Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is an example of a US city that fell victim to a long process of post-industrial decay in the 1960s and ’70s. Despite its role in the folklore of American history, Philly had by then become something of a symbol of what used to be; unemployment and crime rates were high, the population was in decline, and scores of buildings lay derelict.
But by the early 1990s, Philly was enjoying the beginnings of a renaissance. And perhaps unsurprisingly, gay people were one of the driving forces behind the renewal. Old buildings were replaced or reclaimed, arts, culture and small business thrived, and the area became a perfect case study of the gay-people-gentrification effect.
At about 25 square blocks, Philadelphia’s gaybourhood is today relatively huge and well-established. It lies in the former red-light district in Center City, just southeast of the historic Old City. (Look for street-name signs bearing rainbow colours.)
Known also as Washington Square West, the neighbourhood boasts all the accoutrements of a thriving gay community: bars, clubs, restaurants and bathhouses catering to every taste. There are no less than four major annual gay street festivals, a thriving gay press — with fat weekly issues — and tons of shops catering to gay people.
Philadelphia’s William Way LGBT Community Center (waygay.org) looks and works a bit like Toronto’s 519 Church Street Community Centre. William Way is home to, among other things, Philly’s gay archives. And in October of last year, the Pennsylvania state legislature approved a $7-million contribution toward an addition to the building of up to 70 affordable-housing units for low-income seniors. Philadelphia Gay News (epgn.com) publisher Mark Segal was reportedly instrumental in securing that commitment from state politicians.
Philly is a great destination for gay people anytime, but October is when the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation (visitphilly.com) hosted guidemag.com on a press trip. The annual Outfest (phillypride.org) celebration, a National Coming Out Day block party held then, takes up almost the entire gay village. It’s a simple and refreshing event that seems by, for and about gay people.
If you go in October, don’t miss Terror Behind the Walls. It’s a theatrical haunted tour of the decommissioned Eastern State Penitentiary (easternstate.org). The prison is open for tours year-round, but the Halloween program is spooky as hell and just plain fascinating. Look out for Al Capone’s cell and splurge on the After Dark VIP Tour ending at the performers’ green room. You won’t soon forget a dozen or so young ghouls, goblins and various minions of the undead sitting around in costume and makeup, chatting, giggling and munching pink-frosted gourmet cupcakes.
For a summer visit, take a side trip to the relaxing getaway community of New Hope (newhopevisitorscenter.org). The shopping is great and The Raven (theravennewhope.com) offers comfortable accommodations. Its attached bar and restaurant has been a popular gay nightspot for more than 35 years — if those walls could talk.
For the culture aficionado, Philly is home to some amazing collections of fine art. The Philadelphia Museum of Art (philamuseum.org), the steps of which earned dubious fame in the first Rocky film, is among the largest museums in the US. It has a huge array of world-class collections. It’s also attached to the nearby Rodin Museum (rodinmuseum.org), which houses the largest collection of Rodin sculptures outside of Paris. The famous Barnes Foundation (barnesfoundation.org) will be relocating much of its $25-billion collection of impressionist paintings and other artifacts from its suburban Philly home to the same area on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 2012.
And for food, don’t forgo a stop at Geno’s (genosteaks.com) for a famous Philly cheese steak. It’s a very gay-friendly place. And for something a little more fancy, be sure to enjoy a leisurely dinner at Lolita (lolitabyob.com). Owners Valerie Safran and chef Marcie Turney are Philly power-lesbians with a fascinating success story who will treat you well and romance your taste buds. The chipotle-garlic beef tenderloin is to die for, and you can even BYOB.
Bars and clubs
Philadelphia has a great selection of gay bars and clubs, located mostly in the gay village in Center City. Woody’s (woodysbar.com) is a first-stop day-and-night casual watering hole popular among gay men. The staff and clientele are Philly friendly, the drinks are generous and affordable, and the place is easy to find. Sisters Nightclub (sistersnightclub.com), one of the largest lesbian nightspots on the East Coast of the US, is a must-see for the queer crowd. The Bike Stop (thebikestop.com) is the go-to joint for leather enthusiasts, and Philly does leather and blue-collar really well. Tavern on Camac (tavernoncamac.com), the place to talk loud and draw a crowd, features larger spaces and live music. Be sure to also check out Knock Restaurant and Bar (knockphilly.com) and Westbury Bar (westburybarandrestaurant.com).
The Independent Hotel Philadelphia (theindependenthotel.com) is intimate, stylish, comfortable, secure and right in the heart of the gay village. It’s housed in a building that offers a nice taste of Philly’s historical roots, and downstairs is the upscale Q Lounge and Kitchen. Within a few blocks, but still in the gaybourhood, are Alexander Inn (alexanderinn.com) and Uncles Upstairs Inn (1220 Locust St). There are thousands of additional hotel rooms to the north of the gay village, within comfortable walking distance.
Getting there and getting around
Flight time from Toronto Pearson is about 90 minutes, with several airlines, including Air Canada (aircanada.com), offering daily service. Getting to Philly from New York City takes just over an hour by road or rail at non-peak times.
The area has an impressive passenger rail transit system that can get you just about anywhere on the Eastern Seaboard reasonably cheaply and quickly. Most trains and many buses in Philly are bicycle-friendly (septa.org). There are lots of cyclists in Center City, but many streets are narrow and there are so far just a few bike lanes and bike paths that crisscross the city (bicyclecoalition.org). Taxis are plentiful and easy enough to find in Philly.
Big gay events
Equality Forum, April 25–May 1, 2011 equalityforum.com
Philly Pride parade and festival, June 12, 2011. phillypride.org
Philadelphia Qfest, formerly the Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, July 7–18, 2011. qfest.com
Philly OutFest, October 2011 Check phillypride.org for exact dates.