24HrPHL: Nightlife in the Broad Light of Day

Michael Fichman, aka DJ Apt One, aka Michael the Lion, arrives at the Indie-Life offices on a steamy June night clad in cut-off jeans and a t-shirt bearing an old Philly subway logo. “Sorry for the baby spit-up on my shoes,” he says.

Fichman’s style neatly sums up his life at the moment: a new dad, balancing his career as a DJ with freelance work to pay the bills—a man with big plans for his family and his community that reflect a deep commitment to both. He shrugs off any praise for this balancing act, saying, “It’s more like I’m juggling and I haven’t dropped anything yet.”

He’s here to talk about 24HrPHL, his latest project. “It’s a community engagement campaign that I’m trying to put together that explores the world of nightlife arts and culture,” he tells us. The mission is to bridge the gap between City Hall and the city’s nightlife denizens—a community of artists, venue owners, DJs and promoters whose days begin after dark. Fichman received an Emerging City Champions Fellowship to develop a series of public and private discussions that will tackle the thorny issues of nightlife culture in a city that is, as he says, “a daytime-focused organism.”

The brainstorming has already begun on Twitter and in a private Facebook group. Those online debates are in preparation for a series of private group meetings IRL, and eventually a public panel discussion. Fichman hopes that this open dialogue and the ideas it generates will lead to substantive change in how lawmakers and nightlifers deal with regulatory, economic, and social issues together.

Fichman sees the appeal of Philly’s nightlife arts and culture as a draw to young people coming to Philadelphia; it is part of the city’s broader revitalization of the past decade and a half. But there are some long-simmering beefs between the city’s music scene and the city government, police department, and licensing and inspection board. Those issues came to a head in January of 2016 with the introduction of Bill 160016, which would have required performers to register their personal information with the City Police, and nearly doubled the license application fees paid by venues. There was an immediate outcry from the Philadelphia music and nightlife community, and the bill was quickly scrapped. But for Fichman, the uproar sparked an idea. “It was just really, really impractical,” he says of the bill, “and would have been impossible [to] carry out. I just realized, ‘Oh, I don’t think they understand at all how this works.’” Indie-Life Media

And he is uniquely positioned to explain how it works. An internationally touring DJ who has developed his own record labels, Fichman has a devoted fan base and reputation as a connoisseur of classic Philly sound—blending funk, disco and soul into a vibrant mix of dance music.  He also has a Master’s degree in city planning from Penn. A dance party favorite by night, by day he conducts quantitative city planning research as a consultant. “At some point a bell went off,” he says. “This is the Venn diagram of the two things I know about. I thought I would try to be an advocate in this space because I’m able to fluidly use the dialect of both sides or understand some of the issues on both sides, and at least appear credible to both sides.” He pauses to glance down at his frayed cut-offs. “I might wear different pants though.”

The vision for 24HrPHL has global roots. Fichman is fascinated with the ways in which cities around the world have succeeded—or failed—to incorporate their own nightlife cultures into city life and law. He is particularly inspired by Amsterdam’s nacht burgemeester, or Night Mayor. Operating as an NGO and not as an extension of the official city government, he is “a sort of quasi-minister of nightlife arts and culture in Amsterdam,” a liaison between the town’s storied nightlife and its staid city council. It’s an idea that has found support in other cities as well: New York now has a Night Ambassador, and similar movements are happening in London, Berlin, and Paris. When the two men recently met they talked about “how there aren’t these quantitative dimensions of this world that we can really call upon to say, ‘Here’s why this matters in terms of economic impact, in terms of global competitiveness, how large the sector is, that it attracts the following kind of residents.’ You know, numbers.”

When asked if he could pick one thing that he hopes 24HrPHL can accomplish, he balks. “Can I pick three?” Drawing from the Facebook group’s conversations, he singles out the cost of liquor licenses, expanding late night transit services, and the “toxic relationship” between venue owners and the city’s Licensing and Inspection board. He adds diplomatically, “It would be better if everybody was mutually understanding and pulling in the same direction.”

“Discussions in this realm have been so messy for so long,” he says, “that I’m not sure we’ve ever pushed into the next realm as a city, beyond collectively complaining. Collectively complaining is certainly a useful step in this process, but moving to a more constructive set of behaviors is where I’d like to see it go.”

Indie-Life’s Rasheed Abdellah and Michael Fichman

This summer Fichman travels to Toronto for a four-day workshop as part of his fellowship, where he’ll refine his plans for the initiative and broaden his network of civic visionaries. Then 24HrPHL will begin planning for its first public panel, which he hopes to have in the fall. In the meantime, Michael the Lion is not neglecting his own music (or his fans). Soul Clap Records is releasing his self-titled EP, now available for pre-order, and on July 21st he’ll be promoting it with a spot date at Front St. Cafe.

When asked if he’s ever considered taking on the role of Philadelphia Night Mayor himself, Fichman just smiles enigmatically and replies: “No comment.”