Out on the town: Is it time to enliven Lehigh Valley nightlife?

Written by on July 22, 2022

Out on the town: Is it time to enliven Lehigh Valley nightlife?

By Hayden Mitman
July 22, 2022

The Lehigh Valley is growing rapidly.

But to Tyrone Russell, 40, who runs a marketing and development company in Allentown, there’s a glaring hole — an active and multicultural nightlife economy. 

Listen to the story.

“I have friends who have purchased houses in the area, and when they come here they are like ‘What is there to do here after 10 o’clock?’” said Russell, CEO of Faces International. “And, I’m like ‘Nothing. We can go here or we can go there.’

“But, they’re like ‘Man, I don’t want to go to either one of those places.’ And, there’s a lot of folks like that who are coming to this space and saying, ‘What is there to do?’” 

According to the 2020 Census, the Lehigh Valley is one of the fastest-growing regions in Pennsylvania. And young adults are driving that change.

Lehigh County leads the state in the growth of the young adult population. The census showed the county experienced 12 percent growth in adults aged 18 to 34 over the past decade. Northampton County wasn’t far behind, ranked No. 4 in young adult population growth, at nearly 9 percent.

Russell believes there needs to be more focus on getting that group to spend their evenings and weekends – not to mention their dollars – here rather than traveling to New York City or Philadelphia for nightlife. 

“The Valley isn’t short on family events or festivals,” Russell said. “What we are short on is, what do we do for professionals in the evening?’”

‘Where do I go to exist?’

Earlier this month, Russell went before Allentown City Council and pitched an idea to invest American Rescue Plan funds toward nightlife initiatives.

He told a story of the dynamics of two establishments he recently visited while looking to spend a night on the town. 

“[At the first restaurant] I had my dog tags hanging out of my shirt and the bouncer, a white guy, grabs my shirt, he looks at them and is like, ‘You can’t have bling in this club.’ He says you’ll have to tuck it in,” recalled Russell, who is Black. “So, I do, but I get in there and I see people with their chains. I can’t wear dog tags and they have their jewelry out and I’m like ‘I couldn’t wear mine? Why not?’ But, whatever, so let me go to the other margins. I go to a place where I know people wear gold chains. But, when I get to that door, where black and brown people frequent, now the culture is about what I’m wearing. [A bouncer] says, ‘You can’t wear that in here – a plain white T-shirt’… So, I’m stuck in this place that says I’m too black to wear a chain here and not be associated with the wrong crowd, but then I’m black here and I’m OK but they are worried about gang culture and what I’m bringing in because of the color of my shirt. But, I’m neither one. Where do I go to exist?” 

Russell suggested Allentown invest in a venue that could have rotating programming, or perhaps the city create an office or committee to help guide nightlife by working with local businesses.

Focusing on the nighttime economy

It’s not an outlandish idea. Cities all over the world have offices dedicated to the nighttime economy. 

Even nearby, New York City has its own Office of Nightlife and Philadelphia just launched a similar one. 

Michael Fichman, a lecturer and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, says the idea could be a great benefit to the Lehigh Valley.

As a member of Philadelphia’s arts and culture task force, Fichman designed the city’s nighttime economy director’s office. Recommendations and guidance over what happens in the evening, he said, could not only help the growing young adult community in the Lehigh Valley. He says it would support the local economy and enable the region to avoid negative elements often associated with nightlife. 

“What happens in a city after 6 p.m. is often sort of neglected or sometimes misunderstood as being a time or place where there’s a lot of nuisance,” Fichman said. “But every city is a 24-hour city. There are people going to work. There are people who are sleeping. There are people who want to go out and have a meal.

“There are people who want to play music and engage in creative culture and, if you don’t care for those things in a sort of a deliberate way, then the outcomes are out of your control.” 

Could it work here?

What that might look like in the Lehigh Valley is still open-ended. 

Russell didn’t suggest a specific amount of funding in his appeal to Allentown council, and he said he’s open to ideas – whether it’s investment in a shared multicultural venue, a committee formed to focus on the nightlife or something else altogether.

Any proposal will merit study, said City Councilmember Josh Siegel, but he supports the general idea. He and the rest of city council are considering how to allocate millions in American Rescue Plan funds intended to spur pandemic-era recovery.

“You can’t have a thriving region if you don’t have a place where there are young people flocking to, and ultimately, you need an active nightlife scene if you want to retain and attract young people,” Siegel said. “So yeah, I think it’s something the city should actively facilitate and invest in.” 

Danielle Joseph, executive vice president of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce’s diversity council, noted there is room for an increased focus on nightlife.

“What Russell is proposing is extremely valid,” she said. “We want to retain the youth that we have here, the young professionals that are here, and also attract new people and not lose them to Philly or New York wherever there might be a little more stuff to do than we have after 10 o’clock. So, I think, definitely, that’s a thing.” 

Yet, Liz Martin, senior vice president in charge of Allentown initiatives for the chamber, said while she supports the community coming together and bolstering the region‘s nightlife, there already is a lot going on — if you know where to look.

“In terms of young professionals, with downtown Allentown, just because I know the community, there’s something going on every single night, so, it’s there,” she said. 

What’s next?

Putting a more direct focus on the region’s nighttime economy is still just the sprout of an idea, Russell admits. But he suggests if the wheels begin to move now, there could be an appetite for more. 

He pointed to Zest Bar and Grille in South Bethlehem as an example of a business that might grow if given the opportunity.

“The energy in Zest is amazing,” he said. “It’s a little rooftop bar. People love to go there, but Zest closes at 10:30.

“The ambiance is right, but much like everything in the Valley, something is missing,” Russell said. “That next step is missing.” 

Editor’s Note: Lehigh Valley Public Media has a business relationship with Faces International, contracting on diversity, equity and inclusion training.

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