Next level nightlife: How 3 Detroiters are helping their city reinvent its after-hours scene

Detroit has a reputation for being a place filled with hard-working people, many of whom — nurses, auto workers, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, and others — earn their livings at unconventional hours. But when Detroiters get done with work, a lot of them like to hang out and let loose a little, a necessary respite from the sweat and toil that helps keep the Motor City running. Thankfully, there are efforts underway to enhance Detroiters' options for what they do with their free time, creating a more abundant and inclusive nightlife that supports a stronger nighttime economy.

This includes a push along these lines by Mayor Mike Duggan, who named Adrian Tonon as the city's Night Time Economy Ambassador in an effort to bring Detroit's nightlife to the next level. While the title makes it sound like his job is all about Adrian Tononfostering a great environment for parties and late-night fun — and there's certainly an element of that — in a broader sense his work is about overseeing and improving relations between night-time businesses, residents, and the city government. 

In the long-term, he's also focused on assisting Detroit in its transition to a 24-hour economy, one where there are plenty of businesses open at all hours for locals and visitors to frequent. What's more, Tonon wants to do so in a way that's respectful of existing residents and the creative people and businesses that help make the night-time economy flourish.

"I think what’s so important in the overall picture is doing our best to make sure our Detroit [today] looks like our Detroit in 50 years," he says. "[So] it’s thriving and you [still] have the Detroiters that stayed and their kids. That’s the first priority."

A seasoned city employee who devised the customer service standards for local establishments, Tonon's ambassadorial duties are an add-on to his ongoing role as Detroit's first Director of Customer Service. And his experiences co-founding the Detroit Music Foundation and Sick Em Records as well as working with a host of inclusive events — many in partnership with local movers and shakers like Art Babes, the WHLGNs, Detroit-Berlin Connection, and Michael Reyes of We Are Culture Creators — give some street cred to his shiny new title.

Drawing on his years of experience with the city's music and entertainment industries, Tonon has created lines of communication between business owners, developers, Detroit police, Mayor Duggan’s office, and program managers. His background gives him a deep understanding of the types of permitting and licensing obstacles local event producers face, and he taps into his vast network to lessen those barriers. 

This awareness and support from the city is a definite milestone in the journey for a more unified nightlife scene, but an even more empowering development would be assisting Detroiters to own the places that will house the venues and events they wish to experience. 

From Tomon's perspective, there's some movement starting to happen in that direction. He's excited about the work the nonprofit economic development agency Detroit Economic Growth Corporation is doing to support new and expanding small businesses, especially its partnership with the city of Detroit on the Motor City Match program, which pairs entrepreneurs with the owners of local spaces and supports their work with technical and financial assistance. And, for his part, Tonon is working with the city to create a special track that encourages local ownership.

"What we've been doing is an extension of what we're doing in the private sector," he says, "creating access and equity for the young, black, and brown Detroit that typically traditionally gets displaced."
Inclusive nightlife

That's certainly good news for self-proclaimed experience producer Lauren McGrier. Although she's focused on putting together parties right now, she's interested in one day becoming an owner of the types of places where they happen.

A rising star on the local nightlife scene, McGrier runs the event management and staffing company Connect with Lo and is a Lauren McGriermember of the entertainment and consulting firm APX Management. After graduating from Michigan State University in 2014, McGrier decided to formalize her knack for bringing people together by throwing events  for a specific subset of Detroiters — young professionals who may not spend every weekend out but want to partake in a good party every once in a while. 

McGrier's signature event, Twerk X Tequila, has been a raging hit. Its sold-out Cinco de Mayo debut last year attracted heaps of online buzz and a line around the block at El Club, the venue where it was held. Through her work, McGrier also hopes to set an example of an independent entrepreneurial woman finding success in a male-dominated nightlife landscape. 

"Honestly there’s a lot of events that go on in Detroit, but I know, for the people around me, they weren’t fun enough," she says. "At my parties, I just want you to feel like you’re at your auntie’s house and you’re vibing."

Points of connection

That idea of belonging strikes a chord with many Detroiters who feel like their neighborhoods and the downtown areas are changing quickly without their input or consent. Just ask Oren Goldenberg, a local video artist and producer who says this void creates a need for what he calls “cathartic ritual,” which might be described as an established way of gathering together for emotional release.  

Goldenberg got his start throwing all-night parties at his historic Cass Corridor apartment, but stopped throwing them around the time the neighborhood was rebranded as Midtown. Now, you’ll find him circling around the crowd that packs the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue for the celebrated all-night parties that he helps organize there. Goldenberg is interested in carving out meaningful time and space for people to gather.

"Doing parties is a chance to bring people together," he says, "because we keep getting dispersed, when the meeting ground of the neighborhood is no longer there you lose that core."

Longtime Detroiters can relate to the feeling of their favorite hangouts closing and their neighborhood parties being shut down, a situation where it's easy to feel like the city is turning into a paradise for some and a nightmare for others. 

Goldenberg, who has a background doing public sector work, cites the shutting down of  public schools, housing, and parks as one reason why so many Detroiters feel a sense of loss. For him organizing events can be a way to come together in the face of this, though he thinks it's important to do so in a way that builds connections between different groups of Detroiters.

"How do we actually find places to commune with people who are different than us?" he asks. "Because everybody knows that Detroit is still very segregated both economically and racially." 
Party economics and beyond

Tonon has a clear vision for the future of nightlife in Detroit. He sees a city with "a thriving, sustainable, responsible, nighttime 24-hour economy where Detroiters first, but all sorts of people can work, live, and play sustainably.”

Although the connection between partying and supporting the local economy can be fuzzy, it comes down to nighttime crowds bringing more attention and foot traffic to previously ignored areas. This, in turn, makes it more enticing for businesses to stay open later and cater to the needs of the after-hours crowd. And these sorts of changes have the potential to help Detroit shift to a a 24-hour economy like the type that can already be found in bustling open-hours cities like Berlin and New York. 

Like Detroit, these cities are epicenters of food, art, culture, and entertainment, but they have adopted creative alternative economies that center on the experiences of people who work nontraditional hours and seek places to hang out, eat, or run errands when their work day is done.  

The business of nightlife is more than fun and games. And folks like Tonon, McGrier, and Goldenberg are as passionate about bringing people together as Detroiters as are they are about having a good time. Instead of being nostalgic for what's come before — clubs and hangouts that are no longer in business — they are envisioning what the future could look like for the city after the lights go out.

Adrian Tonon and others will be talking about the possibilities of a 24-hour economy for Detroit at Detroit-Berlin Connection's sixth conference, The Potential, on May 21 at the Tangent Gallery.

Photographs of Lauren McGrier and Adrian Tonon are courtesy photos.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Detroit-Berlin Connection as Detroit to Berlin Connection. That oversight has been corrected.