There Goes the Gayborhood
Rapid social change and Midtown Village development are encroaching on Philadelphia’s LGBTQ mecca. Should we mourn its loss or embrace its evolution?
It was around one o’clock in the morning, and I was standing in a long line of mostly straight Penn alumni waiting to enter Voyeur Nightclub. It was a drunk former classmate — at least, I hope he was drunk — who said it: “Isn’t this where the fags go?”
The occasion was the official after-party for my five-year college reunion, which was held at one of the most popular dance parties in the Gayborhood. The reunion committee’s idea had been innocent enough: Given that most other clubs in Philly shut down at 2 a.m., why not venture where we could let the good times roll until 3:30?
But once we were inside, all of us, gay and straight, saw things we weren’t expecting. It wasn’t long, for example, before visibly uncomfortable alumni were side-eyeing transgender women going to get drinks at the bar. For me, it was a sea of straight women cheering on a sash-wearing bride-to-be and refusing to share space on one of the dance floors on which I had spent so much time growing comfortable with my own identity. Worse, the racial segregation was unmistakable: Black and brown attendees were packed in a smaller upstairs lounge that was pumping out hip-hop hits, while the main floor was predominantly white, with a DJ spinning mostly dance/techno pop music.
“There goes the neighborhood,” I thought as the last illusion I had of this part of the city as an inclusive yet uniquely gay space dissolved before my eyes.
Over the past few years, the “death of the Gayborhood” — a phrase once uttered in mock horror whenever a favorite hangout changed hands or a well-known institution screwed up — has taken on an air of inevitability. The area’s legendary staples, 12th Street Gym and More Than Just Ice Cream, are no more. Two popular Gayborhood bars, Venture Inn and ICandy, have closed down, and Voyeur and Woody’s have tried to broaden their customer base by hosting bachelorette parties, exotic male revue shows for women, and even NFL watch parties. Mazzoni, the city’s leading LGBTQ health-care center, relocated and lost its executive director and senior management amid staff turmoil. Franny Price, the veteran producer of Philly Pride — one of the country’s largest annual gay celebrations — is stepping down after more than 25 years, with no successor in sight.
Coloring all of this loss are a host of gentrification and diversity issues with which the city’s LGBTQ community has only recently begun to grapple. Yet in the wider Philadelphia culture, LGBTQ representation and acceptance are at an all-time high. We saw this in the political arena in 2018, when two openly gay black candidates, Malcolm Kenyatta and Alex Deering, competed for a state House seat in the 181st District — a section of North Philadelphia that’s both geographically and economically distant from the Gayborhood. (Kenyatta would go on to win, joining Gayborhood-area Representative Brian Sims as the state’s only two openly gay legislators.) Then, in 2019, five openly LGBTQ candidates ran in the City Council primary.
Citywide, LGBTQ visibility is similarly increasing in the cultural realm: Large-scale LGBTQ-themed events have moved beyond the traditional Pride weekend in June and Outfest in October, and many former Gayborhood event producers and performers are booking venues throughout the city. For many Philadelphians, the Gayborhood is no longer the sole place for an LGBTQ experience, but just another option in a growing field of inclusive alternatives.
During this 50th anniversary year of the Stonewall riots in New York, which brought the gay rights movement in the U.S. to mainstream attention, members of Philly’s LGBTQ community are reflecting — some wistfully, some critically — on what the Gayborhood means today, and wondering whether there’s really anything left to be lost by venturing outside the neighborhood’s now-fading rainbow-painted crosswalks.
In the 1950s, Center City in the vicinity of 13th and Locust streets, which we now call the Gayborhood, was known as the Locust Strip — a red-light district full of strip and hustler bars, some of which catered to a gay clientele. The Strip also had another, more disparaging name — the “gay ghetto” — but at a time when people who frequented gay-oriented businesses faced public scrutiny and harassment, it was a lifeline. “Even before Stonewall,” says Franny Price, who has lived in the city for 62 years, “the gay ghetto was an area where we LGBT people had a sense of belonging.”
“When the gay bars and shops were lumped in with the ‘undesirable’ elements of the ’60s and ’70s and threatened with police raids, the attacks had the effect of galvanizing the community,” says Bob Skiba, a Gayborhood historian and curator. “Gays formed a business association and a neighborhood watch to police their own territories.”
In the wake of extensive civil rights work by LGBTQ activists around the country in the 1970s and during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the openly gay character of the neighborhood was firmly entrenched by the time City Paper editor and columnist David Warner described an Outfest celebration as “a beautiful day in the gayborhood” in the early 1990s. By 1999, the term Warner had coined was appearing on maps, and developer interest soon stoked a rapid revitalization that would turn the area from a collection of bars and niche businesses into a hot spot filled with high-end restaurants and retailers.
City institutions played their own large roles in the Gayborhood’s growth. In 2003, the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, now known as Visit Philadelphia, launched a hugely successful campaign inviting potential visitors to “Get Your History Straight and Your Nightlife Gay.” Three years later, then-mayor John Street demarcated the neighborhood with 36 rainbow-striped street signs (there are now nearly twice as many) so LGBTQ visitors and residents could identify it as a safe and welcoming place.
Despite this official gay-forward posture, market forces were already starting to weaken the Gayborhood’s identity. An early-2000s effort by developer Tony Goldman to rechristen the 13th Street corridor as Blocks Below Broad, or B3, mercifully never caught on. But a more recent developer appellation, Midtown Village, now threatens to subsume the Gayborhood entirely. “It first began appearing on tourist maps as ‘Midtown Village in Philadelphia’s Gayborhood,’” says Skiba. “Next, maps showed two separate areas — Midtown Village to the north and the Gayborhood to the south. This year, I’ve seen maps showing only Midtown Village, with text mentioning ‘the Gayborhood, a part of Midtown Village.’”
The businesses underneath those pride-inspired street signs are undeniably getting straighter. And while some observers would suggest that the change is a natural consequence of widespread LGBTQ acceptance, others argue it’s a painful sign of gentrification that’s erasing the identity, culture, and intersection of racial and gender diversity within the Gayborhood.
“Our community continually grows more divided and diluted,” says Zach Wilcha, executive director of the Independence Business Alliance, an association of LGBTQ business owners. “As more straight-identified folks and businesses move within the Gayborhood, LGBTQ identity of that space becomes diluted.”
“What’s been particularly challenging to witness over the years is not just the loss of LGBTQ businesses, spaces and organizations, but the loss of a larger sense of culture and community,” says Amber Hikes, the former executive director of the city’s Office of LGBT Affairs. “We see this in cities around the world, but Philadelphia’s density allows us to feel the sting of gentrification in a unique way.”
“The Gayborhood has changed along with all of Center City,” counters Valerie Safran, who with her partner, Marcie Turney, owns Barbuzzo, Bud & Marilyn’s, and several other popular restaurants and retail shops in the neighborhood. “I remember a time when 13th Street between Spruce and Locust was a little sketchy late at night — lots of drugs and prostitution.”
While many in the Gayborhood bemoan its decline due to straight residents gentrifying the area, Turney has a different outlook. “The world has changed,” she says. “I don’t want to separate people out based on anything. We’re welcoming everyone here.”
It was Visit Philadelphia’s marketing that made me consider Philly as a place to live when I was applying to colleges on the East Coast a decade ago. I grew up in Texas, where LGBTQ rights and safe spaces were either rare or nonexistent, and from the outside, Philly seemed to have its act together in terms of drawing a diverse crowd of people to a majority-minority city that also embraced LGBTQ people. But in living here, I’ve learned that what was depicted in those travel ads wasn’t telling the full story.
As a freshman in college, I reveled in the queerest place I had ever been, too wrapped up in the excitement of my own coming-out to notice any of the undercurrents of change in the neighborhood. But my time at Penn coincided with one of the first dominoes to fall: the 2013 closure of Sisters, a landmark lesbian bar that had evolved into a truly intersectional space embracing people of all identities.
It was then that I really began to feel the vibe shifting. Our drag shows became brunch/dinner parties for straight people who were new fans of the hit TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race. Our queer nightclub go-go dancers became eye candy for straight women at their bachelorette parties. Our beloved Pride flag and rainbow crossroads became Instagram-worthy snaps completely divorced from any appreciation for the people who’d had to fight to make them happen. The Gayborhood stopped being a neighborhood in which the most marginalized could find and be themselves and started to feel more like a tourist attraction for cultural voyeurs.
Around this time, two national movements — Black Lives Matter, spearheaded by queer black women, and the fight for marriage equality, upheld by the Supreme Court in 2015 — awakened my social consciousness. By then, I was a young journalist covering the community, and I began to notice ownership and leadership disparities at Gayborhood spaces, which were led predominantly by cisgender white men despite the notable role that people of color across the gender spectrum played in shaping the area’s history.
Others had, of course, seen this before I did. Longtime community activist Michael Hinson, the city’s LGBT liaison under Mayor Street, had advocated for more inclusive policies within the city’s LGBTQ community as the Gayborhood grew in commercial prominence. While some initiatives, such as increased funding for LGBTQ nonprofits, improved due to the Gayborhood’s newfound viability, he says there were unintended consequences that began to overshadow the progress.
“Generally speaking, the Gayborhood has benefited from years of public- and private-sector attention, creativity and resources, thanks to high-end housing, the Avenue of the Arts, shopping, restaurants, and coffee and other specialty shops,” Hinson says. “Along with these benefits, we have, unfortunately, seen the displacement of social and other safe places for some communities, including the homeless, transgender individuals, young people of all backgrounds, and communities of color.”
It got to the point where I could no longer ignore the tragic irony of the Gayborhood: Formerly marginalized LGBTQ people were still marginalizing some of their own in the one place that was supposed to be safe for all of us.
I stopped going out to the Gayborhood on weekends after being told about impromptu dress codes at nightclubs that never seemed to apply to the white guys in the line. Then, in 2016, Darryl DePiano, the owner of the now-closed ICandy nightclub, referred to a black former employee as a “nigger” repeatedly on video. The resulting controversy served as vindication for LGBTQ community members of color who had long been raising concerns about racism in the Gayborhood. The offensive video and the uncovering of several incidents of racial profiling and discrimination at Gayborhood bars and nonprofits prompted LGBTQ activist groups to boycott and protest these institutions, which in turn prompted additional business and leadership turnover.
Over the past year, I’ve felt that finding authentic and intentional LGBTQ experiences outside of the Gayborhood was a necessity, but one that’s been easier than I expected. Diverse queer house parties have popped up in West Philly, out indie artists are performing in South Philly, and there’s no shortage of LGBTQ networking events around Fishtown. But for some people, adjusting to the idea that LGBTQ life — and perhaps even a better, more modern and inclusive version of it — exists away from the Gayborhood is bittersweet.
“I had hoped that the Gayborhood would stay a safe place, but I don’t think it is anymore,” says Matthew Beierschmitt, a longtime Gayborhood DJ and community advocate. “But I still think we need to find a way to rely on each other like we used to and keep fighting for all of us, not just some of us, inside and outside the Gayborhood.”
“We have to face the fact that queers create great and impactful culture and communities, and that non-queers then want to participate in and even steal that culture,” says Chris Bartlett, executive director of the William Way LGBT Community Center and a longtime Gayborhood resident. “We saw that during the Harlem Renaissance, during the Pansy Craze of the 1930s with the commodification of black ballroom culture, and now in mainstream culture from Broadway to Netflix. I believe that by the time our culture is commodified by the mainstream, we move on and create new and even more exciting cultural projects.”
It’s that thought, I believe, that we need to embrace: Every time we’ve lost control of something that was ours, we’ve regrouped and blazed a different path. It’s time to cast one last backward glance at the Gayborhood that launched Philly’s robust LGBTQ culture, take a deep breath, and move on.
Published as “There Goes the Gayborhood” in the October 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.