PlanPhilly has been looking at pop-ups and the neighborhoods in which they take place. On Thursday, June 21, the Food Trust brings its popular Night Market to the Gayborhood, 13th and Locust Streets, from 7 to 11 p.m. In advance of that event, Marc Coleman offers a personal and historical perspective on this slice of Philadelphia.
My walk to work this week took me past the recently opened Fairfield Marriott at the corner of 13th and Spruce. Under the newly electrified canopy, its sparkling clean automatic doors squeaked open, and I shed a quick tear for the memory of what had once been there. No, not for the safety, health, and fire hazard that was the Parker Hotel (per se), but for the gay bar that used to occupy its ground floor. We lovingly referred to the Westbury as the gay Cheers. My then-boyfriend and I lived only a block away, and spent many a Sunday afternoon there eating our weight in bacon-topped calorie bombs, washing them down with cheap mimosas. If the workday was too crazy, we’d drop in for an sizable portion of shepherd’s pie that they had produced in their Lilliputian kitchen. At the Westbury we felt at home, we felt a sense of belonging.
But why did the memory of this place and the people associated evoke such a visceral reaction? Why did the loss of this place feel like the loss of a community?
At its broadest definition, a community is a group of interconnected individuals. These connections in communities such as the Gayborhood are rooted in space and evolve over time. This concentration of blocks between Chestnut and Spruce, Broad and 12th, and the extended Washington Square West neighborhood have seen much of what is queer and amazing and wrong and wonderful about this city of ours.
Many of we queer folk have historically claimed this neighborhood as our own. It is a place where we sought chosen family when the ones into which we were born, fueled by the communities of faith that we had been taught to revere, turned their backs on us for being who we are. This is where we looked out for one another, where we organized Night Watch patrols to keep at bay those who sought to do us harm. This is where where we have our festivals, and swirl our cocktails. This is where we got our life, where we found ourselves. It’s where we could let our rainbow flag fly.
We flocked here in search of belonging, in search of acceptance. But even in these “safe spaces,” not all were welcomed. Flashing lights and throbbing beats beckoned some of us, only to be refused entry for not having a third form of ID if you were black or trans, or not wearing a skirt if you were a lesbian. Organizations meant for all LGBTQ people treated intersectional inclusivity as an afterthought.
This is also where St. Luke and the Epiphany buried a generation of gay men lost in the height of the AIDS epidemic. This is where we received life-saving medical care from Philadelphia Fight and the Mazzoni Center. This is where we worked out at the 12th Street Gym and twirled all night into the next day at the Nile and the Catacombs.
But times, they are certainly a-changing. Like much of Philadelphia, the influx of development in the Gayborhood has materially altered the mix of people that live, work, and play here. The neighborhood that once had the highest concentration of Section 8 housing in Center City is now unaffordable to most. Spikes in rent and property values have forced businesses out, or encouraged them to cash in. Bright orange luxury apartment towers spring from once-vacant lots or the rubble of historic buildings. Gay adult theaters and nightclubs have become trendy coffeehouses and straight bachelorette-party destinations. Technology, society, and economy have changed the way we interact. Decades of civil-rights activism, advocacy, and visibility have helped us to create other, more-accessible safe spaces outside of the bounds of these blocks.
Can a community based on place survive the evolution of that place?
Our story of gentrification is nothing new. Yet the Gayborhood persists. The John J. Wilcox archive preserves our history. The William Way LGBTQ Community Center provides space and resources with a renewed focus on the most marginalized among us. The highest concentration of gay bars is still here, but they are being forced to face the truths of their inclusivity hypocrisy. Rainbow flags still fly from trinities, but now also wave back from skyscraper condos.
But it is not just the bars or the residents or the visitors or the place. It is the specific blend of all of those herbs and spices that makes this sociological stew unique.
Place-based community is one of the few things that can only be truly experienced in real time. For better or worse, the Gayborhood at this point in time just ain’t as queer as it used to be. It’s not as economically diverse as it used to be. It doesn’t look, taste, or smell the same. Even as the Gayborhood morphs over time, there is something worth preserving here.
My hope is that as the Gayborhood evolves, it will continue striving toward what it should represent: a culture of acceptance, a safer space, a place to brunch, a place to call home.