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

Meryl Levitz, executive director, GPTMC: It’s just like Jews need Israel. People need a place, a center of gravity, and the Gayborhood is a 24/7 invitation for people to be themselves.

Jeff Guaracino: And we don’t market it exclusively to gays. We worked to put rainbows on the street signs, and they’re a “Welcome” sign to all, not just gays and lesbians.

Rick Piper: I was reading Newsweek the other day, and it said something like “John Smith and his husband.” I reread it, and it was “husband and husband.” One day that will just be the norm, like when you see an interracial couple and no one even thinks about it. I’m friendly with Mayor Nutter, and he and his four bodyguards come here four times a week to work out.

Tony Goldman: Any great city is made even greater by the involvement of its gay and lesbian people. Philadelphia’s very lucky to have that vibrant community. And we’re looking to expand [around 13th Street]. There are areas just to the south of Chestnut that need to be filled in, and the gay community will have a large part in that as well.

Rick Piper: We’ve gone from being closeted and vulnerable to being out and proud to Stage Three, which is: Nobody cares. We’ve assimilated. The downside of that is some sense of missing the country-club feel of the ghetto.

Ronni Rodriguez: I was in Philly recently and I went to Sisters [bar], and I was watching the women dance and thinking, They don’t even know what it was like, what it took to get here.

Rick Piper:
The ghetto could also feel very special, so you felt, wow, I’m part of this group. There’s a lot of conversation about this among the older group today. There were many unique places — here in the city, Chelsea in New York, Fire Island — that are becoming diluted, not just because gay people are moving out, but because straight people are moving in. Here in the Gayborhood, you see it: 12th Street Gym is probably 50-50 now. With the exception of a few historically gay places like Woody’s, our members don’t see a reason to go to a gay club — they just go to a club. It’s irrelevant.

Michael Smerconish: Last month, we took our kids to a festival on 13th Street. Believe me, I’m thrilled that the neighborhood has turned around. But I lost a ton on that house on South Iseminger.

Gloria Casarez, Mayor Nutter’s representative to the LGBT community: I think about Chelsea Clinton campaigning for her mother at Woody’s. It’s definitely a place where people position themselves to get out the vote. And I also think about the community events that happen in the Gayborhood, like National Coming Out Day — there’s nothing like 20,000 people to get officials to come. It’s the place where the community itself organizes, receives health services, where history has been made. And will continue to be made.