Tucked away in the quiet third-floor archives of the William Way LGBT Community Center, there’s a nearly 50-year-old leather-bound folder.
The dozens of index cards inside are a window to a different past.
“Cell Block” reads one card, describing a bar on Camac. “Male only… denim and leather crowd. Back room bar”
Another offers information for a place called Odyssey II on Delancey Street. “Dance floor popular with 20-30 age group.” Still another advertises a bar called JP’s, on 15th and Spruce, with “some hustlers and quasi-hustlers.”
The folder contains services, too. One card holds the number for a suicide hotline, another for a lawyer who specializes in helping gay men who are being blackmailed and harassed. Others list running groups for lesbians (“Frontrunners”) and bike groups for gay men.
The cards, which date to the 1970s, tell the story of a more dangerous time for queer men and women—a time when gay-friendly resources, community centers, businesses, and bars weren’t listed in the yellow pages. Instead, young queer Philadelphians had to call the community center to get information from the booklet about places to meet other members of the community.
Those places were mostly found in the city’s Gayborhood, which was then full of LGBTQ-focused bars, restaurants, private clubs, and gathering spaces: safe havens for a group of people with few other spaces to call home. But as the neighborhood changes—with a new name, “Midtown Village,” and new projects like the $400 million retail and residential development, East Market—some longtime residents wonder if its first identity is in danger of slipping away.
The changes to the Gayborhood mean more residences, more retail, and more customers at small businesses, but they also raise concerns about identity and loss, as well as an important question for the LGBTQ community: What place do queer neighborhoods have in modern-day cities?
History of the Gayborhood
The name “Gayborhood” was first used by a journalist to describe the area in 1995, around that year’s Outfest, an annual block party that celebrates the neighborhood and the LGBTQ community. It was recognized by the city in 2007, when Mayor John Street dedicated 36 rainbow street signs around the neighborhood—a number that has since almost doubled. Following the city’s recognition, the neighborhood was officially called the “Gayborhood” on major online maps, and it’s referred to as the Gayborhood by the city’s Office of LGBT Affairs.
But the neighborhood claimed its identity long before the name was official. The area of the city that featured gay bars and LGBTQ-friendly private clubs once stretched beyond its current home, at the blocks surrounding 13th and Locust, all the way to Rittenhouse Square, which was a popular place for young gay men to spend time in the 1950s, explains William Way archivist John Anderies. But over the decades following, the LGBTQ-friendly neighborhood shrank, by the late 1990s coming to mean the area bounded by Chestnut and Pine streets and Broad and 11th streets.
The community flourished around what Anderies calls “artistic” and “bohemian” spaces in the 1970s and ’80s. Many young gay men lived on Camac Street, which Anderies calls Philly’s version of Greenwich Village, and which saw a surge of young bachelor residents.
The neighborhood’s LGBTQ-focused clubs, bars, and businesses were its “anchor institutions,” explains Drexel University assistant professor of sociology Jason Orne. They helped define the neighborhood as a space for—predominantly white, male—gay residents.
“People were pushed there because they weren’t accepted elsewhere,” says Orne, who researches the history of LGBTQ-focused neighborhoods and authored the book Boystown: Sex and Community in Chicago.
“People created sexy communities and erotic spaces, which created a sense of community. That bound people together in a way you’re seeing less of today,” he says, citing the bathhouses, bars, and nightclubs that used to dominate the area surrounding 13th Street.
One of the earliest institutions was Maxine’s, a private dinner club with music and drinks, which sat between Latimer and Manning streets, where the Tavern on Camac is now. Though not an erotic space, the club did serve as a getaway for its patrons.
In the 1930s and ’40s, the club was a popular stopping point for actors traveling to New York City, and only later (and very secretly at first) became known as a gay club, according to Anderies.
A thick guest book from Maxine’s gives an indication of how important the club was to visitors and residents in the Gayborhood through the mid-20th century. In some entries from the 1970s and early 1980s, guests thank the club owners and ask to remain anonymous. In others, they express gratitude for the club’s existence. “If it weren’t for you,” says one entry from 1974, “we’d all be lonely.”
New developments and a new look
Neighborhood change is nothing out of the ordinary. Many neighborhoods experience substantial shifts over decades, due to adaptive reuse and new construction projects. In Philadelphia alone, new residential construction has been on a largely steady rise for the past decade. Just under 1,000 building permits for new residential projects were issued in 2009, according to PEW Trust; in 2018 the number was almost three times as high.
But in a neighborhood like the Gayborhood, which has always been a safe haven for a minority community, that change can feel like a loss.
Orne points to several closures in the past 10 years that have dealt a blow to the community. Twelfth Street Gym, which Orne calls a gay gym with a “very rich and deep community of people,” closed in early 2018. Sisters, the only lesbian and queer women-focused bar in the city, closed in 2013, and was replaced with Franky Bradley’s the following year. More Than Just Ice Cream, a popular spot for sober members of the LGBTQ community, closed last year as well, Orne says.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, nationally acclaimed developer Tony Goldman, who’s responsible for revitalizing neighborhoods in Soho and Miami Beach, set his sights on the Gayborhood, looking to breathe life into an area that some business owners have said was struggling. Goldman, who died in 2012, was attracted to historic neighborhoods like the Gayborhood. In this case, he was particularly interested in the grid and layout of the area, as well as the old rowhomes and buildings that gave it character, his longtime friend and Senior Managing Director of Goldman Properties, Marlo Courtney says.
“He could see what a neighborhood could look like 10 to 15 years in the future with some tender loving care,” Courtney says.
Goldman and his company weren’t focused on new buildings at the time, but rather on reviving old ones. They purchased several buildings in a two-block radius around 13th Street and started on adaptive reuse projects, looking to bring in local businesses and restaurants, Courtney says. “It’s all about mixed-use... retail and street life is most important.”
Initially Goldman sought to rename the neighborhood Blocks Below Broad (or, as many referred to it, B3), but the name didn’t stick. The commercial boom, with new restaurants and bars like Trust (which later became El Vez) and Time, however, did.
Now, the neighborhood is full of diverse commercial spaces, Courtney says. “It’s for everybody... it’s not that it’s a gay neighborhood or straight neighborhood.”
A new project, 1213 Walnut—also known as the Fergie Tower—wrapped up construction and started leasing apartments in 2017. It offers 26 stories that hold 322 luxury apartments along with ground-floor restaurant space. It sits in the same area that once held Rainbows, a disco and dance club that catered to gay men in the 1970s and 1980s.
Just a block away from the Fergie Tower is an even larger (and newer) project: East Market. Sitting at the edge of the Gayborhood, on 12th between Chestnut and Market, the $400 million project broke ground in 2014 and announced the completion of its first phase last year. It consists of a 17-story apartment tower, an office building, a 23-story residential tower, restaurants, retail, and amenities galore. By the time it’s finished, in the next few years, the project will have amounted to over $700 million in development costs and will include a hotel.
The various buildings cater to different age groups and types of residents, many of whom may be new to the area. The Ludlow offers luxury living for a younger, 20-something crowd (note the study spaces, and wealth of studio and one-bed options). The Girard, with plenty of entertaining space, a play area for children, and solely one- and two-bedroom apartments, seeks out a more mature group of residents, including newly empty nesters.
The whole project is meant to integrate with the surrounding neighborhood, says Charles Norman, development manager for National Real Estate Development. He points to the pedestrian-friendly nature of East Market, with the Chestnut Walk pedestrian walkway and retail-focused ground floor. He says the group isn’t looking to change the identity of the Gayborhood.
“We’ve always looked at this development as being very inclusive... we have a very diverse development,” Norman says.
But, like the new construction surrounding it, East Market is ushering in a change to the neighborhood. With over 500 new apartments (and residents coming from all over the city and suburbs) and desirable commercial space, the project has an overarching goal of connecting the surrounding neighborhoods and bringing a go-to spot to a block that Norman says was once “bleak.”
“(We want to) see the center of gravity in Philly shift back to east of Broad,” Norman says.
The rise of Midtown Village
As development and adaptive reuse projects have boomed in the area, a new name for the neighborhood has also become more common: Midtown Village. It’s now an alternative to the longstanding Gayborhood name—and some are wary of the change.
“It’s a real estate and business term that has been created to de-sexualize and de-gay the neighborhood,” Orne says, adding that during an adaptive reuse and construction boom along 13th Street in the early 2000s, developers were using the term Midtown Village rather than the Gayborhood. “It was a real shame.”
Orne’s concern over the Midtown Village name speaks to larger fears among many members of the LGBTQ community: the loss of the neighborhood’s history and identity in the face of new businesses and developments that don’t cater primarily to LGBTQ customers.
“Is the neighborhood becoming less gay? I think so,” says Bob Skiba, a curator with William Way who leads history tours of the neighborhood. He points to several places in particular, including the corner of 13th and Locust, where a gay bar with a pole dancing area and a “hustler” section used to sit. Now the corner is home to a brunch spot and a day care. “It couldn’t be a clearer indication of gentrification in the neighborhood.”
Orne says there’s a connection between the growth of restaurants and businesses that don’t identify as gay spaces, and development and the changing identity of the Gayborhood. “Trying to take away the dirtiness, the grittiness, the sex, is part and parcel of gentrification,” he says.
Local business owners have seen a change over the past few years, too, but for them it’s been largely a positive one.
Libertine, a restaurant that opened up last year on 13th and Spruce, replaced a longtime LGBTQ restaurant, the Westbury, which sat just below the once-seedy Parker-Spruce hotel. Libertine’s current director of food and beverage, Dereck Davies, sees the change to the neighborhood as a positive thing for the community of Center City as a whole.
“When it’s integrated, you have equality,” Davies said, adding that the Gayborhood name itself doesn’t matter anymore. “We’re all looking for equality.”
Others appreciate the sales and consumer boom that the new development and adaptive reuse project have brought.
“It’s affected our business dramatically,” says Barry Foglia, general manager of Danny’s Midnight Confessions, an erotic shop and longtime fixture on South 13th Street. Twenty-five years ago, the clientele was mainly young gay men, and business was slower. But the rise of new residential developments, as well as the growing popularity of the neighborhood, has brought in a bigger clientele, one that includes more straight couples and women.
For Foglia, who once sat on the board of the Midtown Village Merchants Association, the new name and neighborhood growth is a good thing. Businesses in the neighborhood were struggling, and the Gayborhood had problems with crime. “People were scared to come in after 6 p.m,” he says.
That’s no longer the case, Foglia says, thanks to changes in the neighborhood propelled by Goldman’s projects. Now, he points to restaurants like Sampan and Double Knot across the street where, 30 minutes before opening, crowds have formed outside the doors, eagerly waiting for seats inside.
“We’re glad that it happened,” he says of the change.
Still, Foglia, who has worked at the store for nearly three decades, has seen some parts of the once vibrant LGBTQ community slip away. Now, he says, gay-owned and -focused businesses are competing with others that don’t cater to that community specifically.
“It’s not an enclave anymore,” he says, adding that the more the neighborhood changes, the more the community moves out to other parts of the city.
“The Gayborhood is still the Gayborhood, but it’s more dispersed now.”
The future of the Gayborhood
Skiba has been thinking about the fate of the Gayborhood ever since it first officially took on the name in the mid-2000s. “When those rainbow signs went up, I thought, ‘Is this to mark the neighborhood? Or is this a historic marker?’”
Now, 12 years later, some members of the community are struggling to hold onto the LGBTQ identity of the neighborhood.
Skiba says he is one of many active members of the LGBTQ community trying to keep the history alive. Last year three new historic markers were installed to recognize the gay history of the area, he said. Whenever he sees a map online that refers to the area as “Midtown Village” rather than “the Gayborhood”—which happens with increasing frequency—Skiba makes a call to the site. It’s all in the name of combating the erasure of the neighborhood’s history.
“I think that sense of self identity still exists and that’s going to be the saving grace of the Gayborhood.”
Foglia says much of the burden of preserving and remembering the neighborhood’s past lies with the younger generation moving in. “The history will always be there for those who want to seek it.”
But even if the history is kept alive, the inevitable change to the neighborhood begs a larger question about the value of queer spaces in a more accepting world.
“Does the community still need a Gayborhood? I obviously think yes,” Skiba says, adding that LGBTQ people still face harassment and abuse regularly. “They need safe spaces.”
Orne argues that “these neighborhoods and these spaces don’t just reflect a culture that’s out there. They actually create the culture itself.”
For decades, young people who are just discovering their sexuality have sought out neighborhoods like the Gayborhood in Philly to learn about queer culture, says Orne. Without places like the Gayborhood, what would that culture look like?
“People would still be gay and lesbian, of course,” Orne says. “But all the other things that people connect with queerness—interests in art, divas, drag, rejecting the rules and paving your own path—those things are queer. And we wouldn’t learn about them and teach them to the next generation without queer spaces.”