Travel

This DIY Space Is the Heart and Soul of Philadelphia’s Art Scene

PhilaMOCA hosts films and shows, but it really creates community.

There’s a building that sits at the south edge of Philadelphia’s West Poplar neighborhood, a small, rapidly gentrifying section of the city placed just east of Broad Street and surrounded by equally buzzy, yet haphazardly developed neighborhoods. Within the building is an unassuming room, linoleum floors bordered by white walls distinguished only by rare and absurd movie posters that line its edge, including homages to Twin Peaks and movies like Repo-Man and Cabin Boy. At the front of the room is a stage that stands four feet off the ground with a large black projector screen backing it. These are the hard facts that describe PhilaMOCA, but they fail to do justice to a room that has become a staple of the arts, music, and film scene in Philadelphia. That’s because, as you’ll learn, a venue like PhilaMOCA is made special not by the room itself, but by what goes on within its walls.

Of course, that is what you would experience if you were to walk into PhilaMOCA today and not what you might if you were to walk through its doors any other time over the last 150 years. It may seem unfathomable, especially in a city of constant change like Philadelphia, but the building that houses this community-driven do-it-yourself venue dates back to 1860, a fact prominently displayed above the entrance. While the inside of the building is modest enough, the outside betrays a long and winding history, featuring a facade of thick stone slabs and prominently etched signage welcoming you to “Finney & Son,” a showroom for mausoleums and monuments.

Walk through PhilaMOCA doors in 1870 and you might find Finney himself, ready to offer you a prime deal on an ornate monument to a dearly departed loved one. Jump ahead a hundred years and you will find a dilapidated building in a factory-riddled, forgotten part of the city, one that would inspire a young David Lynch to create the hellscape that is the setting for his breakout film Eraserhead. Happen upon PhilaMOCA in the mid-2000s and you will find a rejuvenated space, a place where cheap rent and abundant real-estate attracts burgeoning creatives. The creative in question, a young DJ and producer named Thomas Wesley Pentz, known professionally as Diplo, purchased the building and used it as a launchpad for his Mad Decent record label, as well as a venue to host many a late night DJ set. Stroll in a few years later and you will find, depending on the night, a bizarro film screening, a local Philly punk show, and everything in between. Which is where the story of the modern PhilaMOCA truly begins.Eric Bresler first took over as PhilaMOCA manager and programmer back in 2012, graduating from the West Philadelphia house show scene into something he saw as having a ton of promise. “I immediately saw the potential of this being a full-time room,” said Bresler to Thrillist. The first few years of Bresler’s PhilaMOCA were dedicated, in large part, to experimentation, trying to pin down what kind of programming would work within this space and what the community would turn out for. “There were nights where it was completely sold out and other nights where there wasn’t a single paid attendee,” Bresler says with a smile. “It took a lot of time to narrow down what would work within the framework of Philadelphia.”

Bresler found, perhaps ironically, that specificity worked best when it came to programming. He could have chased what was popular, booking the buzziest indie bands and throwing the kind of parties Diplo might have appreciated, but that wouldn’t have been true to what he saw as the room’s full potential. “I always interjected my own interests because I knew this job would be more fun if I enjoyed what was happening,” says Bresler of his overarching programming strategy. “Luckily, that was a good decision, because the like-minded made their way here and I am able to continue programming the stuff that I am really into.”

One of the crown jewels of this booking mindset has been the creation of the Psychotronic Film Society, a collection of Philly’s wackiest cinephiles that has grown exponentially since its inception back in 2016. The term “psychotronic” comes from a Chicago group of the same name started back in the 1980s who themselves borrowed the signifier from a series of fanzines, and eventually a couple of comprehensive glossaries, that highlighted B-movies and genre pictures of the mid-20th century. After clearing the rights to the name, Bresler started what he calls “the only club I have ever been a part of.” They meet twice a month and each film is selected by one of its 80 active members, giving the whole venture a purposefully democratic structure.

“I have been looking forward to and dreading this night for years,” says Charles Perks, the week’s curator and a longtime member of the Psychotronic Film Society. His selection was Scared Stiff, a 1987 Hong Kong comedy that is as absurd as it is enjoyable, the kind of movie that gets laughs both intentional and unintentional and ends to riotous applause. Bresler is proud of the community he has created within the film society, one he sees as completely unlike anything else in Philadelphia. “These are some of the nerdiest film people in the city. Their knowledge is insane and it is intimidating,” he says. “But ultimately, the group is more about getting together and having fun watching movies than anything else.”Of course, film is just one side of the equation for PhilaMOCA. Andy Nelson is a booking agent working for R5 Productions, a ubiquitous presence within the Philly music scene. Nelson has been the primary agent for PhilaMOCA for years now and a longtime friend of Bresler’s. For him, PhilaMOCA represents something different from many of the venues in the city and he is sure to reflect that when booking bands and musicians within the room. “I love what Eric does on the film and art side of stuff, so I want to make sure the stuff we put in the room fits aesthetically and ideologically,” says Nelson.

He also goes far in praising PhilaMOCA’s status as an all-ages venue, something that is not as common as you might think due to Philadelphia’s antiquated liquor laws. For a long time, there was little middle ground for the young people in the Philadelphia area to see their favorite bands and, in Nelson’s mind, PhilaMOCA provides that essential “welcoming and inclusive environment”-which is why, perhaps, PhilaMOCA has served as a stepping-stone for some of Philadelphia’s most prominent musicians, including acts like Japanese Breakfast and Alex G.

Looking through the upcoming event schedule for PhilaMOCA is one of the more consistently enjoyable things you can still do on Facebook. In early 2023 alone, the venue is set to host a screening of Friday the 13th Part 2, a concert from indie-rocker MJ Lenderman, a tribute to Radiohead from the Paul Green Rock Academy (founder of the original School of Rock), and, of course, a handful of Psychotronic Film Society screenings. And that’s only a fraction of what 2023 has in store for PhilaMOCA. Wander through the venue’s doors on any given night and you will be sure to find something interesting, inspiring, and a hell of a lot of fun. But perhaps more importantly, you will find a welcoming club always looking to add another member, making PhilaMOCA a truly unique place in Philadelphia and beyond.

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Sean Fennell is a contributor to Thrillist. 

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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