Updated: Thursday, March 16, 2017, 10:40 AM
Deborah Rose Hinchey is adamant: The community center that her group is planning to open in Northeast Philadelphia is not a sex club.
Rather, she said, it will be the city's first sex-positive community center — a members-only gathering place for people interested in sexual exploration.
The group is calling itself Philly Music Hall LLC, taking its name from its intended home inside the historic Tacony Music Hall.
When rumors of the proposal began circulating, neighbors were skeptical and confused.
"I think it would be a mistake to think that just because the center believes in sex positivity," Hinchey said Wednesday, "that sex is what is happening at the space."
So, to be clear, there will be no sex at this social club?
"If people want to engage in sexual behavior in our space, in the safety- and consent-driven culture that we're trying to create, then we would prefer they do it there than in what has largely been a world of marginalized alternative-sexual communities," she said. "Yes, occasionally there will be people who have sex."
So it's a sex club?
"It's not a sex club."
Hinchey, one of the main organizers, said the club would occupy the top two floors of the Tacony Music Hall. As of Wednesday, only two tenants used the first floor: the Tacony Community Development Corp. and a day-care center.
Hinchey said the planned center is part of a nationwide movement for acceptance of alternative sexual behaviors, and would welcome people with nearly any preference, from leather to polyamory. The center’s rallying cry: Any variation of sexual pleasure is healthy, as long as all parties use protection and give consent.
"It really doesn't serve any one individual community," Hinchey said, "but we do serve all communities who feel marginalized by the larger mainstream culture."
The Tacony Civic Association only heard about the plan after the group applied for a variance to allow live entertainment for more than 50 people.
Hinchey said the group wanted to reach out to neighbors and educate them on the proposal, but feared "that we may be misunderstood and we may be labeled as a sex club and a sex dungeon."
In the absence of outreach, that's exactly what happened.
On Tuesday night, civic association president Joseph Sannutti said he first heard rumors of “a gay, lesbian, transgender club,” which the association would not oppose. But recent gossip suggested that “community center” was really a euphemism for “nightclub,” which could include an alcohol component.
Hinchey said alcohol and drugs would not be served or allowed on the premises. "We are not BYO," she said. "We are a sober space, of all intoxicants."
Sannutti said neighbors would not have opposed an LGBT club, but as far as a sex-positive community where sex may sometimes take place?
"It's right in the center of our neighborhood, and there's people that live there. I just couldn't see that. I don’t know," he said. "These are the rumors.... Until I actually hear what's going on, then I'll know."
Tacony resident Patti Crane said she was also skeptical of the proposal, but her concerns eased after Hinchey responded to her on Facebook.
"Our neighborhood has gone to hell, and that block alone on Edmund Street had become a place for prostitutes to 'perform' and junkies to get high, it's littered with used condoms, needles, and other things because there are no homes on it," Crane told Philly.com in a Facebook message. "So a private community center really cannot hurt no matter what the name of it is or what they provide their members."
The group will unveil its full plans, and answer neighbors' questions, at a civic association meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday outside the building, at Longshore Avenue and Edmund Street. A zoning hearing is scheduled for April 5.
Last year, City Councilman Bobby Henon helped prevent the Saints & Sinners swingers club from opening inside an old catering hall on Frankford Avenue in nearby Holmesburg.
Hinchey said she reached out to Henon's office, which was not happy with the group's lack of transparency.
Henon did not return a request for comment, but told PlanPhilly this week: “In my experience, Tacony is an open, welcoming and positive community. ... But the applicant did not do any outreach to the community until the zoning process triggered a community meeting requirement."
On weekdays, the center plans to hold movie and game nights, as well as sex-themed classes. Social gatherings for some experimental subgroups would be held on the weekends. Memberships, costing between $50 and $150 per month, would be open to people 18 and over. All members would be required to sign a liability waiver.
When it opened in 1885, the Tacony Music Hall functioned as the neighborhood’s social center. The first floor held stores, the second floor a music hall, and the third floor featured a library and social meeting rooms.
After periods of neglect in the early 20th century, the red-brick landmark mainly served as a warehouse until the late 1980s. It is one of the neighborhood's few historic Victorian buildings and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.
Most recently, the building has housed a real estate office, a dance studio, and several retail outlets.