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



“We lost so many of our boys.”

Stephen Wood, former co-owner, Woody’s, and co-owner, Knock: My brother Bill and I opened Woody’s in 1980. We grew up at 24th and Lehigh, not too far from Temple; my parents died when we were young. And Bill worked at Roscoe’s, a gay bar, and then he tended bar at the DCA, and people were always asking him to open a bar. So he asked me — I’m straight — why don’t we do it together? There was an old place on 13th Street called the Manhattan for sale, and we bought it. The USO, a club for soldiers, was above the original bar, and then next door was a deli, and we took them over. We made the deli into the Pub Room, and upstairs we built the disco. We had all these ladies who used to come to the Manhattan, and they kept coming for lunch every day when we opened. My brother never wanted to take any money from them. My brother always wanted to take care of our customers. We never had those poker machines in the bar; my brother didn’t want people to lose money. He’s a very good guy. I told him, if you were a woman, you’d be pregnant all the time.

Ronni Rodriguez: You never knew who you were going to meet. I remember Diana Ross was doing a show in the city, and she came in and had a private party. I remember meeting Governor Rendell when he was very young. He was campaigning for something, and he came in with Mark Segal.

Stephen Wood: The hardest thing was when everybody got sick. We had a lot of good guys that worked for us that died. We took buses up to New York and marched.

Wilson Goode, former mayor: I was managing director, and Mayor Green assigned me to work with the neighborhood and get people talking to each other. Soon after I became mayor, we set up the Mayor’s AIDS Coordinating Office within government.
Philadelphia was very much a pioneer in HIV/AIDS and homelessness, and in finding ways to help, and treating them as serious issues in the early 1980s.

Ed Hermance: Of course, the greatest trauma for our community was AIDS in the ’80s. And that is a living thing for us. And so many leaders — they were sexually active like they were because they were leaders, so they were daring and alive. They would be in their 50s and 60s now, and they’re not here.

Ronni Rodriguez: In my building alone, we lost so many of our boys. It became very depressing and very scary. Our first victim was a boy who worked in our kitchen, and we didn’t know what had happened — a year later, we realized it was AIDS.