It was an hour after midnight at Tierra Nightclub, and 200 clients were dancing to hip-hop, techno, and bachata under Christmas ornaments and neon lights. Scattered throughout the crowd, people were passing around the hose of a small water pipe, better known as a hookah.
At the bar was Rudy Meza, who, despite having his own hookah in his Brooklyn home, comes to the North Philly nightclub once a week. Drinking vodka tonic and puffing mint-flavored tobacco, the 34-year-old said he prefers to smoke at venues that provide “the whole package.”
“It just doesn’t make sense to stay at home when there is a safe place to find good music, have a drink, and relax,” he said. “I would fight to keep this place open.”
The future of Philly hookah lounges is on people’s minds since legislation referred to as the Smoking Lounge Bill was passed unanimously at a Dec. 5 City Council session. It not only would create a new classification in the zoning code for eating and drinking establishments that sell tobacco and tobacco-related products for use in the business’ premises, but it would limit new smoking lounges mostly to Center City.
There are 26 licensed hookah lounges in the city — 23% of which are Latino-owned and -operated in North Philly. So what this will mean for the Latino nightlife scene, known for its festive atmosphere, casual dress code, and hookah use?
Jimmy Durán, a Philadelphia business consultant, said social venues that don’t offer hookahs in North Philadelphia have tres gatos (“three cats”) — basically, an anemic clientele.
“It’s against the American values of equal opportunity, of competitiveness, to create a geographic monopoly that excludes and isolates communities of color ... from being part of this economy,” said Durán, former programs director for the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
The bill, introduced by Councilman Bobby Henon — who told WHYY that police activity was the reason to regulate this “kind of spawn” — needs Mayor Jim Kenney’s signature by the end of the year to take effect. Spokesperson Mike Dunn said Kenney is reviewing the bill.
The rise of hookahs in Latino Philly
Hookah smoking involves inhaling through charcoal the water vapor to which either fruity-flavored herbal leaves (shisha) or tobacco have been added — similar to a marijuana bong, although users don’t get high. It can carry the same health risks as cigarette smoking, if not higher ones.
Hookah smoking entered the Latino scene after the urban-music explosion of the mid-2000s, when hip-hop singers collaborated with reggaetón artists on songs that featured hookahs in the lyrics or in their music videos.
Its popularity among North Philly Latinos can be traced to its rise in northern Manhattan and the South Bronx between 2008 and 2012. Patrons fled New York City after a bill passed there in 2017 limited access to hookah smoking.
Mercy Mosquera, general manager for the 30-year-old Tierra Colombiana Restaurant, the Tierra Nightclub, and Center City’s Mixto Restaurante, said hookah smoking is in such high demand that North Philly restaurants, bars, and clubs can’t do without it.
She recalled 2016, when her business lost 40% to 50% of its revenue after the state imposed taxes and licensing fees on retail sales of certain tobacco and smoking-related products, including hookahs. Hookah smoking — which accounts for about 20% of her businesses’ overall earnings — directly impacts her drink and food sales, she said.
With the pending legislation, businesses that currently operate hookah services with the correct permits, licenses and approvals would be accepted “by right.” But future hookah entrepreneurs couldn’t apply for a variance in any but two additional zoning classifications outside of Center City, said Libby Peters, director of policy and strategic initiatives for the Department of Commerce. Current business owners wanting to expand would have to apply for a new smoking permit, she said.
“You know, business investors and owners have revitalized these neighborhoods ... while Center City gets all the benefits and the tourists," Mosquera said. “We would appreciate less attacks toward North Philadelphia.”
Henon did not return requests for comment.
Mosquera said her enterprises will comply with any additional requirements on top of the 16 licenses she already pays for, including those to allow smoking (hookah and cigarette/cigar), neon lighting, and collecting covers at the door.
The zoning legislation comes at the same time the city’s Departments of Commerce and Public Health have been speaking with business owners about the possible impact to be created by a separate policy — yet to be introduced in City Council — that would require smoking-warning signage at venues’ entrances and on their menus, and establish a health-risks awareness campaign.
Sarah Adamo, legislative affairs manager for the Department of Licenses and Inspections, said the department supports Henon’s bill and is ready to enforce it should it become a law.
“In the past, L&I has struggled to fit these types of uses into one of the use categories listed in the code," Adamo said during testimony about the bill. "This legislation would provide an unambiguous use category, which will result in more predictable and consistent reviews and enforcement efforts by the department.”
During hearings in October, Marty Gregorski, division director of the city Planning Commission, said potential business owners should be allowed by right in more districts.
“Only permitting these uses in Center City, where the bulk of the CMX-4 and -5 districts are located, basically blocks them from virtually every other part of the city, including large shopping centers and commercial strips,” Gregorski said.
Daniel Concepción and his wife, Rossi Genao, own Makumba Nightclub and El Mesón Restaurante in the Northeast. Although they would be required to apply for a permit to expand hookah smoking to the restaurant’s second floor, the couple think the legislation could be beneficial if it were to keep businesses like theirs from being policed as much as the hoyitos — those operated illegally.
“We pray to God every day asking that nothing happens at one of those places, because it becomes a bad day of business for us,” Genao said about the periodic parking lot police patrols or the unnecessary evacuations.
The ripple effect
José Miguel Brazobán Sánchez, better known as “Gucci,” is a hookero — a person who cleans, prepares, lights, and maintains hookahs at lounges.
The 28-year-old Dominican, self-taught from working at clubs in his native Santo Domingo, first saw a hookah in 2008 when a cousin brought in his luggage a dismantled water pipe from New York.
“We had never seen a thing like it before," Sánchez said. “We all thought it was a lamp.”
Now one of three part-time hookeros at Tierra Nightclub, Sánchez said he can make up to $400 a night in tips on top of his $10-an-hour pay.
In his three years working in Philly, he’s said, he’s seen an almost doubling of Latino-owned smoking lounges. Depending on a lounge’s amenities, hookah services employ between two and six people, he said.
“It doesn’t make sense to regulate hookahs this way, because it’s a gig one can rely on and keeps people from the stress,” he said.