The Victorian redbrick Tacony Music Hall is an icon of this working class riverfront community in the lower Northeast. The stately bulk of the building is breathtaking, standing out from its plainspoken neighbors on Longshore Avenue. It’s the kind of building that causes newcomers to the neighborhood to stop and gaze upward in awe.
Over the decades, the Tacony Music Hall has housed retail, a library, literary society, and community organizations, and its assembly hall hosted performances and public events. It has, of late, been a real estate office and home to Tacony Community Development Corporation. Now in its third century of existence this historically-designated structure is slated for a unique new use.
If all goes according to plan, the Tacony Music Hall will be Philadelphia’s first sex positive community center.
There are a lot of rumors swirling around the neighborhood about what that means exactly. Will it be a nightclub? A swingers’ venue, like the Saints and Sinners venue that Councilman Bobby Henon helped shut down in Holmesburg last year?
“All you hear is rumors, nothing concrete,” says Joseph Sannutti, president of the Tacony Civic Association. On vacation in Texas, Sannutti hasn’t been appraised of the latest community meetings on the subject, but he said that’s what he’d been hearing before he headed south.
“We were told it was going to be a lesbian, gay, transgender club—that’s their business,” says Sannutti. “But we also heard it’s going to be a nightclub, where they sell booze and stuff. We are completely against that all together.”
The new plans for the music hall have been quietly coming together for the past few months. Now with a ZBA hearing scheduled and the community abuzz, PlanPhilly sat down with Deborah Rose Hinchey, one of the principal organizers behind the project, to talk about the future of the Tacony Music Hall.
“I had a neighbor come up to me at the space the other day and ask if we are a sex club,” says Hinchey. “I didn’t anticipate the rumors. I realized we had to get into the neighborhood and explain that we are not a swingers club or a sex club.”
Hinchey and her team aren’t planning an LGBTQ community center either, although she said the model for the new organization is based on spaces like the William Way Center in the Gayborhood.
The Tacony Music Hall will serve as a space for those who subscribe to the philosophy of sex positivity. It’s an expansive umbrella that encompasses a lot of preferences and practices, which Hinchey described as inclusive of everything from polyamory, or the practice of engaging openly in concurrent sexual relationships, to bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism (BDSM). The key organizing tenet is that sex of pretty much any kind is good and healthy as long as it’s consensual.
The community center slated for the Tacony Music Hall will hold movie nights, offer classes in different relationship practices, and parties that cater to a variety of alternative sexual communities.
Sannutti and the Tacony Civic need not worry about crazed late night dance parties though. Hinchey said alcohol and drugs would be explicitly banned from the space.
“A lot of these communities currently operate largely in bars and illegal warehouses,” says Hinchey. “Because of the stigma attached to them, these communities have largely been forced into the shadows and the shadows are dangerous.”
Hinchey and her compatriots want to open up a space, dubbed the Philadelphia Music Hall, for people to explore sexuality outside of mainstream society in a safe and consensual fashion. They believe that booze or drugs of any kind would imperil that mission.
“Consent is a problem when alcohol is involved--any intoxicant really blurs the line,” says Hinchey. “We want people to make educated, consensual, and risk aware decisions. Not allowing intoxicants in a space infinitely improves the safety of that space.”
Not only do intoxicants complicate consent, but they also discourage the participation of sober individuals and expose these marginalized communities to interference from the state.
In addition to a ban on the sale or ingestion of intoxicants, no one under the age of 18 can enter the Philadelphia Music Hall. Participants must review the organization’s rules and regulations—such as no touching anyone without their explicit approval—and sign a waiver agreeing before entering.
The sex positive community center will only occupy the top two floors of the three-story building, with the first floor available for rent to other businesses. Currently a daycare and the Tacony CDC operate on the ground floor.
The programming of the community center will vary, with movie nights, game nights, and classes during the week. Parties after business hours will occur on the weekends. There will also be eight co-working spaces available to members of the center. Membership costs between $50 and $150 a year.
Hinchey and her business partners have been planning the idea of an alcohol-free sex positive gathering space for three years. The concept is more common on the west coast, home to the Center for Positive Sexuality in Los Angeles, the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco, and the Center for Sex Positive Culture Seattle.
When Hinchey first began scouting locations for a community center they concentrated in West Philadelphia, especially in areas close to Cedar Park and Spruce Hill, neighborhoods that have a long history of providing safe spaces and group houses for those outside normative society.
“I have stood in an ungodly number of abandoned warehouses and vacant churches,” said Hinchey. “We had a long love affair with putting it in West Philly because the communities we serve are based here. The lower Northeast it just wasn’t on our radar. We knew the councilman from that area has largely gone after sex positive communities in the past. But who could turn down the Tacony Music Hall?”
Hinchey is referring to Councilman Henon’s campaign last year to shut down Saints and Sinners, a swingers club with locations in Port Richmond and Atlantic City. In that case, alcohol was most definitely on the menu although neighbors of the location in Port Richmond told ABC News that the club didn’t make noise or generate trash.
Hinchey and her team tried to fly under the radar for fear of political interference. Their benefactor, Harry Leff, purchased the building in January and plans to lease them the top two floors. Despite the fact that the club isn’t seeking a license to serve alcohol, or any zoning variances, they have a ZBA hearing scheduled for April 5th. The group needs a private club license—to ensure its members anonymity—and a special exception for "live entertainment for over 50 people." That's where the ZBA comes in.
That hearing gives the community, and Councilman Henon, potential leverage. At last week’s meeting of the Tacony Civic Association, vice president Michael Thaete’s said many attendees were skeptical of the idea, fearing disruptive presence in the neighborhood.
"We are trying to bring Tacony back to a neighborhood where you want to live again. Having a private club that operates with more than 50 people...on the surface the board of the civic would not be in favor of this," he said. Although Thaete says he’s heard the club doesn’t plan to sell alcohol, he fears that it may try to do so in the future.
Contacted for comment, Councilman Henon sounds skeptical as well.
“In my experience, Tacony is an open, welcoming and positive community,” says Henon. “But the applicant did not do any outreach to the community until the zoning process triggered a community meeting requirement. On their social media and website, the applicant articulated a desire to build a community for their own members but they failed to proactively consider, educate or engage the Tacony community that they want to call home.”
There will be a community meeting on March 23rd where Hinchey and her compatriots will answer questions from the neighborhood about the project. Thaete says the Tacony Civic Association will make a final decision on its position at that time.
For his part, Tacony Civic’s president, Sannutti, said he wasn’t aware that the new use for the music hall would ban drinks. Upon hearing that, he sounds much more open to the idea.
“As far as their own club, we have AOHs, Hibernian, we have the Italian club, we have the American Legion,” said Sannutti. “I say God bless ‘em. As long as we can all work together no matter what creed, nationality, preference or whatever—it’s America, buddy. We all have to live in harmony, that’s how I feel about it.”