💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.
Listen to the audio version of this story here.
At a corner bar in North Philadelphia, Iris Melendez built a rare bridge between two communities. These groups are more often adversarial than warm and fuzzy — but within these four walls, they’re like family.
Melendez opened Sammy’s Place in 1993 at the corner of 5th and Jefferson. It was always an old school Latino bar, the kind where the most popular drink is a can of Coors Light served with a shot of Jose Cuervo. Inside, retirees hang out at domino tables. The summertime brings cookouts and pig roasts to the back patio, and Melendez gets the word out with paper fliers, not event pages on social media.
“It was just a community straight bar,” said Melendez. “Seriously old timers. Like, seriously.”
But as much as 57-year-old Melendez is a traditional figure in the Latino community, she’s just as unorthodox. That’s because she’s “in the life,” as she calls it — meaning she’s a member of the LGBTQ community.
For four years, Melendez ran a gay club upstairs from her conventional Latino dive. It was the kind that sold fruity cocktails in fishbowls and ran regular drag shows, and became the host of Philly’s first-ever Latino Pride Festival.
At first, Melendez said, being queer felt antithetical to her Latino background.
“We don’t air our dirty laundry whatsoever at all,” Melendez said. “You don’t bring shame to the family by discussing this. Oh hell no.”
But she opted to abandon convention: “So I just aired everybody’s laundry.”
Melendez has sewn together North Philly’s Latino stronghold with her LGBTQ clientele in a lasting way. There were plenty of growing pains, especially at first — but eventually, the two bars came to coexist naturally.
And even after the upstairs gay bar closed, Sammy’s Place has maintained an “LGBT-friendly” atmosphere, Melendez said. Now, it’s evolved into a spot that truly serves both communities.
“Here, you could be gay, bisexual, lesbian, and be within your culture,” said Jose Figueroa, manager and bartender at Sammy’s Place. “You could speak Spanish and you could be comfortable.”
A ‘Romeo and Juliet’ moment at 5th and Jefferson
Melendez isn’t keen on labels. If you ask her how she identifies, she’ll assert, “I’m just Iris Melendez.”
She’s single now, but she’s had serious relationships with both men and women. Melendez lights up when she imagines falling in love again. The gender of her next partner won’t matter.
“I guess, to me, love is about the soul,” Melendez said. “I believe that there is no greater feeling than falling in love. It’s magical.”
When Melendez opened the bar, she was with her son’s father. The couple hired a lesbian DJ to spin at Sammy’s Place, and Melendez’s partner suspected she had a crush on her. He got jealous.
Melendez swears she didn’t, but the conflict became such a force in their relationship that in 2001, they split up.
Nothing ever blossomed between Melendez and her DJ. But six years later, at her annual Mother’s Day block party, she met another woman.
On the block, hundreds of people drank and danced around a pig roast in the middle of the street. But Melendez was focused on one woman. She was a soft butch, with dark hair slicked back. Their eyes met over and over again.
“It was like a Romeo and Juliet kind of shit thing,” Melendez recalled, laughing. “You know, she stalks, but then I was hoping she stalks.”
That woman was Northeast Philly resident Brenda Torres, a project manager at the neighborhood PGW facility. “We clicked,” Melendez said, and nine months later they were living together down the street from the bar.
“You know when you’re really in love and you ask your partner, ‘I’m yours, who do you belong to?’ And you expect them to say, ‘Honey, I’m yours too.’” Melendez said. “No. She said, ‘I belong to the pueblo,’ meaning the community.”
That worked for Melendez, because she did too.
Opening night at Rainbow Eye
Coming out as an adult in the Latino community wasn’t easy for Melendez. Her mother stopped speaking to her for a year, and her customers were skeptical, at best.
“I had a lot of close friends that were in the same situation,” Melendez said. “And then I said, you know what? This could be something. There’s nowhere in this area. Everything is in the Gayborhood. There’s nothing where minorities can go.”
Gay bars are more than just a place to drink and dance. Historically, they’ve existed as one of few safe spaces for queer and trans people. A New York gay bar called The Stonewall Inn catalyzed the modern LGBTQ rights movement in the United States.
At times, acts of homophobic violence have also infiltrated these spaces.
“I was nervous…shit, scared,” Melendez said of opening her own gay nightclub.
On Halloween night of 2008, Melendez and Torres welcomed the first customers to the upstairs bar they called Rainbow Eye. The scene on that opening night was whiplash-inducing — a line of LGBTQ Philadelphians stretched for an entire block down North 5th Street. Upstairs, staff were constantly trying to hold the bar to its 75-person capacity. “When three left, three could come in, and they waited,” Melendez remembered.
But downstairs, Melendez said, “the shit hit the fan.”
Regular bartender Figueroa started performing drag upstairs at Rainbow Eye, despite being jittery. “For the first couple months, it was weird, like, I don’t know that person,” he said. “Are they going to like me? Can I say hi?”
One downstairs regular named Cheo was among the most vocally homophobic, using Spanish slurs against his fellow customers.
But the Rainbow Eye team was determined to win him over — along with the rest of the Sammy’s Place regulars. So they turned on the charm.
One Saturday night around closing time, while Cheo sat at the downstairs bar, Figueroa floated downstairs dressed as his drag queen alterego, Mimi. Cheo’s eyes lit up, and he asked Melendez to introduce them. She obliged, and Cheo and Mimi flirted at the bar.
Eventually, Melendez stepped in and told Cheo he was talking to a man.
“He said, ‘Are those the women that be doing the show upstairs?’” Melendez said. “I says, ‘Yep.’ And he says, ‘So can we go see the show?’”
That’s when Cheo started sitting upstairs at Rainbow Eye.
With a strong maternal instinct, Melendez learned to manage the two communities — fostering respect and even care between them. She came down hard on peeping toms who would hit up Rainbow Eye to be creepy. She also gave realistic advice to LGBTQ people who made their way downstairs.
“I had to coach my LGBT,” she said. “Like, Sammy’s Place is old school. We don’t happen in their backyards. If you go downstairs and act promiscuous, you know they’re going to stare, whether you think it’s wrong of them or not.”
Slowly but surely, queer and trans people started flocking to the upstairs bar from Fishtown, Hunting Park, West Philly, even as far Camden. And for the most part, everyone got along.
“The upstairs became our home, a haven for people that were so afraid,” Melendez said. “We opened doors, especially for the minority community in this vicinity.”
“It was a challenge, but we beat it,” she added. “We conquered it. And we all party together.”
Thousands of North Philly residents celebrating Pride
With all the customers finally getting along, Rainbow Eye kept growing.
Melendez and Torres hosted senior nights, drag shows and karaoke upstairs. There were queer parties on the back patio, and Sunday meetups for LGBTQ youth — with virgin strawberry daiquiris to go around.
Seven months into the bar’s existence, the Rainbow Eye team decided to host a block party for Pride Month. They threw together Philly’s first-ever Latino Pride Festival in 2008 in just six weeks, and got dozens of vendors and food trucks to participate.
Melendez never dreamed she could get her neighbors to show up to a Pride festival.
“Heck no,” she said. “But they supported it, and they came out.”
That day, 2,000 people filled four blocks around 5th and Jefferson to celebrate their LGBTQ neighbors. By the next year, attendance jumped to 2,500 people — and in 2010, more than 3,000 people partied outside the bar for Pride.
But running a nightclub in the middle of a residential neighborhood wasn’t easy. Every weekend there were complaints from neighbors about loud customers, and Melendez said Philly police officers started to show up around closing time.
In 2012, Torres and Melendez decided to close Rainbow Eye permanently.
“I was sad,” said Figueroa, the bartender and drag performer. “This was a Latino bar where you heard Spanish music. You danced to Spanish music. You didn’t have to go for a Spanish night in Center City. Because you had the whole entire weekend here.”
The end of the gay bar spelled the end for Melendez and Torres, too. A couple years later, the pair split up, and in 2015, Torres died.
“All the time, people still bring her up,” Melendez said. But after Rainbow Eye closed, “the LGBT started just migrating to Sammy’s Place. Because there was nowhere else to go, and I was still here.”
The lasting ‘bridge’
Rainbow Eye lives on at Sammy’s Place in some of the events and the drink specials, like the iconic “F me harder,” which is an especially deadly take on the Long Island Iced Tea, infused with more types of liquor than the already-boozy cocktail. The downstairs bar hosts a lesbian DJ every Sunday, and is planning an LGBTQ picnic for Pride Month.
The friendly dynamic has endured, too, in large part due to regulars like Marcus Roman. He’s retired, so he hangs out at Sammy’s Place during weekday afternoons, watching the Phillies on TV or chatting with his neighbors.
The 58-year-old North Philadelphian loves the inclusive atmosphere at Sammy’s Place. His son is gay, and he has seen what LGBTQ people go through on their journey to acceptance.
“We’re family,” Roman said about the bar. “We love each other. We don’t care what you are, what your nationality is, what your sexual preferences are. Because whatever you are, we just accept people in general.”
Kensington resident Joey Dante comes to Sammy’s Place on the weekends. They used to hit up the gay bars in Center City — but they have multiple sclerosis, which makes it challenging to travel far from home.
Sammy’s Place has become irreplaceable for them. Dante can hit up one spot right near home and embrace both their identities: their Latino side, and their LGBTQ side.
They say that’s rare in Philly’s gay nightlife scene.
“It hasn’t really been that tailored for the Latinos to find a place anymore where they can feel comfortable, so a lot of them come here,” Dante said. “The clientele here is really, really good. They’re friendly, they’re nice, they’re loving.”
Melendez feels like she’s realized a dream, blending her own cultures together in a permanent way.
“We built bridges,” Melendez said. “And now we have them all. We have the guys come and dance together. They like to come and dance because they’re not stared at anymore. And everybody’s okay with it.”