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

Rick Piper: Many of us found ourselves sick and dying, including my partner. And when you find yourself losing a friend a week, and when your partner is in diapers, you don’t have time to put energy into hiding things. When the doctor asks, “Is this your friend?,” you say, “No, this is my lover.” Manna was founded, ActionAIDS was founded, and the AIDS Fund, which is famous for GayBINGO. As a community, we coalesced. We were forced to, for the sake of survival. People whose primary interest was Donna Summer were now wondering: How do we live another day? It went from “What time does the disco open?” to “How do we get the medications and keep our friends alive?”

As the ’80s wound down, the neighborhood was still reeling from the AIDS crisis, and safety was still an issue. But the party hadn’t completely ended.

Michael Smerconish, radio host and author: I lived on South Iseminger Street. The area was dicey. I had renovated a double trinity, could not sell it, and moved into it myself. This was the late ’80s. One night I walked my dog at midnight and was a few minutes removed from a transvestite hooker getting shot at 12th and Spruce. The body was still on the street as I walked by. What I remember is that it didn’t make the newspaper when it happened, and when I told a neighbor the next morning, they were disbelieving. It made me wonder about things that take place and never hit the radar. Well, finally I rented my place to somebody. I moved out and he moved in, saying he thought he wanted to buy the place. Turns out the guy rolled me to get access to my place for a 72-hour sex party. He rented furniture, packed the place, had a party, then sold the furniture that he didn’t own and left town.

“A beautiful day in the Gayborhood.”

Larry Kane: In the late ’80s and ’90s and this past decade, things got more normal. Pop culture helped that. There are some people who are closet haters, but that will change when they realize someone in their family’s gay.

Franny Price: In ’91 and ’92 there was the National Coming Out Day event. I ran Spruce Street Video at the time, so we had a table outside our store. And I thought, if we had a block party here where all the bars and stores are, it would be better. We changed the name to Outfest, and it went from 1,000 people to now over 20,000 people. David Warner, the editor of City Paper, wrote, “It was a beautiful day in the Gayborhood.” So we started calling it the Gayborhood.