Night mayors on Lonsdale Street: Strategic leaders from around the world hit Melbourne

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The evening is still young when night mayors from London, Barcelona, New York, Berlin and Paris arrive at Bomba rooftop bar in the city on Friday.

Ariel Palitz, the founding director of New York’s Office of Nightlife, is drinking a hot toddy. She says she’s exhausted.

Night mayors at Bomba (from left): Thierry Charlois (Paris), Andreina Seijas (Barcelona), Lutz Leichsenring (Berlin), Ariel Palitz (New York), Michele Acuto (University of Melbourne), Amy Lamé (London) and Penny Miles (Melbourne).Credit: Joe Armao

“It’s not because of the jet lag,” she says. “We’re all just 24-hour people who are just working around the clock.”

Being a night mayor may sound like a job that is almost too good to be true, but – over cocktails and tapas – the contingent gathered in Melbourne say it’s a serious business.

There are 83 cities worldwide with official night-time commissions or individual leaders, sometimes referred to as “night mayors” or “night czars”. They act as conveners, innovators and strategic thinkers to ensure safety, cultural vibrancy and economic development at night.

London’s night czar, Amy Lamé, says people think her job is just about going out and having drinks.

But she points to the next stop on the night mayors’ Melbourne night out: a visit to the Salvation Army’s meal and support program Project 614.

Lamé wants cities’ night economies to be more inclusive, to attract families and people from diverse cultural backgrounds.

“In London we are seeing a great trend towards diversifying the offer at night,” she says.

“Although we love our bars, pubs and clubs, it is also about keeping libraries open late at night and one of the great phenomenons is late night ice-cream parlours.

Lutz Leichsenring says Melbourne has a similar problem to Berlin: gentrification and the rising cost of living prevents many people from enjoying the city.Credit: Alamy

“So if you feel like you need your sugar hit at 2am … then we are definitely the city for you.”

Lamé has come under pressure during her seven years as night czar. In 2020, there were calls for her to be removed, as a petition claimed she had not adequately advocated for London’s night-time culture during COVID-19.

However, Lamé says there is a global need for night mayors and her focus has broadened to include night-time workers.

“There’s great inequality between people who work at night and people who work in the day,” she says.

Melbourne’s night mayor, Penny Miles, says the city’s night-time workers need to be looked after.Credit: Simon Schluter

“You are twice as likely to earn less than the London living wage, than if you did the exact same job during the day. This is unacceptable.

“But also if you work at night, you have a longer commute, you have less access to in-work support from management, training, access to your trade union.”

University of Melbourne Professor Michele Acuto, director of the Melbourne Centre for Cities, says we need to follow London’s lead in recognising and supporting night-time workers.

“In London they care about the bus drivers, not just the people on the bus,” he says.

Melbourne’s night mayor, Penny Miles, who chairs the city’s night-time economy advisory committee, says such workers operate in a “more vulnerable” space.

“In Melbourne particularly we’ve had an exodus of staff in the hospitality and arts,” Miles says.

“We need to actually focus on this as a profession, as a group that deserves equal rates and their amenities of how they work, how they’re cared for, and how they’re looked after.”

By 10.30pm on Friday, the bar tab at Bomba has been exhausted and the group has already lost one night mayor, who headed home.

But Berlin’s night mayor, Lutz Leichsenring, the co-founder of advocacy organisation VibeLab, is still going strong.

He’s enjoying Melbourne’s nightlife but says it has a similar problem to his home: increasing gentrification and the rising cost of living is barring many from participating.

“If you have a nightlife just of bankers, it’s going to be boring,” he says. “You want the misfits, the non-conformists.”

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