The battle over a Tacony “sex positive” club played out in an especially heated — and salacious — Philadelphia zoning board meeting last year.
An attorney hired by the Tacony Civic Association showed board members a binder of bondage and pornographic images in an attempt to prove that the the club activities should require an adult entertainment permit, like those used for strip clubs and adult cabarets. The club’s permit to operate as a fraternal organization was revoked, which eventually could have forced it from its location in the historic Tacony Music Hall building on Longshore Avenue.
Club owners fired back, arguing that the association had misunderstood and misrepresented its purpose: to educate people about safe and diverse sexual preferences, including polyamory and BDSM. The club argued its constitutional rights had been violated. Why were its activities being put under a microscope when other fraternal organizations didn’t face the same type of scrutiny?
Then, something unexpected happened.
The largely blue-collar civic association and progressive club leaders worked things out.
The club, called Philly Music Hall, has been operating for more than a year, serving hundreds of members. There are needle-play workshops, and discussions on relationship power dynamics and deconstructing male toxicity. All meetings are held in the evenings on the second and third floors of the building. Neighbors haven’t complained once.
“I think one of the biggest concerns was the shock factor, that this was going to be like a swingers club," said Pete Smith, who inherited the dispute when he became president of the civic association in May. “There were some misinterpretations, myself included. But look, they haven’t been a problem. ... No one’s complained, so their business is not affecting anybody, and when I came in as president, I took a look at it and thought, why can’t we just work together?”
Deborah Rose Hinchey, the club’s executive director, agreed. The parties ironed out a settlement that allows the club to operate as a fraternal organization with certain (mostly pre-existing) stipulations: no one under age 18 permitted inside without parental permission, no drug or alcohol use, no exchange of money for sex.
Sexual activity is not the intended purpose of the club, the agreement states. But it’s still allowed and practiced there.
In exchange, the civic association agreed to an anti-defamation clause. Members can’t disseminate information or opinions on the club without consent of its leadership.
Hinchey and her co-founders started the club to create a safe space in the city for sex-positive exploration. She said that previously, the alt-sex community would gather in warehouses without proper zoning or security. Sex positivity encompasses a wide range of sexual preferences and ideas. Classes deal with the emotional implications of a polyamorous relationship — think dealing with jealousy and partner equity. There are knot-tying workshops and gatherings that have nothing to do with sex, like gingerbread-house decorating nights and Dungeon and Dragons tournaments.
The club, which celebrated its second year in May, has more than 400 members, about 50 of whom live in the Northeast.
“I always believed and the hall always believed the more information the neighborhood had about us, the more they knew about us, the more they would trust us, and I think that’s what happened here," Hinchey said.
Smith and Hinchey don’t have a lot in common. He’s a life-long Tacony resident who met his wife of 30 years in the neighborhood and raised his family there. He works as a manager for a uniform company, overseeing delivery drivers, and he acknowledges he “doesn’t really know what the heck ‘sex positive’ means,” though he’s a defender of the place all the same.
Hinchey lives in West Philadelphia, and when she’s not running the club, she’s a pro-LGBTQ and immigrant-rights activist coordinating events all over the city.
Their collaboration isn’t the only way the changing neighborhood has come together recently. Tacony, once predominantly white, now has about 49 percent minority residents, many of them Latino and Asian immigrants. In November, a Dominican family received a racist letter, threatening to firebomb their home if the family played loud music. The community rallied around the family. Smith said the response said more about the neighborhood than the one cruel, unknown sender.
Smith also sees an opportunity to partner with Hinchey on the neighborhood’s opioid problems. His son struggles with addiction, as do many people in the area. The crisis has caused an uptick in car break-ins and prostitution, he said. He’s talked to Hinchey about working with the civic association to help the community, specifically sex workers.
“I’d love to see the girls on the avenue getting the help they need and not doing the things they’re doing now, and I think Deborah is going to be a good resource for that," he said.
Councilman Bobby Henon, who represents the neighborhood and initially objected to the club’s zoning, said he would have preferred a use of the building “that every resident could use or a use that created job opportunities,” but noted his office hasn’t received any complaints.
“I have no control over private property transactions, and provided that a use on a private property is permitted and lawful, I can’t stop it from happening. The only thing I can do is advocate for positive community engagement, better relationships, and more opportunities for partnership that better the community as a whole.”
Connie Delury, a past secretary of the civic association, who was outspoken in her opposition to the club last year, still takes issue with the sex positive club operating as a fraternal organization, defined in the zoning code as a not-for-profit enterprise for “bona fide, annual dues-paying members and their occasional guests.”
“Does that mean a bar can charge their regulars $20 monthly dues and they get one shot a week and now the bar can have whatever sex show ... they want with no adult business oversight by the city because they’re a private organization?” Delury asked. “I will say this: The club is quiet. There’s been no disruption, no events that spill out onto the street, no parking issues. They are not bad neighbors, and that was never what the fight was about. It was a reluctance on the part of the community to allow a zoning variance for an adult business.”
Club member Lydia, who declined to give a last name, has commuted to Philly Music Hall almost weekly from Malvern since it opened. Lydia was married at the hall in a polyamorous wedding ceremony to two men last December. The 41-year-old professional chef and mom is now a trustee on the Hall’s board, working to make the club more accessible to people with disabilities.
"It’s been very instrumental in my being able to be more open about who I am,” Lydia said. “Being a part of this is a part of my everyday life. Being a mother is my main thing, but I want kids like my son to be able to grow up in a world where there’s not stigmas based on what they’re interested in.”