In the cover photo for an event on Facebook, a young woman arches her back, and opens her mouth. Champagne spills down her throat, froths over her bare shoulders, soaks her long hair. The insignia of an off–campus fraternity is stamped in the corner of the image, along with a time, date and name of a club downtown.
You click 'join' on the Facebook event. You check who’s also attending: 76 friends, 347 people total. You scroll through the list. You accept invites for two other downtowns the same night.
Or maybe you don’t. Downtowns can feel ubiquitous—a stream of Facebook invitations notifications and dimly lit, highly filtered Instagrams. The downtown isn’t about the club; it’s about the people you see there. Yet, the thousands of invitees aren’t always representative of those who show up, much less the Penn student body as a whole.
The dividing line between those who do and don’t go to downtowns isn’t as simple as crossing the 30th Street Bridge, en route to Rumor or Roxxy in an UberXL. Downtowns provide a false escape, transporting the Penn bubble rather than bursting it. They provide a place where campus organizations, and in particular fraternities, can host Penn–exclusive parties on their terms.
To the average Whartonite or ECON–001 survivor, throwing a downtown seems simple. Take the adage ‘you need to spend money to make money’, and give it a twist. At an average downtown, breaking even is easy.
Jared Levin, a College junior in Theos, estimates he could spend a couple hundred dollars on bottle service alone at a downtown. “It’s an image thing, but it’s fun,” he says. But he’s skeptical of a prevailing social desire to get a table at every event. “On your average Wednesday night, do you need it? Do you really need it? I guess some people need it,” he says with a shrug.
The success of a downtown is contingent on people showing up. Groups that attract the most guests not only make the most money but also enjoy the perks of feeling socially relevant. In turn, attendees can revel in the opportunity to see and be seen—quantifying the night in Snapstories, Venmo exchanges and selfies with profile picture potential.
Euro Penn, a social group revolving around European culture and pride, recently stopped hosting downtowns—a tradition the club started—due to a decline in interest and attendance. Victor Debenedetti, College senior and former president of the club, remembers the exact amount the group made at the last downtown they threw before the moratorium: $157. In previous years, when attendance was better, Euro Penn could make $1500 in a night, he ballparks, and a “really good downtown” could bring in significantly more.
In past years, Victor saw organizing downtowns as an exercise in strategy. Members of Euro Penn would meet and ask, “Alright, who’s throwing this day?” he recalls. “And you’d try and pick your opponents.”
Simon Benigeri, also a College senior in Euro Penn, sums the social politics up well: “People are going to be loyal. It’s not about who has the best party, it’s about where you should be.”
Like any Penn student graded on a curve, the success of a downtown is relative. “Sometimes we would have really shitty downtowns,” Victor continues, “But I would hear ‘Yeah, Oz was even worse.’ And it would be like, ‘Yeah, okay, we still won.’”
Those interviewed for this piece disagree about the importance of downtowns and what the Penn social scene will look like in ten years. But, almost unanimously, they believe it’s changing.
Greta Mavica, a College senior who banned downtowns during her time as Euro Penn social chair, believes the downtown scene “has outlived itself.” But others believe the problem permeates Penn’s social culture on a deeper level, inherently tied to the structure of Greek organizations.
Rumors allege that almost every fraternity on Locust Walk has received cease and desist orders or been placed on probation, the next step in investigating infractions. People gossip about which sororities might follow in the footsteps of AXO, who recently attempted to move off–campus.
As a policy, the Office of Fraternity Sorority Life doesn’t comment on on–going investigations, according to Scott Reikofski, the director of OFSL, in an email. Going off–campus, whether to host events or form unaffiliated organizations, liberates Greek groups from Penn's oversight.
A few interviewees mentioned a desire to meet with OFSL officials and discuss ways to make partying culture safer. And in an email, Reikofski wrote, “Downtowns are a viable and positive option for Greek chapters seeking to host social events with alcohol.”
But Wharton junior and member of a fraternity, Arjan Singh, argues that if Penn Greek life continues to clash with the administration, the campus will either see more groups move off–campus or watch official fraternities and sororities disband altogether. “I think the social scene would be much more fragmented that way,” he says. “People would become more adventurous that way, but it comes at the expense of having a plan every weekend.”
“This sounds kind of sad to say, but my week, my social life schedule, revolved around Thursdays,” says College sophomore Madeline Penn, a member of Theta, recalling her infatuation with going downtown freshman year.
Jared also used downtowns to socialize and network as an underclassman. “Definitely my freshman and sophomore year, I was a quote, unquote, ‘scenester’” he says with a self–deprecating smirk. “Every downtown, it didn’t matter who threw it, I wanted to be there.”
Attending downtowns became an integral part of Jared’s rush experience, as he “bro–flirted” his way through event after event, buying drinks for the brothers. In the spring of his freshman year, Jared joined Theos.
Madeline credits a sense of social elevation—of doing something other college freshman don’t—for increasing the hype. “People at Dartmouth don’t do this. I’m not wearing sweatpants and drinking a beer,” she says.
But the novelty wore off.
She puts it in Penn terms: “At first you think you’re cool, like, ‘Oooh, I’m clubbing,’ but then you realize it’s just a big bat mitzvah with Penn people who pay off the bouncer.”
After spending last fall abroad, Jared lost interest in downtowns that didn’t measure up to London nightlife. “When you’re young, you want to drink because you haven’t done it,” he says. “And a lot of people going to college haven’t really gone clubbing and just to be able to go clubbing with older people is kind of interesting, kind of a little taboo.”
Others grow tired of the superficial socializing facilitated by the nightclub setting.
“You see these people during the day on Locust Walk and you don’t even say hi to them, but at the downtowns it’s, ‘Hi darling! How are you?’” says Greta.
Sitting around a table at Capogiro with Greta and Simon, Victor adds, “Now it’s 20 bucks [for cover]. When we were freshman, it was 10 bucks.” The problem, he says, isn’t so much the surge in price—it’s the decreased value of what that money buys.
For underclassmen, the hefty cover fee provides not only entry to the club but also access to a nightlife scene. “It’s sort of a silent, or sometimes not–so–silent, agreement that you’re going to be very, very lenient at the door,” Arjan says. He adds, “If not, greasing does occur.”
As the thrill of underage drinking wanes and fake IDs are swapped for the real deal, getting blackout drunk—or hanging out with underclassmen who are—loses it’s luster. “If you ever go to a downtown sober,” Jared says, “it’s a complete 180.”
“The downtown isn’t really going to go anywhere,” Arjan says.“People might see it as a way to get off campus—and a way that is easy for them. But what it really becomes is just an extension of that Penn bubble.”
Various groups have tried to reimagine Philadelphia as a social space for Penn students. They’ve hosted events utilizing the city’s artistic and cultural resources. But so far, no one has created an experience capable of replacing the money or frequency of downtowns.
Music becomes a compromise—drawing in people who would regularly attend downtowns and providing people who don’t a reason to go.
Despite College junior Damien Ekechukwu’s preference for Smokes’ over traditional downtowns, he organized a charity concert hosted by Beta, bringing in EDM duo Chainsmokers to headline. The concert raised $3,500 for the American Foundation for Suicide. This year, Beta is hosting Sound Remedy and The Jane, hoping for similar success.
“In terms of our event, I don’t like to consider it a downtown.” Damien says. But he concedes, “Yes, it is downtown. [But] my vision of a downtown is you go, you pay 20 bucks for cover, you’re in nice clothes, possibly a blazer, and you’re paying for expensive drinks.”
Music strips away the importance of money—or at least, ostentatious displays of wealth; people come to see a performance rather than to simply be seen.
Arjan cites a “whole scene revolving around Dolphin Tavern,”—a club in South Philly that regularly hosts live artists—as a possible alternative for Penn students seeking to escape campus. “It’s no frills,” he says. “You go there. You go for the music. You go there to dance. Cover’s cheap. Drinks are cheap.”
Then again, the emerging music scene is still a scene.
Greta, who talks about music with heated excitement, bemoans the superficiality of attending events to hear on–campus DJs. “People go to places because of the name of the frat brother they know, and not because the music is going to be good,” she says.
The desire to be in the right place at the right time remains inherently ingrained in Penn’s social life, whether on or off campus, in a nightclub or in a bar. “I never thought I’d be a senior at Penn still talking about social capital,” Greta says, laughing.
Marley Coyne is a junior in the College studying English with a concentration in creative writing. She is current managing editor of Street.
Watch Tiffany Valentiny '15 ask about Penn's downtown habits on Locust. Video produced by Kyle Bryce–Borthwick.