Gay Old Times

Philadelphia may be one of the most gay-friendly cities in America, but it wasn’t always that way. Tracking down the gay pioneers who first settled in the blocks between Broad Street and Washington Square, Amy Korman hears tales of courage, crisis, community, drag queens and Frank Rizzo — and chronicles the making of the place we call the Gayborhood

 Mark Segal: I was young and I had no money, so I lived with my parents in Mount Airy. But I was in the Gayborhood every day and night. We started planning the paper in ’75, and the first issue came out in ’76. We financed it on a shoestring — friends, family, anybody who believed helped out with a dime here, a nickel there. We did everything ourselves except print the paper. In the mid-’70s, I finally bought a building in the neighborhood; it was a shell, so I rehabbed it myself. My favorite thing in the world is to do Sheetrock. You can’t see a seam anywhere.

Franny Price, founder, PrideFest: It was the Rizzo years, so you were careful. But still, there were so many bars and businesses. It was fun. Friday or Saturday night, you could walk around and see hundreds and hundreds of people walking from bar to bar at 11:30 or midnight. My uncle took me to my very first gay bar, the Allegro. We kind of sensed we were both gay, and he said I should go out and be with other gay people. The entrance was on Spruce Street, and there’s a little alley there, and we stood across the street and I said, “What are we doing?” And he said, “You can’t just walk into the bar.” Again, this is 1973. So we waited with two other guys until there were no cars, and no people, and then we ran into the bar.

Henri David: I don’t think I ever snuck. I was out and about, giving parties. My first party was in 1968. It was 300 of my best friends, and I lost my shirt.

Mark Segal: I never snuck. I didn’t just come out of the closet — I smashed the door.

Ronni Rodriguez, former bartender: I was 18 years old and working at the DCA, which turned into the Two-Four Club. It was a huge place, and at the time, it was the center of disco in Philly. I remember when it first opened up, everyone would come in dressed like John Travolta. We used to have a little room in the back with a glass door; that was my bar. I remember one time I came in and the door was locked, and I could see one guy in there with a cowboy outfit, and another one with feathers on his head. I said to my manager, “What the hell? It’s not even Halloween.” My manager said, “These guys are doing a show tonight.” Of course you know who it was — the Village People, and they were fabulous.

Ed Hermance: My bookstore was up where the Kimmel Center is now — Spruce Street was Gay Street in those days. But in 1979 the building was sold, and the new owner wouldn’t renew our lease, so we moved here. The neighborhood was pretty shabby, and I think in some ways this store helped stabilize the area.