Proposed ‘sex-positive community center’ gets fair hearing from Tacony residents

Thursday night’s community meeting in Tacony went better than anyone could have expected.

A proposal to open a private sex-positive club in the midst of a residential neighborhood would likely stir contention anywhere. In the Northeast, with its reputation as the most conservative corner of the city, such a project almost seems to court controversy.

But the sex-positive club’s lead organizer, Deborah Rose Hinchey, assuaged neighborhood fears by taking questions from a standing room only crowd for well over an hour. In the stuffy heat of the Tacony Music Hall, crammed with concerned neighbors and community activists, she faced a public reckoning with what until recently had been her private—very private—passion project.

Sex positivity is an expansive philosophy which argues that what happens between consenting adults is healthy and natural. Think anything from polyamory, or openly engaging in multiple romantic relationships, to practitioners of bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism (BDSM). And the more people are educated about such practices, the better.

For three years Hinchey and her supporters have dreamed of opening a members-only sex-positive community center. The idea is to create a gathering space outside the bars and illegal warehouse parties where many alternative sexual communities are forced to meet people who share their proclivities. Drugs and booze complicate consent, and the community center model offers a safe space where they are explicitly banned.

Six months ago, Hinchey and her comrades were approached with the idea about locating their club in the stately Victorian Tacony Music Hall in lower Northeast Philadelphia. Three months ago, the group’s benefactor, Harry Leff, purchased the building. Two months ago, they started moving in furniture.

Last week PlanPhilly broke the news that the sex positive community center hoped to open in the neighborhood. Hinchey spent much of the next ten days haunting the Tacony Facebook group and responding to freaked out commenters.

Last night, it came time to face the crowd. In less than two weeks Hinchey will have to go before the Zoning Board of Adjustment to secure a special exception to provide “live entertainment for more than 50 people.” Currently the club can operate by-right with a capacity of 50 people per floor. Currently there are less than 30 members, but eventually they’d like to have over 150 people signed up.

Getting a special exception requires a community meeting with the local Registered Community Organization (RCO). Flanked by zoning lawyers, Hinchey stood in the midst of what was once the music hall’s second floor office suite. The huge room features a winding staircase that leads up to an interior balcony, presenting Hinchey and her cohort with two levels of attendees.

As the meeting got started, a betting man might have put money on a screaming match. Numerous attendees scoffed audibly whenever Hinchey assured them there’d be no alcohol served or tolerated. A few older residents vibrated with skepticism.

But the Tacony Civic Association is bent on civility. Questions had been collected beforehand and were read by Alex Balloon of the Tacony CDC. Whenever the crowd started to get rowdy, Joseph Sannutti, president of the Tacony Civic Association, threatened to shut the whole meeting down and chuck everyone out of the building. He wields his gavel fiercely, quelling any sign of unbridled unrest.  

And then a funny thing happened as Hinchey and her zoning lawyers answered the crowd’s questions. Tacony listened. No one screamed at her. No one wailed or gnashed teeth.

A few people asked her to think of the children, but she came prepared for that one. After all, there is a daycare on the first floor.

“We want to make sure we can cohabitate in this spaces as well as possible,” said Hinchey. “We’ve worked really, really hard with them. One of the things we are doing is making sure we are never open at the same time, they close at 6:00 and we open at 7:00 on weeknights. We have separate entrances on separate streets.”

The director of the daycare walked up to Hinchey, identified herself as Monique Roye and spoke in support of the sex positive center. As far as she’s concerned, having such a conscientious tenant upstairs—one that will pay for security camera to be installed outside—would actually help her business with the influences she actually worries about.

“When I started working here we were picking up drug paraphernalia off of our playgrounds,” she said. “We were watching DEA agents knocking down doors up the street.”

With the daycare director on her side, Hinchey’s detractors’ were defanged. Her description of the membership process also seemed to help: Applicants must have the approval of two vetted persons, then their ID is taken and copied, and they are assigned an identification number to better preserve privacy—although their full information is kept on file.

Still, the meeting wasn’t without its touchy points.

At one point Hinchey said the word “bondage” and the room erupted in hoots and derisive laughter that drowned out everything else. It took the intervention of Sannutti to calm things down.

The crowd rumbled and shifted uneasily throughout the question and answer session. One person bluntly insisted that the club members would simply have a stash of booze in their cars, even if it is disallowed in the building. (Hinchey says no intoxicated person will be allowed in.) Then came the perennial Philadelphia question: Where will all the cars go? (Hinchey has been studying the parking patterns in the evenings and found non-residential blocks nearby where there are few cars at night.)

The parking questions lead Hinchey to propose a good neighbor agreement the club could sign, which could encompass any number of assurances. No parking on Longshore Ave, for example, or no loitering on the sidewalk.  

Hinchey’s calm and assured answers mostly won her an honest hearing, although by the end of the meeting the crowd still seemed skeptical as the voting began. (The results weren’t announced at the meeting and no one could confirm the results Friday morning, although Tacony Civic’s zoning spokesperson said he doubted they’d get community approval.)

“Look, as someone who grew up in the 70s-era coffee shop era in Philadelphia, and needed safe spaces, I truly respect that aspect of your mission,” said local resident Andrew Keegan.  “I think that’s commendable. If that were the limit of it, I wouldn’t be here. But there’s a sense of mission creep.”

Could Hinchey guarantee there will be no sexual activity?

No, she won’t say that. Becoming a member, or attending a function, does not guarantee anyone sex, she stressed. The center is not an attempt to monetize potential sexual encounters. But she also would not rule out sex between consenting adults in a private space.

“Sex is not prohibited within this space but it is not the purpose or intention of this space,” said Hinchey. “This space’s intention is to educate people about their bodies, about having relationships, at how to communicate effectively. Sex is not the purpose, but it is not prohibited either.”

That idea obviously made the crowd uncomfortable. A suggestion rippled through that sex should be banned at the center, at least for a few months. But Hinchey didn’t back down. Even then, despite audible dissent, there were no truly unruly outbursts.

Canvassing the crowd for opinions about what they’d just seen, a hard no vote was surprisingly hard for this reporter to come by.

“I’m really not sure whether I want to go for it or not—I just hate to see the building empty,” said Lorraine Quirk, a lifelong resident of Tacony. “The neighborhood is really turning into a drug infested neighborhood, so maybe this could be a positive thing. And her presentation was excellent. She wasn’t afraid to tell us the truth.”

Another older resident, Bill O’Drain, said he’s optimistic about the proposal. “This neighborhood is bad. I hope that somehow possibly this’ll inject some good life into a bad situation. Maybe this will work out for everyone. A win-win.”

Then there’s Councilman Bobby Henon, who sat through the whole meeting, but stayed quiet beyond a plea for civility at the opening and a few words of thanks at the end.

Asked to compare this situation with Saints and Sinners, the swingers club that he closed down last year, Henon says that this situation is totally different.  That was a clearly regulated use, it wasn’t one the neighbors wanted, and the owners weren’t honest about their intentions. But there’s never been a sex-positive community center in Philadelphia.

“Here’s there’s a lot of grey area and no clarity,” said Henon. “There’s a lot of skepticism with the articles that have printed out there. Tonight, questions were asked and they were answered, to my knowledge, honestly. So hopefully they can be good business partners in the neighborhood.”

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