my first language, but I communicate clearly in English. I’m like, “What happens if I’m not that person? What happens if I’m actually scared of the cop?” We’re really taking advantage and victimizing people and this is not acceptable. It really just got me so furious in a much different way that the activism started in baby steps. Folks from the New York City Artist Coalition. They saw it in me. They started to bring me into their organization. From there, I just really started to see that you could start changing things from the inside out. Then Ariel Palitz was a big inspiration for everything that we are doing at Nightlife United, which because of Covid, we’re like, we have to do something.
So Covid hits and you are a co-founder, you’re the CEO of Nightlife United. You’re looking out not just for Friends and Lovers, but it’s a community of nightlife professionals looking to educate, be transparent, help each other out. Is that it?
It’s more than that. We’re the eyes and ears of nightlife and we bring a lot of issues that we’re hearing just murmurs of.
Brooklyn specifically or across the city?
Across the city. We’ve been able to architect some really great programs. One example was we were hearing that folks were suffering from depression, overdose. They didn’t know what to do during Covid. They felt like their creative outlets were just stripped away from them, from a lot of the musicians and DJs to the bartenders who are super social. They’re like, “What do we do now?” So we piloted a program through Clubhouse and it was well attended. Ariel took it further and made it a bigger program with the city that is still working today. It’s called Elevate Mental Health.
That’s all great. You’re doing Patreon campaigns to support DJs that had performed regularly. This is all during the pandemic. Now that we’re sort of coming out of it, what do you see the long term mission of Nightlife United?
We just had, in June, our nightlife culture awards. What we did is we started to isolate folks within nightlife who are doing amazing things. Folks thinking about how to make music and nightlife venues more accessible. Just thinking about the full gamut of accessibility. We acknowledge that sex work is considered nightlife and folks that are doing some amazing transformational work within that genre. Then also just thinking about folks who are behind the scenes and pushing to, for example, put rent caps on commercial spaces so we are not getting pushed out and being replaced by the landlord’s son who wants to open a venue.
Or a new TD Bank.
Exactly. We have this program that we’re piloting next year called The Future in Nightlife. It’s an apprenticeship program where we’re able to have several kids. (I call everyone in nightlife kids because at this point I’m an old lady.) Really, if you are in nightlife and you want to go from being a barback to being a bar manager, we place you at a venue where you’re basically having hands-on training. We have supplemental coursework that we will be working through master class to do.
This has always been sort of a sink or swim industry. You try to get a job as a barback or whatever and then ultimately maybe work your way up. But it’s venue by venue and it’s hard to know the politics of any given venue and finding your way up without any … There’s no sort of systemic education.
The things that we want to push on is making sure that nightlife is rebranded as the culture of New York. Nightlife has a branding issue. People think of vomit on your shoes and loud noise, but we are such a huge economic driver for the city and for any community. Post Covid, everyone’s like, “nightlife’s back.” Apparently nightlife saves every city. So therefore we need to figure out how to make it more equitable across the board. Stop making it feel so disposable. This means that if I’m in nightlife because I’m working in it, it’s okay if that is my life. It’s okay if that’s my career. It does not need to be a means to the end. It could be the end. Something to start thinking about [is] creating more of these legacy venues, especially for marginalized communities because a lesbian bar, a gay bar, a bar that caters to BIPOC, those are inherently legacy bars. If they disappear, they’re not coming back.
So everything you’re saying sort of sounds like what the mayor has been saying. Eric Adams has been touting nightlife. He’s a little campy; he’s a little showy. But I’m curious to know what your take is on the official mayoral stance. We’ll leave the politics out of it. But in terms of the nightlife [messaging] coming from the mayor’s office, how do you react to that? Do you think he’s striking the right tone or is it a little silly, or what is it?
I don’t want to get myself stuck in any of the political theater, but I will say that any accolades, any amplification we can get for nightlife is good, and let’s move it forward. At the same time, I want to see action. I think everyone wants to see action. I respect the mayor’s office because they kept the current nightlife team intact. It would be great if we could see it expand and grow, but I think the heart and the mission is all in the right place and the people that are there right now will continue to be pushing it forward.
Not just lip service. They were really there?
To think that they worked for a city organization, but they were accessible literally 24/7. They were on every call I was on and they were asking us how they could help. If they couldn’t help directly, they pointed me to people who could. They were a great conduit and a liaison for everything we’ve been doing.
How would you describe, then, the state of Brooklyn nightlife? You say you’re going out all the time. As we enter the fall of 2022, two-and-a-half years into a pandemic that is not over, as much as we all wish it were, what’s the state of play on the ground now?
The summertime was a little bit tumultuous, I think for most venues, because there was an influx of outdoor parties, pop up parties. I’ll speak from the perspective of talent. We are in a renaissance of music. Folks have used Covid to just really hone their skills or connect to music in a different way. I will say that it holds true to all art. The best poetry, the best music, the best dance, the best everything comes post the dark days. We need sadness to get more creative. I don’t know why people, that’s how we thrive, but it’s the reality.
So what I’m curious to know, looking forward, once the fall actually gets colder, people are indoors more. This is when we start to see the new variants come up. How do you think about that? How do you prepare for that at Friends and Lovers? How is Nightlife United thinking about a Thanksgiving variant?
So Nightlife United has definitely already planned. We’re prepared to do emergency grants if there is another variant. So our goal is to continue to build the coffers so that, if there is a new variant, we’re able to support folks who can’t support themselves during that time because of losing work. On the flip side of that, as a business owner, I don’t want my kids to have to apply for grants because I didn’t plan for a variant that we know now we’re on the third year of. That’s poor business planning. So what that means is I have a runway saved of salary that I could pay for payroll for one month. When that depletes, we work very hard to rebuild that.
Yeah, don’t get raided.
Right. But to that point, that was quite disappointing because I know a lot of venues tried their hardest to apply for grants, but most venues got some sort of support and then Omicron hit, and then folks shut down because they thought it would be better to shut down for the month of December and possibly January depending on what venue it was. I’ll speak to one of our founding partners, Dash Brody, who is also my business partner of Friends and Lovers. His heart is the biggest heart I’ve ever met on Earth. He really said, “We have to open up a grant immediately because people are not working during holidays.” We received close to 2000 applicants within nine hours because that’s how many people were not working during Omicron. What that also meant was that the venues did not support them. That’s where I felt there was a fundamental disconnect and lack of accountabilities from some venues to want to help their staff. These are huge. I’m talking about some huge established places.
Anyone you want to throw under the bus?
I prefer not to, but all I hope is that it was a learning lesson that they could better prepare for the future. Because we, as a small venue, we still do things because we want to be the case studies to prove that $15 an hour salary does work. We still make more money. That you can save a runway should an emergency come and not be super flux. We make the normal amount of money. We’re not by any means a huge venue.
It’s a small margin business. You’re not getting loaded.
But responsible planning is a thing. So just thinking about that, and that also starts coming into the whole Nightlife United. Do we need to start having venues better learn how to manage their money? Do we need to figure out how venues start shifting the culture of only taking care of themselves and not their people? So this is part of the ethos of what we stand for, is really shifting that conversation to put people over profits when it comes to things like this.
In a previous life, you worked in marketing, you’ve worked for vitamin water brand, Pop Chips, among others. What did you learn there in the marketing world that you currently apply to work at either Friends and Lovers or Nightlife United? Where does your marketing muscle come into play?
Well, funny that you should say that. I actually start full time with the new brand coming out of the UK and we’re launching in Chicago next week.
Oh wow. Are you not active at Friends and Lovers at the moment? Or this is a side hustle?
No, I’m shifting. At this point, we’re over nine years old. It’s managed to be really self sufficient. I have a really great core team and Dash and I both serve more as the check-in parents. We’re fully dialed in and we pop in one to two times a week just to make sure everything’s moving swimmingly. But at this point, the day to day operations are run by our core team.
That’s great. What are you launching?
The company is called Longbottom. It’s very fancy, very delicious, cold press, canned Bloody Mary mix. Because why not, right? Think about it. No one’s touched bloody marries in ages and they’re kind of yucky. It’s like made with Campbells. But I’m working with this ex CEO of Seed Lip who comes from great ilk. To me, it’s all connected. I’m bringing marketing into Friends and Lovers. I’m bringing Friends and Lovers into marketing. But from a marketing perspective, what I learn is how to really run a team, how to delegate, how to organize folks because nightlife does not have those skill sets. I think that me being able to show folks how to use Slack to communicate.
I have a friend who runs a bar and I’m like, “You’ve got to get on Slack. Texting is crazy.”
We love it. We have project plans, we have budgets, we have PNLs. All of this comes from my marketing planning worlds. We have tentpole events that we want to do. It’s helped us grow and scale in a very fun way. It helps us pivot when we need to pivot. So the biggest thing that I fail to mention is I make a lot of money naming things. So the name Friends and Lovers was a direct byproduct of my years of naming products.
You’re also active in the cannabis space.
I was. I will always be active with cannabis. I love this space, but I felt that it was a little too fragmented and disorganized for me, which is so crazy coming out of nightlife for me to say that. But it was kind of a toxic environment in general. It was just investor bros, older dudes that just really didn’t get it. I thought this was a great new space that they would bring the best practices from everything else and make this a hero and space. But it was the opposite.
Well, it’s a cash grab right now, right?
It’s a mess. So I couldn’t get behind it. So I stepped away and just am doing what I’m doing now.
You’re a lifelong New Yorker. Where did you grow up?
A little bit of everywhere. So growing up in Hempstead, then we moved out to Island Park, which was such a traumatic experience. Then ended up moving back to Queens and going to college at St. John’s University. The irony was it was all Greek kids whose parents owned all of New York City nightlife or the security companies and every diner in every strip joint.
I know a couple Greeks in nightlife for sure.
So it’s kind of amazing. It was an amazing time to be alive. My first experience in nightlife was going to the original Knitting Factory on Leonard Street.
Who are you seeing?
I was 16 years old going with my friend Ginger and her dad. We went to open mic nights on Sundays and we would read our poems because we were children who thought we could write. We went there and then graduated to Arlene’s Grocery. Then I also then started going to Limelight and the Palladium. I took my little sisters when they were 15 to Palladium. They’re twins. They said, “How do you know we’re going to get in?” I’m like, “They always pick me.” The woman at the door, her name was Roxy. Everyone was underage in that room. I mean the place was huge. We had Afrika Bambaataa. Everything was so magical. At one point, Madonna even walked by, and the only thing my sisters remember was that it was their first co-ed bathroom that they went to.
I read a quote of yours once that said nightlife is “meant to be a secret society of people who really understand each other.” Can you decode that for us? Is that something you still hold onto?
Yes, because if you are a creature of the night, what that means is that you found yourself in nightlife. You became your best version in nightlife. So whether it is that really shy guy from the middle of Long Island who drove all the way to Brooklyn to come to a venue, and by the time he got there, he had high heels and a wig on, “Yes, you’re welcome. Come on in. Be yourself, be your true you before you have to go back to wherever it is you came from and not be able to express yourself.” What happens in nightlife in those spaces literally does stay there. When you see someone that you recognize from being outside, you give each other a respectful head nod. I remember going out by myself for so many years following DJs like Dimitri from Paris and knowing that, wherever I went to see him, I was good to see my same four dancing friends. We never actually ever spoke, but they were my best friends.
But the flip side of that, and to play devil’s advocate, there’s also the excess of nightlife. How do you guard against that? Especially when you’re younger and you may not have the best judgment, and the younger people in your clubs maybe.
I was going when I was younger and I was strait-laced for a very long time because I was more curious about the environment and wanting to learn. It’s a community, making sure that we’re all taking care of each other to ensure that everyone is having a good time. So it’s everyone that sees each other. It’s the bartender, it’s the barback, it’s the security guard, it’s the door person. For example, our door person, like many door people now, will read you the house rules before you walk in.
I saw you ask a DJ this question once, so I’m going to turn the tables and make you answer it. What was your most magical night? Can you describe a favorite moment or one of your favorite moments?
I will tell you, as a person going out at nightlife, one of my favorite moments that I will never forget is when I would go out and I would go to Twilo. When they wanted all to leave, they would drop the curtains and they would play “Let the Sunshine In.” That’s your cue to dance the hardest you’ve ever danced.
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