Out on The Avenue: East Passyunk sees growth through LGBT businesses, residents

Out on The Avenue: East Passyunk sees growth through LGBT businesses, residents

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Philadelphia’s Gayborhood has long been the main gathering point for LGBT residents from around the region — home to parades and protests, business openings and closings, and a witness to the evolution of the LGBT-rights movement throughout the past several decades.

Yet the words “New Gayborhood” have been used to describe the East Passyunk Avenue neighborhood of South Philly — which has in the past several years become a haven for LGBT merchants and residents alike. Many East Passyunkers insist they’re not trying to usurp the title, but that the area is quickly evolving into a community that has found success by relying on the strengths of its diverse populations.

Renee Gillinger, executive director of the East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District, said many LGBT people have headed to the South Philly area motivated mainly by “word-of-mouth marketing” about the neighborhood’s many assets.

“Real estate is very affordable. It’s one of the last neighborhoods that’s in the periphery of Center City that’s really remained affordable,” she said. “And I think when folks get down here and see how walkable the neighborhood is, that’s a big draw. For people who live or work in Center City, that’s a really important factor.”

Gillinger said 30-40 percent of the businesses along the Avenue are new, but exist alongside shops and restaurants that have been fixtures in the community for years, creating a true blend.

“As the neighborhood changes, the businesses will change and that is happening. What makes the Avenue so charming is that you have both here: There are new businesses but also some that have been here for 20 or 30 years. You can’t have a good community corridor without those longterm stable businesses,” she said. “And over and over again I hear people say how nice the neighbors are and how accepting they are of the neighborhood’s transition to a more mixed area than what it’s historically been. As neighborhoods transition, sometimes it goes well and sometimes it doesn’t, but everyone down here has had such a positive and accepting reaction to it.”

Gillinger and several other community leaders launched a monthly LGBT social event, Queers on the Avenue, in March as a response to the increasing LGBT presence there.

“Friends of mine kept saying the same thing, that there are so many LGBT folks in the neighborhood, and we thought we needed a night, a place for everyone to get together,” Gillinger said.

The group launched QOTA at Paradiso, anticipating up to 60 people — never expecting the 180 who showed up.

“When that happened we said, ‘We’re really onto something here.’ It was one of those, ‘If you build it, they will come’ type of things.”

David White and his partner, James McManaman, hosted a QOTA event in the spring at their new store, Absolute Abstract, 1616 E. Passyunk, and also were overwhelmed by the attendance.

“I was very surprised at the number of people who turned out,” White said. “It’s nice to see that people aren’t afraid to come to these events.”

White and McManaman opened Absolute Abstract at 13th and Walnut streets about four years ago and, after moving their residence to East Passyunk last winter, decided to expand their business south.

“We’d been wanting to open a second location for a while and were looking into places like Northern Liberties, Rittenhouse or across the bridge in Cherry Hill; we just weren’t sure where to go,” White said. “But once we moved here and started hanging out on Passyunk Avenue, we realized that there’s a lot going on here.”

Jimmy Contreras has lived in the neighborhood for about six years and launched home-goods store JimmyStyle, 1820 E. Passyunk, in May.

“I love the neighborhood and what it is and has become,” Contreras said. “So I thought, why not be a part of that growth?”

Although South Philly typically was considered an area resistant to change, relying instead on the relationships among its many lifelong residents who’ve fueled the area’s “Little Italy”-type atmosphere, Contreras said he’s seen that stereotype proven wrong.

“People have these preconceived notions that the neighborhood’s very old-school and they don’t let new people in, but they’ve welcomed us with open arms and are very accepting of the LGBT community,” he said. “It’s actually been the old-school mom and pops who are extra welcoming and so excited to see the neighborhood changing. They want us to be able to come in; they’ve accepted what’s already flourishing here, and are eager for us to add to it and help the entire area grow.”

Michael Clouston, who opened Michael’s Café, 1623 E. Passyunk, in March, said his clientele exemplifies the ever-expanding spectrum of East Passyunk residents and visitors.

“We see everyone from old Italian ladies to young gay couples to straight professionals, and everything in between,” he said.

Clouston’s employees also represent the changing face of the neighborhood, with a large proportion of Jewish staffers and many who moved to the area from such locales as Texas and Arizona.

Clouston has lived in South Philly his whole life and said he started noticing the diversification of the neighborhood about two years ago, when East Passyunk “started to just explode with gay people, as well as a lot of non-gay people moving down here from Center City,” whom he surmised took note of the affordable home prices and safety of the area.

Restaurateurs Maria Vanni and MaryAnn Barncaccio tapped into the appeal of the neighborhood back in 2003, when they opened August, 1247 S. 13th St, just a couple blocks from the Avenue.

Vanni said the neighborhood has always been accepting of her and her partner and their business and that they’ve never faced anti-gay sentiment. She too has noticed an influx of LGBT customers at her BYOB since it opened.

“It was a good, solid neighborhood to start with,” Vanni said. “But in the past couple of years, we’ve seen a lot of young gay people coming in, who I think see all that the neighborhood has to offer and are smart enough to come down here.”

Colleen DeCesare, who opened Black N Brew, 1523 E. Passyunk, in 2007, said she launched her business when she discovered the area’s potential.

“I was living down here and just riding my bike around East Passyunk one day and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is so cool. Look at all these shops and restaurants,’” DeCesare said. “And there wasn’t even too much then compared to what there is now, but I still thought it just really had something.”

LGBT business is booming along the corridor, and LGBT residential life is thriving along with it.

When ’Dolph Ward Goldenburg, executive director of the William Way LGBT Community Center, moved into the area about five-and-a-half years ago, he was the only openly gay person on his block — a statistic that since has changed.

Goldenburg said he did not experience any homophobia from his neighbors besides one incident involving a teenager, the resolution of which he said typified the attitude common in the area.

“There was a 17-year-old boy who was the son of a resident on the block and he was screaming and shouting right in the center of the street one day at me, and the mother comes over and says to me, ‘We haven’t raised our son to be prejudiced,’ and she made him apologize,” he said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better block than that.”

Goldenburg said the revitalization of Passyunk Avenue businesses, both gay-owned and not, is continuing to draw homebuyers.

“The day I moved here, I could go down to the Avenue and get a good meal; now I can go get a good meal, a cup of coffee, a beer and do some shopping,” he said. “It’s almost possible now, if you live along Passyunk Avenue and work in the area, you can live your entire life within a 5-6-block radius.”

Gloria Casarez, the city’s director of LGBT affairs, moved to East Passyunk with her partner about two-and-a-half years ago, and realized the overwhelming LGBT presence when they hosted a fundraising party for local grantmaking organization Bread and Roses Community Fund.

“Our tiny house was packed with people from the area and almost everybody was a member of our community,” Casarez said. “As I was making the money-pitch talk, I looked around and, of the 50-60 people we had, I could barely see anyone who didn’t identify as a member of the LGBT community. I triumphantly said, ‘This is clearly the New Gayborhood.’”

But Casarez noted some inherent differences between East Passyunk and the city’s original Gayborhood.

“The Gayborhood in Center City is mixed, residential and commercial. People come there to go out and meet up with friends socially and, while some people also live there, the neighborhood in South Philly is much more residential. There are some great shops and restaurants, but it’s not an LGBT social mecca in quite the same way as Center City is.”

The East Passyunk area will, however, play host to the monthly LGBT party called Scene, which recently relocated to Adobe Café, 1919 E. Passyunk, starting Aug. 22.

Tracy Buchholz, who launched the party in January, moved to the Avenue several months ago and said the neighborhood is the perfect fit for the event.

“My impression of South Philly was always that it was a very old-school, family type of place, but it really is inclusive of everyone,” she said. “It’s a good mix of the family environment, with cool places to eat and fun bars. And, being openly gay, I don’t feel uncomfortable there at all.”

Buchholz said she lived in the Gayborhood for about 10 years but has found the atmosphere in East Passyunk to be more conducive to residential life and not as “loud.”

Gillinger postured that there may eventually be more LGBT nightlife options in East Passyunk, but not to the extent of the Gayborhood.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to see anything like the concentration of gay nightclubs that you have in the Gayborhood,” she said. “The neighborhood here is much more mixed and, in a place like this that has such a strong residential community, I think that would be difficult to have here.”

Beyond the neighborhood differences, DeCesare said she didn’t think the “New Gayborhood” moniker was entirely appropriate, as East Passyunk represents the interests of a wider community.

“What South Philly and East Passyunk are becoming is so awesome, but I don’t think it needs to be the Gayborhood,” she said. “It’s such a mix and it works. Just leaving it as is is fine. It’s cool people are saying that, but I think it’s a little bit more diverse than the Gayborhood.”

Gillinger agreed the changing face of East Passyunk doesn’t necessarily represent a “New Gayborhood,” but rather new attitudes toward gays and lesbians.

“Twenty years ago, openly gay folks saw the need to live in a safe place, but I think the world is different today. It’s thankfully a different time now and I think people feel more free to live anywhere.”

Jen Colletta can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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