On Sept. 6, business owners in the blocks within Market, Spruce, Broad and 11th Streets, unofficially known as the "Gayborhood," gathered at the Holiday Inn on Walnut Street to celebrate the district's new name, Midtown Village, named by the neighborhood's year-old merchant association. "What's in a name? Everything!" announced Jeff Guaracino, of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, to the crowd of vendors, customers and residents.
The Midtown Village launch party unveiled a banner program to brand the neighborhood as "a unique enclave of independent, open-minded boutiques, restaurants, lofts and more." It is a unified effort by the merchants to repair the area's tawdry reputation and re-imagine it as an upscale dining and retail destination. The association will display its efforts on Sept. 29 at the annual Fall Festival, an outdoor event promising live music, food and drinks from neighborhood vendors. But there is still a big pink elephant waving a rainbow flag on the corner of Locust and Camac: What about, y'know, the Gayborhood?
The two names suggest two very different things. Defined by Chestnut, Pine, Broad and 10th streets, the Gayborhood (a term believed to have been coined by this publication's David Warner) is only one block south of Midtown Village, but its name elicits images of bar hopping, strong drinks and after-hours encounters rather than home-decorating stores, Bugaboo baby strollers and iced mocha lattes.
One needs only to compare the Fall Festival with OutFest, set for Oct. 7, as evidence of the two names' seeming incompatibility. One offers children's activities throughout, and the other a designated "family zone" separate from the daylong festival's drag performances, high-heel races and penis-shaped-bagel-eating contest.
Change hasn't been easy in this neighborhood. In 2002, Center City developer Tony Goldman tried to change 13th Street and the surrounding area into "B3," Blocks Below Broad, a SoHo-lite food and shopping center that bridged the Kimmel Center and the Convention Center. The change was to begin with the launch of his stylish, pan-Mediterranean restaurant, Trust, but B3 failed to win neighborhood support and both the restaurant and the name fizzled away.
Philadelphia in 2002 was different than it is today. New condominium developments and retail outlets have brought Goldman's original plans to fruition. Streets within Midtown Village are now lined with new boutiques such as Sailor Jerry and Open House and cafes like Tria, Tbar and Vintage.
"The demographic of people who are staying here has changed," said James McManaman, who organized the merchants association and owns the gallery Absolute Abstract on 13th Street. "It's not only people going to Pure or Woody's, but it's people coming to eat, stay out late and drink in non-official gay places."
"There's a potential of 250 merchants in the neighborhood," he notes. "And we can't force anyone to identify their business as gay or even gay-friendly, as bad as that sounds."
McManaman acknowledges that the neighborhood is still very gay. The past month has seen the opening of the upscale gay bar Knock, and plans are under way to open a restaurant at the former site of Signatures.
In 2006, 12th Street Gym, a popular gay-friendly fitness center, came under fire when owner Bob Guzzardi's financial support of conservative politicians such as then-Sen. Rick Santorum was made public. Under the threat of a boycott from the gym's gay clientele, Guzzardi sold his interests in the gym to co-owner Rick Piper.
Maintaining the integrity of a neighborhood that represents a specific segment of Philadelphia — the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning community (LGBTQ) — while allowing the neighborhood to evolve is a balancing act that if mishandled could curb growth or alienate the community.
The Philadelphia Gay Tourism Caucus, which works to promote the neighborhood, found a solution by spearheading the rainbow signage initiative. On April 18, six months after "Midtown Village" was elected as the neighborhood's new name, 36 street signs were permanently fastened with rainbow flags, the universally recognized symbol of LGBTQ pride, to represent Philadelphia's commitment to equality.
"Residents have moved into the area, both a mixture of gay and straight," says Tami Sortman, president of the caucus. "It's not all about who lives in the neighborhood anymore, but what's in that neighborhood."
"As most people know, gay communities thrive in areas that need to be gentrified," continues Sortman, pointing to the gay bars and gay-owned restaurants clustered around 12th and 13th streets. "They go into an area that's been depressed and they make it better. And sometimes they move on, and sometimes they stay. It's ever-changing and we can't predict the future. But for now, I can say that this is definitely a gay-established area."
I spent two weeks in neighborhood gay bars recording the reactions to the new un-gay name change. Following initial eye rolls upon hearing the name "Midtown Village," people I talked to were apathetic and even-tempered: Name or no name, the area is still definitively still gay.
"It's a dumb name, but they put up the rainbow flags, so I'm not worried about it," said Mark, who was standing outside Youth Night Wednesdays at Woody's.
"They stole that from us ... the Village," said Gerard, 29, a Manhattanite standing nearby.
His opinion was echoed throughout the bars.
"They're trying to do the New York Village thing," said Matt, standing outside of Bump's Size Queen party. "It's not catching on yet, but I like the idea"
Sven, standing outside of Pure, hated the name, but did notice the difference between days and nights in the neighborhood. "It's not the same vibe. Less homothugs. It's very granola, 9-to-5 accountants, white on white."
Mickey Anne, back at Woody's, had a different perspective on the area's changed personality. "It's lesbians and gay men holding hands, walking around with children," she explains. "It's gays, straights and bisexuals walking around here during the day and at night. I don't want to say it's separate. Anywhere that's open and acceptable is not separate. It identifies the people who are open and welcoming to whatever you're into. I sometimes feel like separate seems very similar to segregated and [the neighborhood] is not."
"I define myself by good restaurants and good shopping!" chimed in her girlfriend.
This sentiment was the prevailing mood at the Midtown Village launch party. The crowd of gay and straight guests mingled about Holiday Inn's banquet hall drinking wine and eating hors d'oeuvres from the merchant tables, while City Councilman Frank DiCicco auctioned off prizes.
Some guests poked fun at the name — Matthew Ray, editor of HX Philadelphia, a free gay-nightlife magazine, quipped, "If this is Midtown Village, that makes Temple Uptown" — but everyone supported the message. Whether the district is called the Gayborhood or Midtown Village, the goal of the merchants association is not to replace the Gayborhood but to join with it to better represent the changing character of the neighborhood and ensure its success. The gay community is once again embracing reinvention.