Save for a pizza shop and laundromat, the 2500 block of Salmon Street in Fishtown is fairly residential. And despite the roar of I-95 just a block away, the street remains relatively quiet. There’s another business on the block, but you might not notice it from the outside. For one, it’s windowless. The dull black awning, which used to read “Trapeze,” sits weathered. It’s the only remaining sign that this used to be a swingers club.
Vacant since 2007, Trapeze is businessman Alan Mostow’s third and most embattled sex club. A client of the industry since the ’80s, Mostow co-owns and operates two other Trapezes (one in Atlanta, Ga.; the other in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) with business partner Dennis Freeland. But only the Philadelphia location has faced legal problems this serious, and for this long—Mostow has spent the last four years battling the city over the club’s legality.
“If I opened up a business and people didn’t come, then I’m out of luck,” says Mostow, who remembers being asked by a Philly cop—and client—in the early 2000s if he would expand into the North. “But I obeyed the law. I ran a 100 percent private club where couples and singles could come … be in a safe environment and have a good meal.”
The club was apparently a hit. In its eight months in business, Trapeze attracted more than 1,000 members and was taking business away from the Pleasure Garden, a club at 61st and Passyunk (which a former club member calls the “Motel 6 to Trapeze’s Crown Plaza”). So, naturally, Mostow would like to reopen. But he still doesn’t know if he legally can until the city answers the question lingering on everyone’s minds: Are Philadelphians allowed to have sex anywhere besides their own homes?
Even the short answer is: It’s complicated.
Philly grants permits for all sorts of vices—bathhouses, massage parlors, strip clubs, burlesque establishments—and there’s nothing in city code that prohibits swingers. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that swingers clubs didn’t make their way in the zoning code at some point, considering that the code actually defines specific sexual activities and situations: “Human genitals in a state of sexual stimulation or arousal”; “Fondling or other erotic touching of human genitals, pubic region, buttocks or female breasts;” and so on. All these definitions are used to legitimize the city’s hedonism, but make no mention of swinging.
“The Philadelphia code is what’s called a permissive code,” says a city official—who requested anonymity—of the city’s interpretation of its own code. “That means that if it’s not officially permitted, it’s basically, by inference, not permitted.”
Attorney Kenneth Young—who represents Mostow and Freeland and who had previously represented Club Kama Sutra during that swingers club’s losing battle with the city (the South Street location was shut down by L&I in 2006 because it was operating with a restaurant license)—disagrees. “Permissive code is the biggest bunch of crap,” he says. “Even if you take that position, it’s invalid because [Trapeze] is a private organization. You have to join and become a member. This is a clubhouse and social affairs hall. If they want to have meetings there and half the people start having sex with each other, well, that’s fine because the primary purpose of the clubhouse is to be private, and sex isn’t illegal.”
The 2533 Salmon St. address had been zoned as a “meeting room, social affairs and clubhouse for a literary association” for decades, but only recently had anyone really been paying attention. In the ’90s, it converted from a club for immigrants—similar to what RUBA on Green Street once was—to an after-hours hot spot called Tribecca. And that’s when the complaints began.
Tribecca argued then, as Trapeze argues now, that any and all private-use permits allow members to remain in private and do whatever they want. “[Trapeze] was zoned as a literary club, which gives it a private-club license,” Young says. “What goes on in a private club is private as long as it doesn’t violate any laws.”
Mostow maintains he wasn’t disturbing anyone, either. “We didn’t have any gawky signs, we didn’t paint the building hot pink,” he says. “And except for one neighbor, we had no problems. We contributed to neighbors whose kids were Boy Scouts, we cleaned up and down the street … we took as much pride as the next person on the block.”
But some in the area see it a bit differently. One neighbor told PW, “They’d get started at two, three in the afternoon sometimes. My kids would be out riding bikes, then come inside and ask me who these people were.” The neighbor says participants showed up in scant leather outfits. “I’d just say [to my kids], those are bad people, don’t go near them.”
Complaints mounted, and Trapeze was served with two cease-and-desist notices, which confused clientele (some of whom came from hundreds of miles away) and hurt business. In addition to noise complaints, neighbors pleaded with their representatives, such as state Rep. Mike O’Brien and Ward Leader Margaret Rzepski, to help them get rid of the establishment. And in August 2007, just eight months after opening its doors, L&I served its final notice to Trapeze, shuttering the club until further notice.
The showdown began with the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustments, which regulates city development and property uses.
On Oct. 4, 2007, Mostow and Freeland’s attorneys began filing applications for new permits, which the ZBA denied. The city claimed the application was less than truthful, since it did not mention sex. Five days later, another application was filed, and again denied due to “vagueness.”
So Mostow and Freeland agreed to come clean, so long as the city issued them a new permit. “They wanted a permit that says you’re allowed to have sexual activity,” says Young. But the ZBA passed the issue off, saying, “it was beyond their authority to clarify” if a private clubhouse is permitted to allow sexual activity. “My clients took issue with the fact that the Zoning Board wouldn’t define what the permit was.”
After two years of legal arguments, in February 2009, the ZBA finally offered a negotiated permit. It’d be for the application of a private club for “lawful” activities “as permitted under the Philadelphia code”—but swinging and sexual intercourse still weren’t mentioned. Mostow and his attorneys worried the city was setting a trap to kick them out for good.
In later court documents, the ZBA would explicitly state the appeal “did not address the question of whether a private club for engaging in noncommercialized sexual activity is permitted under the Philadelphia Code.”
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