The Gayborhood has become home to countless LGBTs over the past several decades — whether they actually lived there or not — and over the next few weeks, the LGBT community will celebrate the neighborhood’s storied history and look to its future.
“There’s No Place Like Home” will pay tribute to the 40-year history of the current Gayborhood with two weeks of events that include a photo exhibition, screenings in conjunction with LGBT film festival QFest, restaurant and retail discounts and a block party on July 11.
When the Gayborhood was just forming in the neighborhood that’s officially known as Washington Square West about four decades ago, a public LGBT street festival like this would have been unheard of, said Bob Skiba, archivist at the William Way LGBT Community Center.
“We’ve certainly come very far,” Skiba said. “We started out as this fringe element living in the shadows, and we’re now a community that’s out and proud.”
While the celebration recognizes 40 years of the Gayborhood, LGBT locales were in existence well before 1970 — but in much different forms than the modern gay establishments.
Gayborhood pillar Tavern on Camac stands on the site of what is considered the oldest gay bar in the city, Maxine’s, a locale that opened in the 1930s and was popular with many LGBTs.
“Maxine’s catered to the arts set in the town, so actors from the theaters and artists, but it was considered ‘bohemian,’ which was really code for gay. That was something everyone knew,” Skiba said.
The growth of the gay presence in Center City began to become noticeable after World War II, Skiba explained.
“After the war, the population was really jumbled up. Men who lived out in small towns were suddenly going to big cities like Philadelphia to travel to Europe or elsewhere. And for the first time, since the men were gone, single women were out earning money. So lesbians, who had tiny incomes before, are now suddenly able to go out and go to bars. After World War II, this whole bar culture developed.”
Members of the community largely began living on and around Spruce Street, both east and west of Broad Street — resulting in gay men coming to be called “Spruce Street Boys” — so LGBT nightlife was spread out across the main Center City thoroughfare.
Throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, however, new developments east of Broad began to attract even more sexual minorities.
“All of the big hotels were on Broad Street, so this was an entertainment area for men who were here for conventions and things like that, so strip joints and all-girl revue bars began popping up, especially on Locust Street,” Skiba said. “It’s strange for us now, because Locust is so sedate and upper-middle class, but throughout the ’60s it was really a red-light district. I saw a newspaper article in the Inquirer that referred to it as ‘Lurid Locust.’ Always in big cities when you have those kind of establishments, they attract other fringe groups, like gay people.”
Skiba noted that the gay bars that began to spring up in the ’60s and early ’70s were largely not gay-owned, but rather by those with organized-crime connections who often paid off police to safeguard their prostitution operations and their flourishing gay clientele.
The gay bars that did begin to open their doors, however, largely did so in secret.
“You really had to look both ways before you went in anywhere,” said Franny Price, who owns Spruce Street Video (now on 12th Street), which has been in business for more than 25 years. “Now you can walk anyplace without thinking anything about it, but back then you could be arrested at any time.”
Skiba noted that many gay bars and clubs had side or back entrances — such as lesbian bar Rusty’s on Quince and Walnut streets, where patrons had to walk up a back staircase and knock to enter, although police raids on such establishments, even up until the early 1980s, were common.
Local Merchant Mel Heifetz, who owned a coffee house in the mid-1950s at 20th and Sansom streets that had a large gay clientele, said that although LGBT nightlife was largely hidden from the mainstream, the bar scene was one of the few outlets that provided gays and lesbians a sense of community.
“Were things closeted? Yes, but we knew where to go out, we knew where the gay hot spots were, we knew which bars to go to,” he said. “Gay bars didn’t have the big neon flashing lights, but the word of mouth spread where things were going on, where drag shows were. But we didn’t have fundraisers back then and actually didn’t have any nonprofits. There wasn’t a single gay nonprofit in America going back to the ’60s.”
However, an incident that is considered by many to have fueled the modern LGBT-rights movement also helped to fuel the visibility of the local gay community.
“After Stonewall [riots in New York City in 1969], the population was suddenly out,” Skiba said. “Suddenly businesses started advertising as gay-owned and operated, and that’s when this area saw some really dramatic changes.”
Woody’s, which opened in 1980, became the first gay bar in the city to have windows that actually looked out onto the street, and the restaurant renaissance that hit Center City Philadelphia in the 1970s and early ’80s was largely attributed to the LGBT community, Skiba said.
While the height of the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s and early ’90s was thought to have been a death knell for many LGBT clubs and bars, the community continued to reinvent and reinvigorate the neighborhood, especially in the last few years.
Bruce Yelk, director of gay initiatives for the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, said the slew of new Gayborhood establishments was one of the main motivating factors for holding the 40th-anniversary celebration.
“We noticed that a lot of businesses have either recently renovated or changed or upgraded,” he said. “Pure became Voyeur, Bump became Q, Westbury was remodeled, J.R.’s Lounge opened [and recently closed], Knock opened in the last few years and we knew that Tabu was going to be opening. And then in addition, there’s an amazing dining scene in that area that wasn’t there before. So it made us think, ‘Wow, we should do something to have a grand reopening of the Gayborhood.’”
The notion of the “reopening” was met with some resistance from community members — as the neighborhood was never “closed” — so Yelk said organizers reworked the event into more of a tribute to the continued growth and development of the Gayborhood.
“It’s about celebrating the vibrancy of the Gayborhood and showing how it’s thrived through the contributions of gay-specific businesses and gay-friendly businesses,” Yelk said. “Many gayborhoods haven’t experienced that same trend, so that’s what we want to celebrate.”
Until July 24, 30 of those businesses will offer discounts and specials for individuals with a Rainbow Discount Card, which can be picked up at Woody’s, Tabu, Q and Tavern on Camac. Also throughout the duration of the celebration, the William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce St., will feature a retrospective photo exhibit of the Gayborhood.
“There’s No Place Like Home” will kick off with a press conference featuring Mayor Nutter at 4 p.m. July 10 at 13th and Locust streets, followed by an opening reception at Q, 1234 Locust St.
At 6 p.m. that evening, bars throughout the Gayborhood will screen the new documentary film “Welcome to the Gayborhood,” in conjunction with QFest, which will run through July 19.
On July 11, the Gayborhood will play host to a block party from noon-6 p.m. The festival, which will take place on 13th Street, between Locust and Walnut streets, and Camac Street, between Locust and Spruce, copious entertainment offerings and community-building activities.
Local nonprofits will be on hand — many of which will host carnival-like games for guests — as will previous Mr. Gay Philadelphia contestants, who will be sitting atop a dunking booth. Local drag celebs such as Brittany Lynn will perform, along with Howard Frankel, the winner of last year’s vocalist competition at the Gay Games. Yelk said actors who appear in some of the QFest films may also be in attendance.
A new batch of rainbow street signs will be installed this month on secondary streets in 16 locations in the neighborhood, adding to the three-dozen signs already in place.
Skiba noted that the signs demonstrate just how far the Gayborhood has come in its 40 years.
“Those signs say that we’ve contributed to the city, that we’re part of the city and this city is just as much ours as it is anyone else’s, and that this is something that the city itself acknowledges. And while the signs do show us a boundary for the Gayborhood, the gay influence on Philadelphia has certainly gone well beyond the Gayborhood. But it’s still a very important statement.”
For more information about “There’s No Place Like Home,” visit www.facebook.com/visitgayphilly.