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PHILADELPHIA — After leaving the city to travel around the world, Steve Duross came back to Philadelphia in 1991, in the center of what eventually became the city’s “Gayborhood.”
Back then it was gritty and grungy.
In 2004, in the midst of the neighborhood’s transformation, he opened a natural soap and cosmetics store called Duross & Langel, now located on 13th Street, the gay area’s main corridor.
Today, Duross & Langel is just one of many shops on a block booming with bars and restaurants.
From the time Duross moved back to Philadelphia, 13th Street went from a sketchy spot for gays and lesbians to congregate to one of the most popular areas in the city for both tourists and locals. In that way, the block has become a poster child for a new kind of urban renewal in Philadelphia.
As Philadelphia’s economy has struggled to overcome its postindustrial decline, leading it to the unfortunate distinction of “poorest large city in the U.S.,” a new idea has emerged within the halls of city government and the offices of small businesses: Bring in dollars by attracting the broadest possible market — including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people — to the city.
To that end, lawmakers, marketers and LGBT businesses here have been working overtime to ensure that the entire country knows Philadelphia is on its way to becoming “one of, if not the most, LGBT-friendly cities in the world,” as Mayor Michael Nutter recently put it.
To paraphrase ‘Sex and the City’: When the gays come, everybody comes.
The city’s gay-friendly focus isn’t only a cynical ploy for dollars, but even the architects of the new local LGBT-inclusive laws and initiatives admit that there is economic logic behind their work. They believe that if they can attract the right people, the money will follow. And if Duross’ experience on 13th Street is any indication, the strategy is working.
“It used to be at 6 p.m., you could shoot a cannon down this street and not hit anybody,” he said. “If you wanted crack, a porn theater or a prostitute, it was all here for the taking ... Now it’s bustling.”
10 years in the making
The crowded bars and cute shops that have come to define 13th Street didn’t happen by accident. Philadelphia has invested millions of dollars over the last decade to create and promote an area that is one of the most visited by gay tourists in the United States.
November marks the 10th anniversary of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Corporation’s first gay-themed ad, urging LGBT travelers to “come to Philadelphia; get your history straight, and your nightlife gay.” The campaign was also the first nationally broadcast gay tourism ad in the country.
When the GPTMC began running the ads, it commissioned a study that found the city did not rank within the top 20 tourist destinations for gays and lesbians. Now it is consistently in the top 10.
The rankings are good news for places like Duross & Langel and other businesses in Center City. GPTMC’s research shows that gay and lesbian travelers tend to spend more money than the general population. Their travel habits seem to be more recession-proof as well.
But the city’s strategy of attracting gays and lesbians goes beyond getting money just from LGBT people.
“To paraphrase ‘Sex and the City’: When the gays come, everybody comes,” said Meryl Levitz, head of the GPTMC. “The fact is, when gay and lesbian people like some things, people take notice.”
In other words, the city hopes LGBT people will be trendsetters, helping pull in cash from the general population, and this seems to be the economic idea behind the city’s legislative changes as well.
Nutter has been, by many counts, one of the most LGBT-friendly mayors in the country.
In May, with the backing of the City Council, he passed a bill that included a slew of new rights for LGBT people. It mandates workplace protections like those currently being debated in Congress, and provides incentives for businesses to provide health insurance that covers domestic partners and trans-related medical care. The bill also mandates that all new or renovated government buildings include gender-neutral restrooms.
While those behind the bill say its primary goal is to make life for LGBT Philadelphians better, they’re also hoping Levitz’s “Sex and the City” theory will hold true — that if gays feel welcome, everyone else will flock there too.
“LGBT equality is good for business,” said Gloria Casarez, the head of LGBT issues in the mayor’s office. “We want businesses to relocate here, and the reality is that the Fortune 500 companies are way ahead of the curve in protection for their LGBT employees.”
Casarez also pointed out that the neighborhoods responsible for Philadelphia’s first population gain since 1950 also happen to be LGBT-friendly areas.
“Where you see an uptick — South Philadelphia, the Market area, Fishtown — they are heavily populated by LGBT people,” she said.
'People will still be poor'
There are, of course, limits to the gay-friendly strategy, which Casarez and the city’s LGBT leadership acknowledge. They hope their initiatives will be the catalyst and not the entire solution to rejuvenate a city still plagued by poverty.
And while there’s been little palpable dissent to Philadelphia’s embrace of LGBT people, and even less protest about the revival of Center City, for some who live outside of it there’s been a lot of indifference.
Casarez and her colleagues recognize that for every revitalized street, there are still blocks in North or West Philadelphia that contain some of the city’s 40,000 abandoned properties. For every new job created by a gay-friendly business moving into Philadelphia, there’s still someone without a job in a city where 27 percent of people live below the poverty line.
“If you get more people here, good for you, but I don’t see how it’s going to benefit me,” said Louis Ortiz, a gay man who has lived in North Philadelphia his entire life and works at one of the city’s largest LGBT nonprofits, the Mazzoni Center. “The city will get more revenue, but people will still be poor.”
Ortiz and others from North and West Philadelphia say they’re happy to see more LGBT people coming to the city, and agree that Philadelphia could use an economic boost. But they also don’t see how attracting Fortune 500 companies and people with enough income to spend on hotels in Center City will benefit most people in the poorest big city in the U.S.
“I don’t hear it as an opportunity for my community,” Ortiz said. “I’ve never seen my quality of life going up. I don’t even know what that would look like.”