It’s been ten years since Mayor John Street dedicated 36 rainbow-colored street signs, formally designating the area from Chestnut to Pine Streets between 11th and Broad Streets as the Gayborhood. The 21st century Gayborhood has become a well-established part of Philadelphia’s cultural geography and one which is aggressively promoted by Visit Philadelphia to gay and straight tourists. Go back in time another ten years, however, and this portion of Center City was better known for prostitution, open air drug deals, and some of the last downtown strip clubs. The area’s transformation from “gay ghetto” to a thriving commercial and residential district occurred relatively recently, much of it taking place in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Occurring years after the emergence of LGBT organizations and landmark political gains, this makeover owed more to market forces than increased tolerance, and the neighborhood’s story highlights the uniquely deceptive nature of gentrification in historically gay neighborhoods.
The area now known as the Gayborhood has long been home to the largest concentration of lesbian and gay commercial establishments and residences in Philadelphia. In 1962 Phildelphia magazine’s Gaeton Fonzi described a variety of “haunts” in the area where gay men could associate after hours, from smoke-filled clubs to bath houses and x-rated movie theaters. It was in the Gayborhood that the LGBT community organized politically in the post-Stonewall years, staging their first Gay Pride demonstration in 1972 and founding a gay and lesbian community center, William Way, on Kater Street in 1974.
For much of the 20th century the neighborhood was also home to the infamous Locust Strip, several blocks lined with dodgy clubs, some with connections to organized crime. Its reputation as a red-light district was reinforced when the 1986 Vine Street Expressway construction project pushed prostitution, gambling, and drug dealing further south into the Gayborhood. Indeed, prostitution and drug dealing abounded along 12th and 13th Streets until 2000, when the combination of online sex work and increased development drove most hookers and dealers out of the area.
Under Mayor Ed Rendell, the Gayborhood began to see major investment from developers like Tony Goldman, and soon sidewalk cafes and boutiques sprang up along 13th Street. This renewal was accompanied by several unsuccessful attempts to change the area’s name. Whether that was “Blocks Below Broad” or “Midtown Village,” the goal was to distance the neighborhood even farther from its vice-ridden past. In 1999, the name “Gayborhood” began to appear for the first time on official tourism maps, although several years later it was changed to “Gayborhood/Midtown Village.” A final confirmation of the Gayborhood’s new economic viability came in 2002, when the Philadelphia Gay Tourism Caucus was established to help the city cash in on the burgeoning LGBT tourism industry.
Meanwhile, gay clubs began to disappear, and those that remained eventually adapted to fit in with the evolving neighborhood aesthetic. The changing priorities of consumption in the Gayborhood are reflected in the story of 1215 Walnut Street. Once a ballroom dance academy, the building became Rainbows, a gay disco, in 1980. It was reborn as the Kennel Club in 1983 and became a popular venue on the punk rock and new wave scene. The Kennel Club closed its doors in 1996 and then went through a series of short-lived reincarnations before the building caught fire and was razed. For years, 1215 Walnut was used as a surface level parking lot until developers bought the property in 2014 with plans to build an upscale high-rise apartment building. The so-called Fergie Tower, now nearing the end of construction, will feature 322 luxury units. Rental pricing has not yet been announced.
Changing nightlife and the development boom also coincided with a decline in the concentration of LGBT-owned businesses in the Gayborhood. William Way Center archivist Bob Skiba highlighted this fact with a series of maps showing self-identified LGBT merchants from 1965 to 1995. The project revealed that the number of LGBT businesses peaked in the 1980s and then decreased significantly by the mid-90s. Such is the paradoxical nature of gentrification in gay strongholds; while encouraging things like LGBT tourism and promoting high-profile gay establishments, it simultaneously erodes many features of gay culture that don’t follow dominant market trends.
The new model of LGBT enclave naturally went hand-in-hand with the city’s efforts to sanitize and revitalize Center City. Developed into retail and dining destinations, gay neighborhoods across the United States became proverbial gold mines, boosted by an image of safety, trendiness, and creativity often associated with LGBT communities. This image is not only bound up in assumptions about the private lives and consumption habits of LGBT residents—particularly white gay men and lesbians—but also implicitly contrasted with a racialized notion of “poverty culture” which blames unwed mothers and “broken” families for urban decline. According to the philosophy of urban renewal, LGBT settlement was the perfect trifecta: middle class gays and lesbians would stimulate the local economy and enrich neighborhood culture, all while being immune from the kind of family breakdown which supposedly produced poverty and urban decay.
From gay-friendly “Lavender Nights” organized by realtors to carefully-crafted LGBT tourism campaigns, private enterprisers and city officials alike continue to capitalize on gay stereotypes to encourage further gentrification. A representative of the Philly Visitors Bureau recently hailed LGBT tourism as “a core part of the new Philadelphia narrative.” “Narrative,” of course, is the key word, revealing the need to represent the city in a way that will attract the demographic of people willing to pay a premium for cultural capital. This new lifestyle market—although regularly exploiting themes of LGBT culture—extends to all prospective residents who yearn for an adventurous, untethered urban existence. The new Fergie Tower, for example, uses the phrases “centered on you” and “the freedom to be yourself” in its advertising, alongside a photo of a young, trend-conscious straight couple strolling through Midtown Village.
The extent to which queer residents have been active participants in gentrification is up for debate. One thing that can be said for certain is that as the Gayborhood became more racially and socioeconomically homogenous, it began to show signs of exclusivity. The scale of this problem has been brought to light most recently in a report issued by the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, which reveals a pervasive culture of discrimination against people of color, women, and transgender patrons in Gayborhood nightclubs and several LGBT-serving nonprofits. The report rightly notes that discrimination in the Gayborhood has been ongoing for decades. One wonders, however, whether there was more solidarity when the entire LGBT community was lumped together as criminal outcasts and relied on the Gayborhood for social support and physical safety. Perhaps the problem would have at least been mitigated in the years when there were a greater number of unique social spaces, each catering to a particular subset of the community.
Looking at today’s Gayborhood, it’s hard to tell that it was the center of radical LGBT politics for nearly 40 years. After all, gentrification does more than change property values and restaurant menus. It also changes a neighborhood’s character. In what is now a familiar pattern in American cities, Philadelphia’s Gayborhood has become more corporate, more acceptable to middle class tastes, and less gay. The city could not have picked a more appropriate metaphor when, in 2010, it kicked off a two-week celebration of the Gayborhood with the “Southwest Airlines’ Ribbon-Cutting Ceremony.”