Secret Philly

Secret Philly: When Rittenhouse Square was the city’s Gayborhood

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, men who hung out south of the park were known as the “Spruce Street boys.”

Philly's gay pride parade in 1972 marched from Rittenhouse Square to Independence Hall

Philly's gay pride parade in 1972 marched from Rittenhouse Square to Independence Hall

John J. Wilcox Jr. LGBT Archives via Philadelphia Encyclopedia

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Philly’s Gayborhood as we now know it lives in Center City just east of Broad. From roughly Chestnut to Pine streets, crosswalks are painted with rainbows and street corners are dotted with gay bars and nonprofits.

While there’s ongoing debate about the authenticity of the LGBTQ district — plus constant concerns about racism and gentrification — it’s indisputable that the Wash West enclave is known as Philly’s queer mecca. But that wasn’t always the case.

In the 1950s and ’60s, LGBTQ Philadelphians concentrated somewhere else. A half mile west, on the other side of Broad Street, Rittenhouse Square was once the city’s gay moment.

Back then, the city’s gay nightlife revolved around the park. Men strolled the streets late at night looking for dates. The first Pride march in 1972 started there.

So prominent were gay people in Rittenhouse that when nightlife spots opened up, straight people lamented there was just as good a chance it’d be a gay bar as a straight one. “I wonder if we’ll be able to go there,” a resident mused about a new taproom in a May 1974 Inquirer article.

This is a story about Philly’s Gayborhood of yesteryear — the nightlife scene, the creativity of romantic pursuit, the way it made straight people shudder and the dramatic lengths local officials went to eradicate queer Philadelphia. (Spoiler: They even used traffic signage.)

In the 70s, Henri David ran the Easter Promenade out of Rittenhouse Square

In the 70s, Henri David ran the Easter Promenade out of Rittenhouse Square

Courtesy of Henri David

‘The gayest night of the week’

That early 1970s Inquirer article described heterosexual people as a “minority” in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood. It was a few years after Stonewall in New York City, and the continuous presence of LGBTQ people was becoming obvious to straight people — especially in one of Center City’s wealthier sectors.

The nightlife scene around the Square became notorious. News organizations called it “twilight life” — when the sun went down and queer men and women would hit the bars in search acceptance, a good time, and maybe some action.

“Saturday night is the gayest night of the week,” read a 1962 story on the Rittenhouse queer scene in Greater Philadelphia Magazine. “They come from all parts of the city, from the suburbs, from as far away as Reading and Atlantic City.”

So many gay men started setting up camp in the area south of the park that straight people referred to them as the “Spruce Street boys.”

In some ways, this was a Gayborhood much like the one that exists today: white gay men were the most accepted, and everyone else experienced additional levels of prejudice. Many lesbians and Black queer people purposely lived in neighborhoods like Germantown or North Philly instead.

For what it was, Rittenhouse Square’s gay scene was popular. And naturally, along with a convergence of queer people came homophobia and discrimination.

At best, their straight neighbors gawked. As seen in newspaper archives, one remarked to a reporter how silly gay men looked while rollerskating; another said they overheard some queer people discussing gender confirmation surgery. At worst, they wanted those people gone.

“These f—s are taking over Philadelphia,” one Spruce Street pharmacist told the Inquirer.

Greater Philadelphia Magazine, 1962

Greater Philadelphia Magazine, 1962

Moving across Broad, and into gentrification

At the time, homophobia was deeply ingrained in local government.

Under Mayor Frank Rizzo, the city put up signage around Rittenhouse Square to discourage gay people from cruising — aka driving around the park to find dates.

The signs prohibited left turns from 21st onto Delancey Street between midnight and 5 a.m. Even then-Deputy Streets Commissioner John Scruggs told the Inquirer he thought it was an overreach: “It’s kind of stretching it to think you can regulate human behavior with a traffic sign.”

But the sign never came down — yes, it’s literally still up today — and Philly’s queer community slowly but surely migrated eastward.

In 1976, Philly opened its first gay community center near 3rd and South Street. The building, which would later be called the William Way Community Center and move to 13th and Spruce, pulled Philadelphia’s queer community across Broad Street.

Owners of gay bars with mob ties paid off police to leave them alone, and the nightlife scene survived, dubbed “Lurid Locust” by local news organizations.

Federal funding dried up in the 1960s for planned redevelopment in the Washington Square West area. Construction stalled on the Vine Street Expressway. Both abandoned projects left plenty of vacant lots where gambling, prostitution and drug dealing flourished.

The downturn didn’t last. In the ’80s, queer people pumped their own efforts into the area. A gay business owners’ association formed. In 1995, the Gayborhood got its official name during an Outfest celebration under then-Mayor Ed Rendell. In the years to come, rainbow crosswalks and flags were proudly put on display. Wealthier residents moved in, contributing to gentrification.

These days, parts of the neighborhood, which is filled to the brim with buzzy restaurants, go by Midtown Village instead. Several flourishing gay bars, bookstores, gyms and community centers remain.

Want some more? Explore other Secret Philly stories.

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