Down with the underground

Zone 6
On any given night in sections of West Philadelphia (pre-COVID, of course) there is an underground nightclub doing the most and having a hell of a time while doing it. This is Zone 6. | Image courtesy: Ben Villano

On a standard weekend night, pre-coronavirus, of course, most Philadelphia clubs and bars close up shop at 2 a.m. There are only a handful of blessed establishments exempt from that strict close time, Pen & Pencil and Zee Bar to name two. 

However, there’s a nightlife scene that operates outside the purview of the liquor control board and law enforcement. A major player in that scene is “Zone 6,” an unsanctioned West Philly after-hours club that opens at midnight at closes whenever the party stops.

Zone 6 is run by a pragmatic 27-year-old who goes by “Zell.” The soft-spoken club owner explained that he is much younger than anyone else running an after-hours spot in the city, of which he could name five or six.

Zell’s operation is extremely fluid by design. Without proper licensing, Zone 6 functions as a modern illegal speakeasy forced to conceal its existence from the police. Zone 6 is not a concrete place, rather a brand that moves from rented space to rented space on a week-to-week basis.

One week it’s in a warehouse, the following week it could be in a home. The only way to find out the location of Zone 6 is by reaching out to its social media pages or being personally invited.

What is offered at an unsanctioned West Philly after-hours club? It offers multiple flavors of hookah and even supplies disposable mouthpieces for hygiene purposes. There is a bar serving a modest range of liquor in translucent plastic cups, as well as the signature Zone Punch.

Regardless of the location, there is always a stripper pole for the cavalcade of dancers there to work. 

When asked why he runs an after-hours spot, Zell replied, “Some of the ones (after-hours spots) that include dancers have a different kind of dancer, they have dancers that get high a lot or sell themselves for money. Those places exist in Philly where you can go and have sex with people. I wanted to be the opposite of that.” 

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Zell stresses safety, cleanliness, and professionalism whenever asked about the club.

“There have been no fights or shootings in two and a half years,” Zell explains. “No one brings a gun in, not me, not my best friends, no one. Only the security guard.” 

Flexx, a dancer and bartender at Zone 6, explained, “If I was someone visiting for the first time, I’d be skeptical about safety, but the more I come here, it’s like home. It’s like a family, club type of thing.”

The general atmosphere is not reminiscent of a standard strip club, it’s more comparable to a college party, plus strippers. A DJ plays the hottest new hip-hop, blunts circulate from patrons to staff, and there is a standard level of familiarity between all parties.

It’s easy to gawk at the idea of an unlicensed nomadic strip club, but its very existence beckons greater questions. Zell mentioned the lack of after-hours spots in Philadelphia in comparison to New York: “Zone 6 is an after-hours club because other bars close at 2 o’clock. … A lot of people like staying out past then. In New York, where there’s a lower crime rate, they allow clubs and parties to continue to operate with no problem.”

“Some of the ones (after-hours spots) that include dancers have a different kind of dancer, they have dancers that get high a lot or sell themselves for money. Those places exist in Philly where you can go and have sex with people. I wanted to be the opposite of that.”

Zone 6 founder and owner “Zell”

Zell has run into legal troubles running this operation. Zone 6 has been raided, and Zell has been arrested and fined by the Department of License and Inspection.

Pennsylvania has some of the most strict and inane alcohol regulations in America. The restrictions range from forcing bars to close at 2 a.m. to the prohibition of beer pong in bars. Pennsylvania is the most difficult state to acquire a liquor license as state law puts a limit on the number of licenses available, inflating the cost and impacting the price. The only way to acquire a liquor license in Pennsylvania is to acquire one that already exists. 

Pennsylvania is the only state in the union that operates this way. States like Vermont and Minnesota simply charge a small annual fee and ask that you fill out a form.

Philly’s unsanctioned clubs exist mostly in neighborhoods where predominately the black clientele feels comfortable going out. 

“In different areas, we would look odd walking down the street, like in this area (around UPenn’s campus), a bunch of black people at 4 a.m., cops are gonna be drawn to us,” Zell explained. “As black people, we tend to ‘look suspicious’ after a certain hour in the eyes of law enforcement. We get hassled. So a lot of after-hours places are more so in urban areas where there is a majority of black people. We get harassed past certain times. It happens.”

The section of West Philly where Zone 6 is located offers little to no nightlife. The nearest clubs are miles away in areas of the city where Zell doesn’t believe his patrons would feel comfortable or welcomed.

Where would the hundreds of people go each night if there weren’t places like Zone 6?

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When the 2016 Democratic National Convention came to Philadelphia, Gov. Wolf signed a revenue package granting “national event permits” to “bars hosting DNC events” permitting them to push last-call back to 4 a.m. When patrons of Zone 6 want to enjoy themselves past 2 a.m., it is against the law; but when friends of the government (who dictate the arbitrary liquor laws) want to enjoy themselves, the rules are subject to change. Moments like this point to how arbitrary the 2 a.m. close time really is.

Zell hopes to one day turn Zone 6 into a legally sound private club. At his current capacity, he brings in close to a hundred patrons on a weekend night and employs 8-10 people. Zone 6 functions as a source of extra income for all involved, it’s somewhere for strippers to work after the clubs close at 2am, an extra security shift for bouncers, and is even Zell’s side hustle.

One dancer studied for her midterm as the other dancers got dressed. “I just got off my shift at the airport, it’s always good to come here and make a little extra money,” another dancer explained.

The illegal nature of Zone 6 provides benefits as well as headaches. It’s the only place in Philadelphia, where you can smoke a blunt with some strippers and get a Crown & Coke at 5 a.m.

Working in the service industry provides an extremely uncertain lifestyle, working at an unsanctioned after-hours strip club ramps that uncertainty up 10 times. For an operation like Zone 6 to function legally, Philadelphia would have to restructure the entirety of its alcohol laws and fundamentally change the service industry. Zone 6 is the byproduct of a system that is not friendly to change or adaptation and rarely feels pressure to evolve.

In 2016, state Rep. Scott Petri said it was “of tremendous economic benefit for Philadelphia” to keep bars open for two extra hours while the DNC was in town. Why not extend that “tremendous economic benefit” to the entire city?

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