An excerpt from
On the Make
The Hustle of Urban Nightlife
FRIDAY NIGHT IN PHILADELPHIA
THE ART OF THE HUSTLE
At Tangerine, a fashionable French-Moroccan restaurant and cocktail lounge in the Old City section of downtown Philadelphia, diners enter a candlelit Mediterranean dreamscape of rooms within rooms. Red fabrics and pillows adorn this mazelike Casbah, each chamber draped with velvet curtains, providing pleasure-seekers with their very own Arabian nights. Patrons rhapsodize over North African–inspired selections that include king salmon poached in olive oil and served with potato tortelloni and hazelnut-basil mousse, and chicken tagine, a Moroccan stew prepared with green olives and preserved lemons.
Many of the city’s sharply dressed men and women flock to Tangerine to bask in its exotic glamour, but not Allison, a twenty-one-year-old hostess and cocktail waitress who endures every evening handling unruly customers. On any given night at Tangerine, the complaints remain the same: “Where is my table?” “I want the best table.” “Why am I not seated?” “My reservation was for 6:30 p.m.! It’s 6:35—where is my table?”
While enduring their demands, Allison must remain composed and empathetic. “Well, they are just finishing their dessert.” “It’ll be a few moments, if you would like to have a seat in the bar or lounge, or grab a cocktail?” she says.
“I don’t want to grab a cocktail,” they inevitably retort. “I want to sit down in my seat. I made a reservation.”
According to Allison, “There was this one day, it was a Sunday and for whatever reason . . . there must have been three parties of twelve, all arriving at the same time. . . . It was a really busy day, it was really tight in terms of table seating, and we couldn’t get one table sat right away because there wasn’t a table for them yet—you know, people sit down for a dinner at Tangerine, and they don’t get up. Sometimes they will be there for five hours, and you can’t tell them to leave—you can try to hurry them along, crumb them a lot, water them, drop the check, but you can’t make someone leave.
“They are all sitting there in the lounge, and this man just comes up and he screams, literally screams, ‘GET ME MY FUCKING TABLE! I don’t care what you have to do!’. . . I mean, he just came up and literally screamed at me, like, ‘This is what you are supposed to do—if you tell me I am going to have a reservation, you are going to get me seated!’ All this stuff, and I want to yell back so bad, ‘Sir, take a look in the dining room. If you see a table that can accommodate your party, have a seat, by all means.’ But you can’t: you have to be nice. I remember as soon as that night was over, I just sat in the coatroom. I was crying. It was the worst.”
Of course, from time to time Allison enjoys her revenge. As she confesses, “A lot of times people would say, ‘I want a really good table—I want your best table.’ And then you would kind of work it back with them in a way to make them think that that was a really difficult thing to do. . . . And then you would get side-tipped a lot. I have made $100 in a night sometimes, just letting people think that the tables they were getting were really difficult to get. . . . They’ll either remember me on the way out, or they’ll introduce themselves, shake hands, thank me, and there is money in their palm.”
Across the Schuylkill River on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, undergraduates Mackenzie, Nicole, and Mia juggle countless phone calls, instant messages, and consultations—“Are jeans too casual to wear?” “Is it too cold outside to wear sandals?” “How heavy of a jacket do we need?” “Can I borrow your black belt?” before finally settling on matching outfits for their Friday evening of downtown barhopping. Casually clad in jeans and tank tops, the three young women hail a taxi to the bustling intersection of Second and Market streets a few doors down from Tangerine in Old City. Upon reaching their destination, the trio momentarily holds up traffic while disembarking from the cab; a pair of men in their mid-twenties admonishes them from their sleek silver sports car. Mackenzie, a nineteen-year-old sophomore, suspects that the men are just flirting with her and her friends while gratuitously calling attention to their flashy automobile.
Now where to go? Nicole knows a bouncer at Bleu Martini, a swanky cocktail lounge just around the corner, but he does not appear to be outside the bar as they pass by, so it is off to Saint Jack’s so Mia can use the restroom. They flash their fake IDs and enter the darkened bar as the eyes of the all-male clientele follow them down the length of the room. Distressed by their stares, Mackenzie and her friends quickly escape back to Bleu Martini, where they fight their way through the well-heeled crowd to the backlit bar for their drinks. A gentleman attempts to converse with Mia, tapping her on the back several times even as she waves him away. She is eventually saved by Nicole’s bouncer friend, who invites the trio into the VIP lounge and hands them over to another host.
The three friends are led downstairs into the lounge, an illuminated cavern bathed in red light and decorated with mirrored walls, tiger-skinned couches, and low cocktail tables. Two groups of guests are already seated: a young group of about eight men and women in the far corner and a group of four older gentlemen on a couch in the middle of the lounge. To the trio’s surprise, the host instructs them to join the group of older men, promising that if they talk to them and “keep them happy,” the gentlemen will likely ply them with drinks.
Mackenzie is disgusted. She had assumed (incorrectly) that the three of them were the lucky recipients of special privileges brokered by Nicole, rather than merely singled out as attractive young women chosen to surround the nightclub’s male high rollers. (“I feel as if they were trying to whore us out,” she later admits.) Much to the host’s dismay, they reject his offer, opting instead for a couch across the room. No matter—ten minutes later he returns with another set of three young women willing to do his bidding in the meantime. A man selects one and places his hand on her leg, rubbing it as he attempts to draw her into conversation. As another pretty young woman in a short skirt passes by the table, the men suddenly stop all conversation and stare, following her with a full 180-degree head turn before bursting out into laughter.
Meanwhile, the host continues to replenish the VIP lounge with different groups of females, each wearing progressively skimpier outfits. Two waitresses work the room dressed in tight black pants and tiny black shirts, flirting with the men to keep them entertained in between the arrivals of new groups of female companions.
At a certain point Mackenzie departs for the restroom and returns to find her friends talking to these big spenders. One of the men approaches Mackenzie and offers to buy her a cocktail, which she accepts. She guesses he is at least fifty years old. He asks her what she does. Admitting she is a student at Penn, she returns the question: he mysteriously replies that he does “everything,” has “been everywhere,” and “no one fucks with him.” As Mackenzie recalls, “Everything he says is calculated to impress me with his power and elusiveness, but instead I feel as if he oozes sliminess.” He continues to converse with her as he begins kissing Nicole’s back. This causes enough discomfort for the trio that they get up to leave, but not before the mysterious gentleman gives Nicole his telephone number and asks for hers. (She gives him a fake number.) The three friends hastily retreat from the VIP lounge and Bleu Martini, only to be harassed on the sidewalk by yet another male passerby in his mid-twenties who shouts to Nicole, “You’re crazy!” in a drunken slur.
Finally, they seek refuge in a taxicab bound for campus, but the driver assumes that they are drunk and attempts to drive them home by way of a circuitous and unnecessarily expensive route. Catching on, Mia instructs him to make a turn to avoid going all the way around campus—a turn the driver conveniently misses, and when the trio insists on getting out of his taxi, he tries to shortchange them $2, a ploy that Mia catches as well, demanding the correct amount back.
THE ANONYMITY OF THE CITY
In movies and television depictions of urban nightlife, fabulous dudes and divas sip cocktails in enchanting fantasy worlds where friends and lovers meet. But while evoking the glamour and allure of the city, downtown entertainment spots also function as aggressively competitive environments in which participants are forever on the make, challenging each other for social status, self-esteem, and sexual prestige in a series of contests, attacks, and deflections that fill the evening hours. On any given weekend, club bouncers match wits with queued-up thrill-seekers desiring admittance; dinner parties of six argue over available tables; cocktail drinkers vie for the attention of a bartender or server; hip-shakers attack the dance floor with their eyes directed toward all onlookers; taxi drivers and their customers argue over the fare. Single men and women take obsessive measures in their attempts to “score” with (or else avoid) their fellow revelers; and occasionally nighttime patrons confront one another in escalating moments of high-stakes interaction over the smallest of disputes. In many ways, the city at night is a playground for engaging in elaborate games of strategy and chance, especially for young affluent men and women who approach evenings out at upscale bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and lounges as if they were sporting events: combative games of negotiation, deception, and risk.
How do we account for the competitiveness of those who participate in scenes of urban nightlife? One line of research gaining increasing interest among evolutionary psychologists suggests that men and women are biologically hardwired to interact as rapacious creatures fighting in a Darwinian contest for survival of the fiercest by any means necessary, as extravagantly displayed on televised courtship competitions from ElimiDATE to The Bachelor. Others argue that while all human animals may be capable of demonstrating competitiveness in the urban jungle, some individuals are far cagier than others, driven by sexual lust, insatiable greed, deficiency of morals, or else an unquenchable desire to pull off a spectacular nocturnal stunt or caper, whether in a casino, billiard hall, nightclub, or a singles bar. Our exemplars come from the world of popular American film—Tony Curtis’s press agent Sidney Falco in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), the brat-pack thieves of Ocean’s Eleven (1960), Paul Newman’s pool shark “Fast” Eddie Felson in The Hustler (1961) and The Color of Money (1986), Will Smith’s professional “date doctor” in Hitch (2005)—as well as from journalistic accounts of confidence artists who stalk the city’s nightspots in search of susceptible victims. In Las Vegas and Atlantic City, a team of MIT students moonlight as blackjack card-counters by employing mathematical dexterity, false aliases, and elaborate hand signals to win big hands while living double lives. In Los Angeles, predatory men pay $500 for four nights of on-the-job training in the timeless art of seduction by self-proclaimed pickup artists with presumptuous names like Mystery, Juggler, and Style. In New York City, a website named Wingwomen.com offers men attractive female escorts for the night—not for the companionship, but for the purposes of luring other unsuspecting women into conversations at nightclubs and bars throughout the city. In Miami, Hollywood, Las Vegas, and New York, average Joes hire gorgeous accomplices from PartyBuddys to shepherd them past the crowded queues of hot nightclubs, guaranteeing them coveted access to their exclusive velvet-roped VIP lounges amid throngs of envious onlookers.
While these exemplars may illustrate a credible Sleazy Man theory of history, a more sociological approach instead emphasizes how wider populations of more or less conventional individuals and groups are shaped by their social circumstances. In fact, perhaps it makes more sense to look beyond these unusual cases by refocusing our attention toward the larger landscape of urban nightlife in which more normal schemes are enacted. The last decades of the twentieth century mark a tremendous shift in the organization of urban life, particularly as cities formerly known for industrial manufacturing, like Philadelphia, have transformed into centers of entertainment, leisure, tourism, and professional business travel. Downtown areas and their public spaces strongly reflect the urban renaissance experienced by many American cities during the 1990s, as illustrated by the rise of shopping malls, flagship stores, and tourist attractions. Amid this consumerist landscape lurks the spectacle of the new urban nightlife, a bonanza of gentrified entertainment zones, themed restaurants, velvet-roped nightclubs, spectator-sports bars, gaming arcades, and multiplex theaters. These places tend to be highly stylized, demonstrating a concern with aesthetic imagery, playful design, and trendy eclecticism. The new urban nightlife similarly evokes an overindulgence in branding, both among franchised outposts that celebrate trademarked popular culture (Hard Rock Cafe, ESPN Zone, Coyote Ugly), and more generic efforts at homogenizing nightlife through all too conventional tropes: the faux-Irish tavern, the swinging martini-tippling cocktail lounge, the beach party–themed dance club, and the beer-soaked and graffiti-stained hipster dive bar where nobody really knows your name.
Yet through all the urban renewal efforts and branding campaigns characteristic of the rise of the postmodern city, one aspect of urban nightlife has remained constant throughout the last century: many downtown restaurants, bars, nightclubs, cocktail lounges, and popular music venues continue to represent anonymous worlds of strangers where patrons lack any strong sense of social solidarity with one another. Sociologists have long observed the anonymity within cities as a primary motivator of competition and caution among dwellers interacting in the urban milieu. As the German social theorist Georg Simmel contemplates in his seminal 1903 essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life”:
The mental attitude of the people of the metropolis to one another may be designated formally as one of reserve. If the unceasing external contact of numbers of persons in the city should be met by the same number of inner reactions as in the small town, in which one knows almost every person he meets and to each of whom he has a positive relationship, one would be completely atomized internally and would fall into an unthinkable mental condition. Partly this psychological circumstance and partly the privilege of suspicion which we have in the face of the elements of metropolitan life (which are constantly touching one another in fleeting contact) necessitates in us that reserve, in consequence of which we do not know by sight neighbors of years standing and which permits us to appear to small-town folk so often as cold and uncongenial. Indeed, if I am not mistaken, the inner side of this external reserve is not only indifference but more frequently than we believe, it is a slight aversion, a mutual strangeness and repulsion which, in a close contact which has arisen any way whatever, can break out into hatred and conflict. The entire inner organization of such a type of extended commercial life rests on an extremely varied structure of sympathies, indifferences and aversions of the briefest as well as of the most enduring sort.
For Simmel, this cautious aversion to the city of strangers can only be adequately handled by deploying meticulous if crafty strategies of impression management. By incorporating what he refers to as “the strangest eccentricities” and “elaboration of personal peculiarities” into one’s public persona, “the attention of the social world can, in some way, be won for oneself.” In doing so, the anonymity of the city emancipates the metropolitan individual by providing limitless opportunities for self-expression and reinvention, the art of everyday life.
In outlining the contours of the 1920s American city, University of Chicago urban sociologist Robert Park, a onetime student of Simmel, drew on his mentor’s teachings by similarly identifying urban dwellers as living “much as people do in some great hotel, meeting but not knowing one another.” For him, too, this anonymity inevitably encourages individuals to rely on deceptive tactics of self-presentation in their social interactions in the city, given that one’s status would be, according to Park, “determined to a considerable degree by conventional signs—by fashion and ‘front’—and the art of life is largely reduced to skating on thin surfaces and a scrupulous study of style and manners.” Under Park’s direction, curious urban ethnographers at Chicago set out to catalog the countless ways that young adults pursue selfhood and the development of individuality through role-playing in Chicago’s cafés, restaurants, art galleries, dance halls, movie palaces, tea shops, bookstalls, and other assorted downtown cultural spots.
As a chronicler of his own historical moment, Park describes the anonymous industrial city of the early twentieth century as a Babel teeming with the diverse foreign languages, customs, and cultures of newly arrived immigrant groups, racial ghettos, and ethnic enclaves. Yet for a set of somewhat different reasons, the downtown districts of today’s American cities and their nightlife scenes in particular continue to feature a high degree of anonymity. In contrast to neighborhood bars and corner taverns that cater to local residents, downtown nightspots attract an affluent, fast-paced crowd of transient, mobile, and notably anonymous go-getters. These leisure tourists, business travelers, conventioneers, elite college students, and high-income single (or otherwise childless) professionals are the city’s primary consumers of fine dining, high-end liquor, and live entertainment. More than anyone else, their spending drives the twenty-four-hour downtown economy of the bustling contemporary American city.
In the last several decades, the ascendance of the global postindustrial economy has given rise to an agglomeration of business-oriented service industries (including law, finance, architecture, advertising, consulting, design, accounting, insurance, publishing, and technology services) within downtown districts, thus increasing both the number of affluent professionals living in city centers and the frequency with which they can be expected to relocate, given the rising mobility and flexibility demanded of high-income workers. This economic restructuring has simultaneously increased the need for business air travel between cities—as best illustrated by the increasingly lonely lives of constantly commuting executives, management consultants, and sales representatives—and a hospitality infrastructure to accommodate these jet-setters and frequent fliers during their stays. This rise in business travel has occurred during a simultaneous plunge in urban crime across the country, encouraging the redevelopment of downtown spaces as safe havens for middle- and upper-class retail, entertainment, and nightlife consumption. Consequently, this has contributed to an exponential growth of tourism and convention trade in cities, as well as a collateral rise in the attractiveness of urban-based universities among out-of-town students.
These changes have all helped revive once-dormant downtown nightlife landscapes across the country that today serve a growing class of prosperous yet nomadic consumers. Lacking traditional ties to one another, these urban movers and shakers represent an anonymous world of travelers, tourists, transplants, and transients.
Philadelphia provides a fitting example of these changes in the organization of city life. An urban renaissance jump-started during Mayor Edward G. Rendell’s administration in the 1990s catapulted the city’s downtown district (properly referred to by locals as Center City) from the brink of industrial collapse into a metropolitan world of affluence and nonstop entertainment that looks quite different from the rest of the city. Thanks to the passage of a ten-year real estate tax abatement, since 1997 developers and local residents have converted 110 buildings, factories, and warehouses to over 8,000 apartments and condominiums in Center City. Among downtown census tracts, the area with the highest median income tops out at $87,027, or a staggering 283 percent of the city’s median income. Since 1991 serious crime in Center City has been slashed in half while so-called “quality-of-life” crimes have dropped by 75 percent. Perhaps as a result, in 2005 Philadelphia’s Center City boasted a population of 88,000 residents, the third largest downtown population in the country, after New York and Chicago. College graduates overall make up two-thirds of Center City’s population—the third largest proportion of downtown graduates in the nation (barely bested by Midtown Manhattan [71.5%] and Chicago [67.6%])—and the highest percentage of downtown residents with graduate and professional degrees (36%) in the country.
To cater to this population of affluent, educated professionals, the city’s dining and nightclub scene has undergone a dramatic transformation in style and sophistication in the last decade. Given Philadelphia’s proletarian heritage, this may seem a bit surprising, since when it comes to downtown culture, the rough-and-tumble city of Rocky Balboa is perhaps better known for its junk food—Pennsylvania Dutch soft pretzels, overstuffed Italian hoagies, and, of course, the Philly cheesesteak, smothered with fried onions and Cheez Whiz—than its fine dining. Yet in the last few years, the city’s downtown restaurant and nightlife scene has developed into one of the most surprising success stories in the country, with more than 200 dinner restaurants (a figure that has more than tripled since 1993) and 65 bars and nightclubs spread out over a set of gentrified entertainment zones where affluent consumers seek out adventures in urban pleasure and excitement.
For instance, Tangerine and Bleu Martini are both located in Old City, a recently revitalized industrial area adjacent to Philadelphia’s Historic District, home to Independence Hall, the Betsy Ross House, and the Liberty Bell. Having experienced the predictable transition from manufacturing corridor to artist enclave to yuppie haven, today’s Old City features a set of commercial blocks lined with hip restaurants and nightclubs with alluring names like Glam and Swanky Bubbles. At the intersection of Second and Market streets sits the neighborhood’s crown jewel, Continental Restaurant and Martini Bar, its interior lit by halogen lamps shaped like giant Spanish olives. At Continental attractive female servers present guests with fusion dishes splashed with curry, lime, coconut, and soy, and a limitless array of designer cocktails, including the White Chocolate Martini sprinkled with white crème de cacao and a Hershey’s Kiss, and the Dean Martini served with a Lucky Strikes cigarette and matchbook. A few blocks away at Buddakan, an extravagantly ornamented Pan-Asian restaurant, a foreboding sixteen-foot gilded statue of the great Buddha himself overlooks all patrons, emphasizing the relationship between decadent gastronomy and theatrical style in the postmodern global city. Elsewhere in Old City, restaurateurs and other chefs prepare fashionable exemplars of hybrid cuisine and cosmopolitan chic, whether lobster empanadas and fried plantains at Cuba Libre Restaurant and Rum Bar, or tobiko-crusted scallops with spinach risotto and lemongrass sauce at the appropriately named World Fusion.
And yet as Mackenzie, Nicole, and Mia (the students introduced in the book’s opening vignettes) discover during their evening at Bleu Martini, Old City on a Friday night is thick with the human traffic of anonymous strangers—the big spenders in the VIP lounge, the cruisers in their sports cars, and, of course, the herds of underage students like themselves. Deep in the heart of one of the largest college towns in the country, Philadelphia’s Center City boasts a young and educated population with nearly a third (30.5%) of its residents between twenty-five and thirty-four years old. Of these Philadelphians, 79 percent are college graduates and 86 percent of them are childless. This is a population of energetic singles hungry for the nightlife of the city, and they share their zeal with over 100,000 college and university students: the 32,000 students who attend Center City’s eleven postsecondary schools (including the Art Institute of Philadelphia, Moore College of Art and Design, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts); the 64,000 students who attend the main campuses of Temple, Drexel, and the University of Pennsylvania; and untold others from nearby schools (Swarthmore, Villanova, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, Saint Joseph’s University) who commute into the city for their weekend kicks.
These young affluent residents all add to the anonymity of the city, particularly given that they mostly represent a highly mobile population lacking in familial or neighborhood ties to the city’s more traditional residential communities. As local journalist Sasha Issenberg reported in Philadelphia Magazine in 2003, “Center City looks all the more happening when juxtaposed with sweet, friendly neighborhoods where people do little but chat with neighbors. Where Center City used to be one unbounded zone among many, it has become, like Manhattan, a compact island in the heart of a sprawling city.” In the city’s downtown restaurants and lounges, young urban singles bump against countless Pennsylvania and New Jersey suburban commuters, as well as the anonymous 25.5 million visitors the Philadelphia region attracts each year, a figure that includes 18.8 million leisure travelers and 6.7 million business travelers who stay in the city’s 10,195 hotel rooms.
This mobile and transitory mix of professionals, commuters, tourists, conventioneers, and university students characterizes a downtown culture of anonymity, an affluent world of strangers. Of course, consumers rarely experience the nightlife of the city truly on their own, lost in the lonely crowd—they socialize on romantic dates for two; in large packs of coworkers and clients; on outings with small groups of confidants; and during adventures with other assorted twenty- and thirty-something urban tribes. But even a casual observer of Center City can detect increasingly wider swaths of the downtown landscape where dining and barhopping clusters of friends and colleagues coexist alongside one another but never actually intermingle. It is as if the promise of the gated community as an urban fortress of solitude has been realized on an interpersonal level in the very spaces of public interaction once cherished for their ability to bring strangers together in moments of shared camaraderie, from colonial Philadelphia’s City Tavern to McSorley’s Old Ale House in New York. As the anonymity of urban life in Philadelphia grows alongside the intensified development of its landscape of downtown entertainment—its themed restaurants, elegant brasseries, swank nightclubs, cocktail lounges, sports bars, gentleman’s clubs, and art-house cinemas—it cannot help but impact how today’s thrill-seekers experience the city at night.