In the second half of the twentieth century, the Center City neighborhood that became known as the Gayborhood formed in the vicinity of Locust and Thirteenth Streets. The community and the geographical spaces it occupied played a vital role in the social and political struggles of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people locally and in the nation.

After World War II, Philadelphia’s gay geography, like that in many American cities, expanded greatly. The war had uprooted millions of men and women across the country and exposed them to urban life here and abroad they had never seen before. Postwar downtown Philadelphia, or “Center City,” as it was beginning to be called, had the largest concentration of apartments and rental rooms in the “City of Homes,” providing gay men, lesbians, and transgendered people with the privacy and urban anonymity they sought.

A black and white photograph of a group of five men sitting on a park bench. The background is dark, obscuring any detail. The five people on the bench show various cheerful expressions and are posing for the camera in an exaggerated manner.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Rittenhouse Square was known as a place where gay men and lesbians coming into the city could meet others and socialize.(Photo courtesy of the John J. Wilcox Jr. LGBT Archives)

By the 1950s, Rittenhouse Square and the beatnik coffeehouses nearby on Sansom Street had become part of the public gay geography of the city. So many gay men moved into apartments south of the square that even straight people commonly referred to gay men who lived in Center City by the coded term “Spruce Street boys.”  Gays, of course, lived all throughout the city, with a significant lesbian presence in the Germantown/Chestnut Hill area. In an era when racism extended even into the LGBT community, many African American gay men and lesbians socialized in bars or through private parties north of Market Street, in North Philadelphia, or across the Schuylkill in West Philadelphia.

The LGBT presence in Philadelphia became increasingly visible. In December 1962, Greater Philadelphia Magazine published an essay by Gaeton Fonzi (1935-2012) about the city’s gay community. Titled “The Furtive Fraternity,” it was the first article in the country about a city’s LGBT population to appear in a mainstream publication. The article mentioned a dozen or so gay bars and coffeehouses scattered along Spruce Street west of Broad and along the Locust Street area east of Broad. Fonzi also interviewed a handful of gay people, many of whom remained anonymous. Despite its semi-sensationalist subtitle—“Philadelphia’s homosexuals lead a strange twilight life outside the law and outside of society”— the story steered away from the lurid and focused instead on the problems of gay people in Philadelphia and the burgeoning gay political scene. Only a few years later, from 1965 to 1969, Philadelphia activists collaborated with groups in Washington, D.C., and New York to stage annual demonstrations for gay rights in front of Independence Hall.

The “Twilight Life”

The cliched “twilight life” described by early newspaper and magazine articles did have some basis in fact. Many gay men, lesbians, and gender-variant people who lived through the 1950s and 1960s experienced compartmentalized lives. They described themselves as being “straight during the 9 to 5 work week, but damned gay on weekends.” The parks, bars, and restaurants that crowded Center City streets provided semipublic spaces where LGBT people could socialize and be themselves.

A number of factors worked together to turn the few blocks that radiated from Locust and Thirteenth Streets into the neighborhood that became known as the Gayborhood. Close to the hotels and theaters on Broad Street, by the 1940s the Locust strip became a major center of Philadelphia nightlife. The street was dotted with nightclubs, restaurants, and musical bars that featured top national performers like Fats Waller (1904-1943), Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996), and Patti Page (1927-2013). By the 1950s, however, some of the spots did away with the expensive first-rate entertainers and began featuring Las Vegas-style showgirls instead. As the character of the area changed, a few of the “musical bars” on the hidden, smaller streets like Camac and Quince began attracting a gay clientele and a few venues became predominantly gay.

A black and white photograph of a block of buildings on Locust Street. The image shows four buildings in the foreground, whit higher buildings in the background. There are people standing and biking on the the street in front of the buildings.
Doomed buildings and “lurid” establishments dotted Locust Street in the 1960s. This block on Thirteenth and Locust had clubs like the Bag of Nails and the Golden 33, which each featured nude revues. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

In the 1960s, the area declined. City planner Edmund Bacon’s (1910-2005) plans for Washington Square East and Washington Square West came to a halt in the late 1960s when federal funding dried up after his successful redevelopment of Society Hill. The city bought and demolished many buildings in the section that encompassed the emerging Gayborhood, but lack of funds left the area pockmarked with vacant lots and no real plan for development. By the late ’60s many of the musical bars and nightclubs degenerated into seedy strip joints with links to organized crime. The Philadelphia Inquirer began referring to the area as “Lurid Locust Street.”

To make matters worse, the construction of the Vine Street Expressway and the destruction of what had been Philadelphia’s Tenderloin district to the north pushed prostitution, gambling, and drug dealing down Thirteenth Street as far south as Locust. Police actions on area strip clubs led by then-Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo (1920-1991) usually included raids on gay bars, lumping prostitutes, drug dealers, and homosexuals all together as “undesirables.” Even gay and lesbian private clubs, incorporated to get around the city’s ban on same-sex dancing, were not immune. Police raids on gay bars were common well into the 1980s.

Demonstrations After Stonewall

The strip bars and “gentlemen’s clubs” kept the area depressed through the early ’70s, but the gay community was evolving rapidly. Philadelphia was not far behind New York in responding to the revolutionary call raised by the Stonewall Riots of 1969.  Within a few years, Philadelphia saw the birth of several radical, new-left organizations including the Gay Liberation Front, the Gay Activist Alliance, and Dyketactics. In 1972, Philadelphians held their first Gay Pride demonstration, with an estimated 10,000 people marching from Rittenhouse Square to Independence Mall, signaling the end of a “furtive fraternity” and the beginning of a new, highly visible presence. The city’s LGBT community was out and proud. By 1976, gay Philadelphia had opened a gay community center on South Street, founded the Philadelphia Gay News, and began pushing for a citywide gay rights ordinance.

A black and white photograph of a group of people holding a large white banner with the words
Participants in Philadelphia’s first Gay Pride Parade in June 1972 marched along Chestnut Street towards Independence Hall, extravagantly expressing themselves through signs, music, and chants as they marched.(Photo courtesy of the John J. Wilcox Jr. LGBT Archives)

The new LGBT involvement in politics affected the geography of the Gayborhood. Gay spaces proliferated, with gay bars opening both east and west of Broad Street, along South and Front Streets, and in suburbs like Cherry Hill and Norristown. New African American bars opened along Arch and Filbert Streets, just north of Market Street, and along Broad Street in North Philadelphia. Many of the bars, restaurants, and shops in the Gayborhood advertised themselves as gay-owned and operated, and the first LGBT business associations were formed. By the end of the decade, city food writers attributed Philadelphia’s restaurant renaissance to its gay entrepreneurs.

As the 1980s began, the worst parts of Locust Street had been razed and rebuilt.  When crime continued to be a problem in the area, particularly manifesting itself in violence against transgendered people, the community and business associations came together to form neighborhood watches to patrol the area. In 1982, the Gay Rights Bill that had stalled year after year through the 1970s passed in City Council with almost no opposition.

The devastation of the AIDS epidemic and horrendous loss of life in the 1980s brought the community together. When federal, state and local governments failed to respond, Philadelphia activists stepped up. They formed groups like ActionAIDS, Unity, Manna,  ACT-UP, and the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania to promote AIDS education, to care for victims of the disease, and to fight for legislation and medical research.

The Gayborhood Gets Its Name

Center City’s gay neighborhood gained its name in 1995 at Outfest, a commemoration of National Coming Out Day, when David Warner playfully paraphrased the Mister Rogers children’s song and declared, “It’s a beautiful day in the Gayborhood!” The name stuck, and what had been a “gay ghetto” gradually became commonly known as the Gayborhood. In 2007, the city of Philadelphia installed thirty-six rainbow street signs in the area bounded by Eleventh and Broad Streets and Pine and Walnut Streets to honor the history and diversity of the area. In 2012, a section of Locust Street from Twelfth to Thirteenth Streets was dedicated as “Barbara Gittings Way,” in honor of Philadelphia’s pioneer activist.

A color photograph of a street sign for Locust Street on a black pole. The green sign with white letters has an additional rainbow colored section on the bottom.
The rainbow added to street signs throughout the Gayborhood symbolizes Philadelphia’s commitment to diversity and inclusiveness. (Photo by Bob Skiba)

By the twenty-first century, the Gayborhood was anchored by the William Way LGBT Community Center on Spruce Street and Giovanni’s Room, the country’s oldest LGBT bookstore, on Pine Street. In February 2014, the John C. Anderson Apartments, Philadelphia’s only housing for LGBT seniors, opened on Thirteenth Street near Spruce. Farther north on Thirteenth, upscale sidewalk cafes have replaced the hookers and drug dealers. The building at Locust and Thirteenth Streets that once housed the All in the Family strip club became Nest, a play space for Washington West toddlers. A combination of political activism, business savvy, and community involvement have succeeded in transforming Philadelphia’s downtown gay neighborhood.

Bob Skiba is the archivist at the William Way LGBT Community Center and the President of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides. In 2013, he co-authored Lost Philadelphia, with Edward Mauger. Skiba maintains a Philadelphia Gayborhood history blog at (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2014, Rutgers University 


Gay Men in Rittenhouse Square, 1953

Lesbians, gay men, and transgender people have always found ways to appropriate public spaces for themselves. Rittenhouse Square has been a meeting place for "queers" at least since the 1930s. In the 1950s and 1960s, the square was known as a place where gay men and lesbians coming into the city could meet others who would introduce them to the extensive urban homosexual "underground." The tradition continued through the 1970s, when Philadelphia's first gay pride parades began with a rally in Rittenhouse Square. (Photo courtesy of the John J. Wilcox Jr. LGBT Archives)

Camac Street

From the 1920s through the 1950s, Camac Street, from Walnut to Spruce Streets, was known as "Philadelphia's Greenwich Village." Maxine's (Tavern on Camac today) opened as a speakeasy in the 1920s and may have been Philadelphia's oldest continually operating gay bar. Both Maxine's and Tavern on Camac featured piano and other live entertainment for their guests. Farther down the street, the Venture Inn, which began as a bohemian tea room in the 1920s, became a college hangout in the 1960s and a gay bar in the 1970s. (Photo courtesy of the John J. Wilcox Jr. LGBT Archives)

Locust & Thirteenth Streets Looking East

By the early 1960s, this section of Locust Street was filled with seedy strip clubs and gambling bars where scantily clad women (employed by the bar) hustled clients for drinks. Many bars, both gay and straight, were owned or heavily influenced by Philadelphia's organized crime factions. The Philadelphia city police, under Commissioner Frank Rizzo, regularly patrolled this area at night and arrested individuals who looked lesbian, gay, or transgender, regardless of the individuals’ involvement with the clubs that lined this street. These arrested individuals were held overnight at the police station before being released.

Philadelphia Gay Pride Parade, 1972

Participants in Philadelphia's first Gay Pride Parade in June 1972 met in Rittenhouse Square and marched to Independence National Historical Park, where they held a rally with music and speeches. Rittenhouse Square was seen as a focal point in Philadelphia's LGBT geography and Independence National Historical Park was understood to be a proper venue for public discourse on constitutional rights. Gay pride parades in the 1970s descended directly from the Reminder Day demonstrations of the 1960s, which were smaller picketing events at Independence Hall. Participants in the Reminder Day demonstrations dressed in conservative clothing (suits for men, dresses for women), but the gay pride parades were much more extravagant events. Marchers were encouraged to express themselves freely though fashion, group chants, and songs. (Photo courtesy of the John J. Wilcox Jr. LGBT Archives)


In the Philadelphia LGBT community, women's bars have always outnumbered men's bars. One of the most famous Philadelphia lesbian bars in the 1960s was Rusty's, which required patrons to go through an unmarked door on Quince Street and walk to a second-floor room not visible from street level. Not all lesbian bars were as secretive. This 1985 photograph is from the women's club Mamzelle's, located on the second and third floor above The Bike Stop on Quince Street. Mamzelle's had a mirrored and strobe-lighted dance floor, a conversation lounge, and an arcade area for entertainment. Mamzelle's closed in 1986, and many of the other women's bars throughout Philadelphia closed in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. There have always been fewer women's bars than men's bars, and when Sisters on Chancellor Street closed in August 2013, Philadelphia was left without a women's bar for the first time since the 1960s. (Photo courtesy of the John J. Wilcox Jr. LGBT Archives)

Philadelphia Gay Rights Bill, 1982

Throughout the summer of 1982 Philadelphia activists fought for the passage of a “gay rights law,” an amendment to the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance to prohibit discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations on the basis of sexual preference. Despite last-minute efforts by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese to stall it, the Philadelphia City Council passed Bill 1358 in August 1982 with an overwhelming 13-2 vote. Observers hearing the result of the vote are pictured here in the Philadelphia Gay News. A few weeks later, on September 9, the bill became law by default, without the signature or support of Mayor Bill Green. (Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Gay News.)

Locust Street, 1976

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

The neighborhood around Thirteenth and Locust Streets through the 1960s suffered new waves of criminal activity that led to dilapidated buildings and the development of "undesirable" business and the nickname "Lurid Locust Street." Philadelphia police often merged lesbian and gay entertainment venues into the larger pool of "undesirable" criminal activities. Businesses like the Bag of Nails, with the sign extended over the door, and the Golden 33 to the left of it, both featured nude revues. Unlike New York's Times Square, Philadelphia's Locust Street kept lurid pictures of nude dancers discreetly inside, instead of outside the front door. Despite these precautions, police carried out a series of raids on these businesses in the 1960s. By the 1970s, Philadelphia city crews began to demolish the worst of the blighted buildings near Thirteenth Street, but police raids continued on legitimate business into the 1980s.

Locust Street, 2013

After a period of dilapidated buildings and crime throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the modern neighborhood around Thirteenth and Locust Streets developed into a neighborhood marked by upscale restaurants, nightclubs, home decor stores, and health services. The Jonathan Lax Center (building on left) for primary care HIV medicine now makes its home on the spot where scantily clad exotic dancers once performed. As buildings change owners, people move away, and businesses change locations, neighborhoods begin to develop new identities. This section of Locust Street lies in the overlapping area claimed by two neighborhoods: the "Gayborhood" and the more recent "Midtown Village." (Photo by Bob Skiba)

Locust Street Rainbow Sign

The Gayborhood's rainbow street signs, originally dedicated by Mayor John F. Street in 2007, signify the city's commitment to diversity and inclusiveness. The effort to erect the signs was spearheaded by the Philadelphia Gay Tourism Caucus, the Washington Square Civic Association, and Councilman Frank DeCicco. In 2010, thirty-two signs were added, bringing the total to sixty-nine. Philadelphia is one of a few North American cities, including San Francisco, Chicago and Montreal, that honors its LGBT community with such signage. (Photo by Bob Skiba)

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Related Reading

Adams, Carolyn, et al. Philadelphia: Neighborhoods, Division, and Conflict in a Postindustrial City. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

Anastasia, George, “A Neighborhood and a Hospital Gamble on the Future — Locust Street ‘Strip’ Revives around a Corner,” Philadelphia Inquirer, October 31, 1982.

Fonzi, Gaeton, “Lurid Locust,” Greater Philadelphia Magazine, 1961.

— — —. “The Furtive Fraternity.” Greater Philadelphia Magazine. December 1962.

Nichols, Thom. Gay and Lesbian Philadelphia. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2002.

Stein, Marc. City of Sisterly & Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945-1972. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Stein, Marc. “Birthplace of the Nation: Imagining Lesbian and Gay Communities in Philadelphia, 1969-1970,” in Creating a Place for Ourselves: Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Community Histories. Brett Beemyn, Ed.  New York: Routledge, 1997.

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