Sex, Lies and Urban Fantasy

David Grazian takes readers on a “sociological tour” of Philadelphia’s nightlife.
March 29, 2008
As a graduate student trained in the Chicago School tradition of urban ethnography, David Grazian cut his sociologist’s teeth in the blues clubs of Chicago. His first book, Blue Chicago, took an insider’s look at how the “authentic” blues experience in modern clubs had become a kind of confidence game – a carefully staged artifice designed to meet club goers’ expectations. In his newest book, On the Make: The Hustle of Urban Nightlife, Grazian takes readers on a “sociological tour” of another confidence game underway in Philadelphia’s downtown nocturnal playground.

“Upon arriving at Penn in 2001,” notes the associate professor of sociology, “I fell in love with the density of Center City and its thick pedestrian traffic, its delicate balance of cosmopolitan chic and proletarian grit.” On the Make probes how economic restructuring has shaped urban life in postindustrial cities that have made the transition from manufacturing centers to giant entertainment zones that service “an affluent world of strangers” – the tourists, frequent fliers, suburban commuters and highly-mobile residents who patronize the restaurants and nightclubs.

Through conversations with restaurant owners, bartenders, publicists, waitresses, busboys and other service workers, Grazian gives the reader a backstage view of the props and scripts that expose the theatrical qualities of urban nightlife. He also surveys the fun seekers who frequent the city’s high-concept dining and hip nightclub scene. In contrast to neighborhood bars where “everybody knows your name,” the nighttime world Grazian describes is a Hobbesean hustle of all against all, spawned by a city “thick with the human traffic of anonymous strangers.”

“The nightlife of the city is a Darwinian jungle where even the nicest people will think nothing of cutting in line or lying about their age,” he says. “Middle-aged, married men hit on college girls, who in return give out fake phone numbers; male and female bartenders use their sexuality for tips, and flirty publicists masquerade as fun-loving customers at the bars and clubs they represent, artificially heightening the fun that the squares can’t be counted on to generate for themselves.” The relentless hustle, Grazian says – the stagecraft aimed at separating the “mark” from his money or the performance of male- and femaleness that seek to win status or a sexual dalliance – thrives in this city of strangers.

“The biggest surprise,” he observes, “was to discover how anxiety producing the experience of urban nightlife is for young people. … And it’s a shame – having fun should be way more fun than this.”