When the legendary Cartwheel disco burned down, it marked the end of a glittery chapter for New Hope — which has been hit with three recent floods, to boot. Can the river town keep its Mayberry-meets- the-Village vibe alive?
All was right in the world of New Hope on a recent Monday inside the Oak Room nightclub, deep within the Raven resort. It was close to midnight, a time when much of Bucks County was peacefully dozing, but the Oak Room — a beautifully paneled, dark and masculine room that looks like the library of a London men's club — was abuzz with cigarette smoke, house music, and men holding martinis. On a small stage, a very pretty girl with a blond crewcut held up a sex toy and shouted, “Raise your hand if you have a vagina!”
The device was awarded (for first prize in Kinky Quizzo); the Raven's owner, Terrence Meck, made the rounds kissing his regular customers; and in an Eva Longoria-esque wig, Victoria Lace (in the light of day, Nathan) was about to start her weekly drag show. Even though the Raven has recently had a chic-looking makeover, with new boutique-hotel-style rooms and a Hamptons-worthy pool, Victoria Lace's show was as old-school, circa-1973 New Hope as it gets. Its appeal was timeless, because, you know, who doesn't enjoy a good drag show?
“Jordan,” queried Victoria to a regular standing at the bar, after she performed a particularly exercised version of “My Love Don't Cost a Thing” in a sequined bodysuit, “are you a whore?”
“I could be,” he replied hopefully.
“Then get on your knees!” returned Victoria. “Pick up my money!” Jordan got down and scooped up the pile of bills that Victoria — who is slim and attractive, like Diahann Carroll with a little Nicollette Sheridan thrown in — had collected during the show. “And while you're at it, baby, pick up that quarter. It's laundry day!” added Victoria. “I'm not proud. I can wash a pair of panties with that.”
“I'll wash 'em,” shouted a cute guy in the audience (predictably; drag shows aren't renowned for their subtlety).
During the rest of the show, we learned the meaning of the sexual term “donkey-punched” (it's sort of what you'd guess); heard Victoria riff on her crush on actor Christopher Meloni, whom she'd seen in New York the previous week; and eavesdropped as Victoria, backstage, had a little trouble getting herself into her last eye-popping outfit and mega-wig. “Talk amongst yourselves,” she said over the sound system, “while I rectify — RECTify, you get it — my situation. This is the life of a bitch who don't know how to put her shit away — and now I can't find my shit — okay, deejay, HIT IT!”
The Victoria Lace show is an excellent way to pass an hour and a half, possibly the best live performance in all the Philly area right now — a crowd-pleasing, way-bawdier version of La Cage Aux Folles. But then, this is New Hope. You expect a top-notch drag show here — a place that in the 1970s and '80s hosted disco pageants and beauty contests par excellence, a town that for decades has been a beloved pastoral getaway for gay New Yorkers and Philadelphians. Still, as great as Victoria Lace is, with her core loyal clientele in this snug room, one might wonder:
How did New Hope — New Hope — wind up with only one drag show a week, held in the sole gay club left in town?
THERE'S NO DOUBT THAT April 12, 2005, was a dark day in New Hope. About a week after the usually placid Delaware River swelled up, flooded Main Street, and temporarily closed riverside shops and restaurants — this after another flood the previous year — the Cartwheel dance club up on Route 202, which along with the Raven helped establish New Hope as one of the preeminent gay tourism spots on the East Coast, caught fire and was gutted. (No one was in the building, as the fire started mid-afternoon.) The Cartwheel's been closed since, with no plans to reopen.
“There are some people who absolutely believe that was the end of an era,” says Daniel Brooks, who owns the Wishing Well bed and breakfast in town. “I remember watching it burn, and thinking, 'We're going to have a big problem here.' You know, gay people like to walk. They like to keep moving from one club to another.” Then came another flood last June, with shop owners despairing at coverage by reporters who sloshed around in chest-high waders or buzzed over in helicopters. The Katrina-esque news bonanza made things seem even worse than they were: Each time, in fact, the town was cleaned up and reopened in less than a week. Still, the New Hope Visitors Center reports a drop of nearly 20 percent in traffic from 2002 to 2006.
There are also the new million-dollar condos being built on Mechanic Street, which sounds like a good thing — except to those who mourn the old Hacienda Inn and the Canal House piano bar (think Oscar Hammerstein popping in for a cocktail and staying to sing a few tunes, circa 1945) that were torn down to make way for them. New Hope famously embraces everyone — but a certain quirkiness is expected, encouraged, demanded here, that one might not find in million-dollar condo buyers.
Of course, the biggest problem of all, these days, may be the societal shifts that have bumped New Hope — an icon of openness, the most tolerant village between Provincetown and Key West — off the gaydar. Brooks, the inn owner, has founded a group called New Hope Celebrates to attract more gay and lesbian tourists to the town, and produced several successful weekend-long festivals geared to the GLBT market. Back in the '70s, this would have been unimaginable, New Hope needing to announce itself in this way — like promoting tennis to Wasps, or touting cheese to the French — but the need is there. “I live part-time in New York, and I would mention New Hope and people thought it was a place in Sullivan County,” Brooks says. “They'd never heard of it if they were under 40.”
That's probably because they were vacationing in the Hamptons, or Rome, or Los Cabos: The days of the $64-billion-a-year gay travel market needing a New Hope are pretty much over in our (mostly) enlightened society. “After 9/11, gay travelers were quickly identified as a group who said, 'Hey, we're not worried about terrorism; we've been discriminated against and gay-bashed,'” says Jeff Guaracino, of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation. So Canada, Spain, Mexico (and Philly) have all launched campaigns for this market, he says, making it that much more likely that tourists who once might have booked a weekend in New Hope will go instead to, say, Barcelona. Meanwhile, the Bucks County Convention and Visitors Bureau has identified its primary markets as “baby boomer couples and Gen X families with kids.”
New Hope's streets remain filled with these strolling couples and families (and motorcycles) — and its plucky sensibility retains its quirky allure. New Hope is still all about survival, and acceptance. Still, if being a gay-friendly getaway town has been New Hope's identity for the past three decades, and suddenly the whole world is competing for that very business, you have to wonder: Now what?
YOU MIGHT THINK THAT the witches of New Hope — there are, naturally, several — would view the recent floods as some kind of meaningful cosmic act, sent to literally wash away the spilled ice cream and screaming Harleys and wafting incense on Main Street, but New Hopers are too buoyant a group to really get that doomsday-ish about it. They welcome bikers, who are polite and also shop enthusiastically. And the fact is that the Delaware River is too full, because of runoff from overdevelopment in nearby Solebury and Makefield. And so locals mourned, but have adjusted: While he might be missing Odette's, the riverside joint famous, unfortunately, as the place where Jessica Savitch dined before her car crashed into the canal in 1983, and which closed after this past June's flood, singer Bob Egan has moved his weekly cabaret show up to the Stockton Inn.
Indeed, New Hope is defined by its odd charms and its natural beauty. There is something surprisingly peaceful about walking along Main Street on a sunny weekday in fall, when the brightly painted signs advertising Indian jewelry and Art Deco lamps seem cheerful and rather jaunty. A passing woman in her 40s with kelly-green hair smiles, and the Paper Plate café's chalkboard pitching its meatloaf has a sort of 1950s comfort-food vibe.
Over at his store, Mystickal Tymes, Eric the Witch, as he's called by some locals, is preparing for a commitment ceremony he's officiating at this weekend and cleaning up after last night's autumn solstice potluck supper. (The multifaceted Eric, a.k.a. Eric Lee, also does hair and makeup for the shows at the Raven.) Phil Powell, an 86-year-old artist and woodworker who lives in an ivy-covered miniature castle off Main Street, is setting off on his bicycle toward Lambertville, and the Raven's Terrence Meck, a gorgeous 28-year-old former Gucci publicist from New York, is checking on the night's menu at his restaurant. Meck and his partner Rand Skolnick, who bought the Raven in 2004, have amped up the hotel's style factor, but they also understand the importance of continuity: “We had to keep Victoria in New Hope,” explains Meck.
And so, in an unlikely way, Meck fits right in here. Over the years, New Hope has drawn everyone from Bea Arthur, who performed at the Bucks County Playhouse in the 1950s, to Paris Hilton, who had a dance-off at the Cartwheel during the taping of The Simple Life. Algonquin Round Table wit Dorothy Parker and '60s Yippie firebrand Abbie Hoffman had houses nearby. There remains a Waspy New Hope contingent that lives in Colonial-era farmhouses and supports the town museum, the Parry Mansion, with elegant fund-raisers. The town even embraces mayor Larry Keller, who's straight and Republican, and is currently serving his third four-year term. Keller, who owns an antiques store but looks more like an extremely clean and starched executive (and is in fact doing a load of laundry during a meeting at his place on Bridge Street), appears far too preppy to be a New Hoper — but that's exactly the point.
And Keller, Powell and Eric the Witch all say almost exactly the same thing: They knew in their hearts when they first visited New Hope as teenagers that they'd end up living here. “I said in 1977 at age 17 that I wanted to buy a store like mine,” says Eric, and buy it he did.
Taking it all in — this openness, acceptance, tolerance — you can't help but think that maybe this is where Tom and Katie should move to raise Suri.
“WE USED TO DANCE OUR asses off at that place,” Philadelphia Gay News publisher Mark Segal says of the Cartwheel, which along with the Prelude and the Raven formed what locals called the Golden Triangle, a walkable area of fabulousness up on a hill where Old York Road winds its way into town. The Prelude, an ice-cream parlor in the 1940s, was first. “It was a milkshake bar called Allottawanna,” remembers Phil Powell, before it became a dance hall in the '50s, then a bar, and finally a tiny purple-walled disco and piano bar. “Fun, but for the older crowd,” says Philadelphia jeweler Henri David dismissively.
The party really got started when the Cartwheel opened, with its dance floor that could hold hundreds of revelers who road-tripped out on the weekends. It's not as if Philly and New York didn't have thriving gayborhoods of their own by the '70s, but New Hope offered something quaintly different. A getaway to Gettysburg or the Pine Barrens didn't come with lively nightlife, or a particularly welcoming vibe to gay visitors, at the time. New Hope was a place where city people could go to the country — and do exactly the same things they did in the city, but in a leafy setting. “I loved that place. I'm a city boy, but you parked your car and walked up a path with trees along it, and you knew you were in the country,” Mark Segal says. “They even had an outdoor dance floor.”
Ironically, says Henri David, the Cartwheel was a bit prudish under its first owner, a seemingly miscast and deluded woman: “I found it to be somewhat closeted in the late '60s,” he says, bemused. “I remember once I was on the dance floor with a group of friends, and the owner came over and said — very seriously — 'No touching!' We were at a gay bar, for God's sake!” At the end of the night, she came to give David a hug goodbye, to which he responded, “No touching!” Under new owners, though, David says, the place got better: “I'd be a judge for drag shows or master of ceremonies in the '70s; they had a lot of fun theme nights.”
Inside, the former stone tavern was all white with old wooden beams, until a glitzy high-tech '70s disco was installed; the outside dancing was on gravel, and while the Cartwheel couldn't match New York or Philly clubs for sleekness, it had its own rustic cool and an eclectic crowd. “You could literally be sitting next to someone who was a farmer,” says Segal, “and then a banker, and when I went up there, no one knew who I was, so I would ask questions about me! I remember sitting at the bar having a conversation about how horrible I was.”
Victoria Lace first came to the Cartwheel in the '80s, during her reign as Miss Gay Pennsylvania, and found a sort of home away from home. “Mondays were packed,” she says. “We'd have a weekly competition, and then monthly, and then the annual competition. You'd get an influx of 10 or 12 girls” — girls with penises, one understands — “competing religiously.” Lace and her girls drew huge crowds. “You'd have grandmothers there,” she recalls. “Guys would say, 'Hey, Victoria, I want you to meet my mom.'”
The town had welcomed sophisticated outsiders — artists, actors, writers, composers — since the '30s, when Dorothy Parker and Moss Hart and their hyper-articulate friends used their Bucks County farms as Arcadian outposts of the Algonquin. But despite the presence of Odette's and the Playhouse, downtown New Hope was still very small-town until the '60s; today's raucous South Main Street was mostly private homes and a few small businesses. “We'd canoe or bike into town,” remembers Spencer Saunders, the chairman of New Hope's Historic Architectural Review Board. “The Hayes photography shop was the only place you could get color film at the time. There was a hardware store, a pharmacy. There was nothing like the Staples store that's outside of town now.”
As in other towns like Provincetown and Palm Springs, gay culture made New Hope cool and sophisticated, and soon, straight people followed. By 1980, New Hope had reached the zenith of its popularity. “It was mobbed here. You couldn't even walk,” sighs Eric Lee, nostalgic for those lucrative days. “It's busy now, but not like the early '80s. I think it has to do with the economy, the war, 9/11, corporate cutbacks.”
Queer Eye star Carson Kressley used to come down from Allentown, where he grew up: “When I was in high school, it was a cool place to go, with the head shops and the tie-dye places and the gay vibe — kind of our version of San Francisco.” Appropriately enough, Abbie Hoffman moved to town in the 1980s to help spearhead a movement called Dump the Pump, which protested diverting the Delaware River to Limerick's power plant. Hoffman fought against the pump for years (_unsuccessfully), and died in 1989 of a phenobarbital overdose at his place, a former turkey coop just outside town in Solebury. Meanwhile, Lambertville — a far more economically depressed town than New Hope till the '80s — suddenly became an epicenter of chic and $5,000 Eames lounge chairs. New Hope wasn't the center of the Delaware River-rural universe anymore.
“JOEL, MAY I STEP INTO your office?” says Spencer Saunders, the New Hope Historic Architectural Review Board chairman, to Joel Roberts, who owns a Mechanic Street shop and is known as the Mug Man. Roberts's office on this warm fall day is his front porch, where in addition to mugs for sale, there is handmade pottery on display, and huge pots filled with pansies. His next-door neighbor, Brian Hanck, the owner of ARTisZEN art gallery and head of New Hope's “Second Saturdays” — a group of 50 local galleries and stores that stay open late on those evenings — has stopped by to chat. Because it is a fall Friday afternoon, with big poufy clouds floating around and not a chance of rain, everyone, including the Mug Man, is hopeful that tomorrow will bring a lot of traffic.
But at this moment, Roberts and Saunders are focused on a shack: a shack that could possibly wind up in the clutches of George Michael. Michael is a Bucks County developer, not the British pop star who was once half of Wham! (though the singer would fit right in in New Hope). The developer is building the much-debated 20 condominiums on Mechanic Street just up the hill from the Mug Man, directly above the shack.
In any event, said shack is going to interfere with the future condo residents' view of Ingham Springs, an attractive and historic creek that runs below the canal and into the Delaware, which is precisely why residents want to keep the shack there, blocking the town's view of George Michael the developer's condos.
“I grew up swimming in the canal from that shack,” says Saunders, who restores barns and farmhouses when he's not reviewing architecture. “I'd like to see if it can be saved.”
“It's a quirky little building, yes it is,” says the Mug Man. “All I can tell you is I think the guy's got a stiffie for tearing things down.” He smiles and leans back on his Birkenstocked heels, his green beads settling into his chest hair, his gray hair swinging low to his shoulders.
Preserving the character of New Hope is the goal of the half-dozen-plus grassroots community groups that have sprung up around town — among them, Second Saturdays, New Hope Celebrates, and the New Hope Business Alliance. “We have all new blood in the Chamber of Commerce,” says Daniel Brooks, the inn owner, who believes the Cartwheel's demise has actually spurred the town to be more inventive in promoting itself — and adds that his business is up this year. “You have all these new ideas, but these people need to get together at some point! The people who used to run the Chamber of Commerce formed their own group, and they're both meeting tonight.”
Curiously, though, the ideas the groups put forward are less about turning New Hope into a trendy 21st-century resort — South Beach on the Delaware — and more about embracing the town's legendary quirkiness. For instance, it turns out that a Business Alliance meeting the previous evening has yielded an idea from Eric at Mystickal Tymes: a Halloween festival headlined by a cross-dressing, high-heeled, pumpkin-toting race.
Despite occasional bickering, New Hopers want their friends' shops to succeed — and even more than most small towns, they fear change and developers. If they lose even one Wiccan shop, one more nightclub, it chips away at the glittery, artistic soul of New Hope. And that's why this canal shack seems so important — even if it's empty, not particularly historic, and in disrepair. Those who love New Hope need to stem the tide of loss right now, even if it's just by protecting a shack.
If you spend a little time in New Hope, you quickly begin to feel, as many locals do, that an injection of fabulousness, a tasteful block of stores such as Williams-Sonoma and Tiffany & Co., would be the worst possible thing for the place. As one resident points out, this could become another city like Carmel, California, that is now merely a shell of an artists' retreat, a stage set of a town. New Hope — weirdly charming, bucolic yet chic as can be — has an authenticity that will appeal to visitors gay or straight. Even Carson Kressley agrees: “I was just in New Hope two weekends ago. I met some friends there for dinner, and it's just a cool mix of people and a cool vibe,” he says. And not in need of a giant overhaul. “I thought it looked better than ever. It's got a lot of sophistication, but it's still rustic. A little bit of water may have stopped Diana Ross in Central Park, but it's not going to stop New Hope.”
New Hope shouldn't worry too much, anyway — it seems like anytime a chain store tries to lay claim here, it fails miserably. “Remember when Benetton came in?” asks Saunders, back on Mechanic Street. “It just blew away.” He and the Mug Man roar happily.
“I did hear,” says Joel, grinning, “that this is the least profitable Starbucks in the country.”