The Gloria Casarez mural that was demolished in Philadelphia's Gayborhood

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Developers who painted over the visage of an influential Latina LGBTQ activist in Philly’s ever-gentrifying Gayborhood apologized to the community on Monday.

The late Gloria Casarez dedicated her life to helping people of color, queer people and those with HIV/AIDS. After her death, her image looked over the Gayborhood as a work of art, commemorated in a mural that graced the old 12th Street Gym for more than five years.

Until building owner Midwood Investment & Development whitewashed the brick wall at 12th and Walnut just before Christmas.

The move stunned LGBTQ activists and public art supporters in the city, even though the pending demolition of the building was known. Advocates had struck a deal with the developers to replace the Casarez mural with an even bigger tribute to queer people and people of color, but they’d hoped to salvage some of the original.

Midwood claims it did nothing unexpected. But outcry over the issue was loud enough that the situation was covered by national media outlets, including the Today Show. On the first day back at the office after the holidays, the company offered an apology.

“We are truly sorry for the pain we’ve caused Gloria’s family and the local LGBTQ community,” spokesperson James Yolles told Billy Penn.

Demolition on the building has reportedly begun, and Midwood says it’s still planning to move forward on the replacement tribute.

So who was Gloria Casarez? How long was the mural there? Will a new one get painted? Here’s how we got to this point, and how things stand going forward.

Who was Gloria Casarez?

Gloria Casarez is known for ushering in a new era for LGBTQ equality in Philadelphia.

Born in South Philly and raised by a single mom, Casarez left a huge mark. She worked as executive director of the Philadelphia queer Latin@ org GALAEI for a decade and helped found the Philly Dyke March.

In 2008, she was appointed Philadelphia’s first director of the Office of LGBT Affairs. Casarez pioneered the tradition of raising a rainbow flag at City Hall during pride month, and she shepherded a comprehensive LGBTQ rights bill through City Council in 2013. With that bill, Philly became the first in the U.S. to provide tax credits for companies that offered domestic partner and trans health care benefits.

That’s not all. Casarez’s list of accomplishments is lengthy, and includes:

  • Advocating for the removal of gender stickers on SEPTA transpasses
  • Distributing an LGBTQ resource guide throughout Philadelphia public schools
  • Lobbying for tighter anti-bullying policy that was adopted by the School Reform Commission in 2009

HIV/AIDS nonprofit Philadelphia FIGHT recognized her instrumental work, bestowing her the Kiyoshi Kuromiya award for HIV/AIDS activism in 2011. They specifically called out her activism on behalf of queer Latinx youth as a major service to the community.

Casarez married her wife in 2011. Just three years later, she died at 45 years old from breast cancer. Since then, an LGBTQ affordable housing center was named after her — and the mural was painted in her honor.

When was the mural painted?

In 2015, Philly artist Michelle Angela Ortiz was commissioned by Mural Arts to paint Gloria Casarez on the side of the 12th Street Gym. The tribute shows her face on the left, bathed in warm sunlight, next to activists and queer couples on the right.

It was the only mural depicting an LGBTQ woman of color in Philadelphia, a city with more than 3,000 such artworks.

Tourism bureau Visit Philly recommended newcomers check out the mural when visiting the city. It also became a regular location for LGBTQ activism — last year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance was hosted outside next to the artwork.

Wait, why was it painted on a gym?

A little random, sure, but a mural honoring an LGBTQ icon actually made sense there.

The building on 12th Street south of Walnut was a historic Gayborhood spot. The 12th Street Gym was open nearly 30 years, and it was one of few welcoming fitness centers for gay men in the city. It often served as a safe meeting place for LGBTQ folks, which was rare in its early days.

Before that, the building was home to the Camac Baths — a spa-type space popular among Jewish men.

So when did the drama start?

NYC-based Midwood bought the building in January 2018. By the end of the month, the 12th Street Gym had closed.

The exact reason the gym shut down is unclear, though the building’s handful of code violations likely had something to do with it.

Mural Arts executive director Jane Golden immediately expressed concern over the fate of the mural. She told the Inquirer she planned to repaint it somewhere else if the building were demolished.

The next two years were full of folks lobbying the developer to keep the mural in some way — but Midwood insisted it wanted to tear down the entire structure and build an apartment complex. Finally in 2020, Mural Arts and Midwood made a compromise.

What was the compromise?

Unwilling to abandon its plan to raise a new building, Midwood promised to make new art honoring Casarez.

Midwood released a December statement saying it had reached a deal with Ortiz, the artist, and Mural Arts to create something new. The company would pay $655,000 for the fresh artwork, which would honor Casarez and other “BIPOC [Black/Indigenous/People of Color] LGBTQ ancestors.” There’d be a tribute to abolitionist Henry Minton, who reportedly once owned the building.

Ortiz told the Inquirer she met with company CEO John Usdan in November to discuss salvaging some parts of the mural before the building were demolished.

Midwood spokesperson Yolles also said the company offered ground floor space to the LGBTQ community free of charge.

Then what happened?

On Dec. 23, without any prior warning, people working for Midwood Investment & Development painted over the Casarez mural, turning the space into a blank white wall.

The incident shocked supporters, and Ortiz and Golden issued a joint statement. “Casarez was a beacon of hope and possibility for the LGBTQ and Latinx community,” they said. “With the loss of this iconic mural, we mourn the loss of Gloria all over again.”

Why’d they do it?

Unclear. We reached out to Midwood, and they said the demolition had been publicly planned for nearly six months — but they didn’t explain why they painted over the mural first.

The developers told WHYY that they “intend to honor our agreement with Mural Arts. This process and demolition has been planned and approved for months.”

Who noticed?

Everyone! A ton of people in Philly were outraged by the whitewashing of the Casarez mural.

The artist, Ortiz, showed up the same day with a projector and shined the beloved artwork on its old home. The Keep Gloria on 12th Street Facebook page posted a pic of a “Midwood sucks” sign on the fence surrounding the property.

Elected officials like Mayor Jim Kenney and Councilmember Mark Squilla expressed their surprise and disappointment over the artwork’s sudden disappearance.

Media outlets all over the world picked up the story, including the New York Daily News, the TODAY Show, and the Gay Times of the UK picked up the story.

What’s next?

Artist Ortiz and Mural Arts say they have backed out of their six-figure public art deal with Midwood.

“After this unexpected development, we cannot in good conscience move forward,” Golden’s statement read. “We are consumed with deep sadness shared by Gloria’s family, the community, and the artist.”

However, per the most recent statement provided Billy Penn, Midwood seems to believe the future collab will still come to fruition.

“We have worked actively in Philadelphia for more than two decades,” spokesperson Yolles said, “and look forward to fulfilling our agreement to honor the memory and legacy of Gloria Casarez and Henry Minton.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...