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A Guide to Philadelphia Neighborhoods

by Rich Rubin

As someone who’s lived in Philadelphia for over a decade now, there’s one thing I can tell you with no hesitation: it’s a city of neighborhoods.

As someone who’s lived in Philadelphia for over a decade now, there’s one thing I can tell you with no hesitation: it’s a city of neighborhoods. While of course this applies to just about any city, it’s particularly marked in Philadelphia, where a few minutes’ stroll can bring you to a totally different atmosphere. Of course, there are things that united the city into a cohesive whole, including its combination of history and modernity, the gay-friendly quality that consistently lands it at the top of rankings by LGBT groups, and the immensely walkable nature of the “Center City” area, which is where we’ll spend most of our time. Set between two rivers, and only thirty blocks wide and about ten blocks long, with numbered streets going north/south and (mostly) tree-named streets east/west, the Philadelphia’s center city is a paradise for walkers. So let’s go on a tour of the City of Brotherly and Sisterly love, neighborhood by neighborhood. I think you’ll like the things we discover. I’m just sayin’.

The Gayborhood: At the Heart of Things

We’ll start, of course, in the Gayborhood (aka Midtown Village), which is geographically as well as thematically a great place to begin, as it’s pretty much in the heart of Center City. For our purposes, we’ll call the Gayborhood the district from 10th to Broad Streets (Broad is the equivalent of 14th), and Market down to Pine. It’s here that you’ll find almost all the LGBT nightlife, and one of the most pleasant neighborhoods in the city.

Standing directly across the street from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell Center at 6th and Chestnut Streets, this historic marker was erected to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the first Annual Reminder, a demonstration led by gay activists on July 4 from 1965 to 1969.

Standing directly across the street from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell Center at 6th and Chestnut Streets, this historic marker was erected to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the first Annual Reminder, a demonstration led by gay activists on July 4 from 1965 to 1969.

Good news: you can stay right in the Gayborhood. For convenience and appeal, I love Alexander Inn, a boutique hotel at Spruce and 12th that couldn’t be more perfectly located. Add to that Alexander’s nice rooms, super-helpful staff, and great breakfast buffet in their cozy living room, and what we have here is a winner. On the edge of the neighborhood, Loews Hotel, built in America’s first skyscraper, offers the style and friendliness we’ve come to associate with Loews.

Definitely stop in the William Way Community Center, where you’ll find all kinds of things of interest. Prime among them these days is the exhibit that’s part of Reminder 2015, a 50th anniversary commemoration of one of America’s first major gay rights demonstrations, which took place in front of Independence Hall on July 4, 1965. The Center is partnering with museums all over the city, with most exhibits running through July or August and a re-enactment of the original demonstration on July 4. Here at the Center, the exhibit traces the movement from its early days to the present/future with film, photos, and other artifacts.

Ready to feel some pride? Walk around the neighborhood, noticing the rainbow-colored street signs, leaving no doubt as to who rules this ‘hood. You can definitely pick up some unique mementos here, from the pricey but beautiful handmade soaps of Duross and Langel to the elegant little sweets at Marcia Blaine Chocolates (both on 13th Street and both LGBT-owned). At the edge of the neighborhood is Broad Street, known as the Avenue of the Arts, with several of the city’s major theaters here. My favorite: the Wilma Theater, which consistently does inventive and bold work (with more than a few LGBT-oriented plays.

It’s also become something of a wellness and beauty neighborhood whose anchor is 12th Street Gym, long a favorite with the community. They offer day passes if you want to experience it for yourself (or if you overindulge in the neighborhood’s restaurants). Need a perfect haircut to go with your worked-out body? Charlie Salon across the street is the most popular, and their friendliness is matched by the skill of their stylists. Looking a little pale? Soleil Tanning is right next to the gym. Feeling stressed? A massage at Taylored Touch Therapy, right around the corner on Walnut, will put you right (trust me, therapist Matt Taylor has the magic touch). In the mood for a facial, wrap, or fuller treatment? The expansive Eviama Life Spa offers a wide range of treatments from herbal wraps to hot stone treatments.

One of the most pleasant surprises in my eleven years as a Gayborhood resident is what a dining destination it’s become. Tops on the list is Kanella, where chef Konstantinos Pitsillides (a recent semi-finalist for the James Beard award) dishes up Cypriot cuisine that’s as perfect as the simple but evocative Mediterranean interior. The food positively shines here, from the trio of dips you might start with (potato/garlic, taramasalata, white bean, sardine, spiced tomato, etc.) all the way to the date/chocolate cake, which is the best dessert in the history of desserts. My other favorite is just a few blocks up Spruce: the lovely wine/beer/cheese bar Tria, with its range of small plates from smoked duck salad to bruschetta topped with pistachio herbed ricotta/lavender honey. The laid-back wine bar feel (no reservations taken) might not prepare you for some of the most expertly-prepared food in the city.

Philadelphia’s “Gayborhood” is easily identifiable thanks to rainbow markers that sit below 36 street signs in the neighborhood, which runs from Chestnut to Pine Streets between 11th and Broad Streets.

Philadelphia’s “Gayborhood” is easily identifiable thanks to rainbow markers that sit below 36 street signs in the neighborhood, which runs from Chestnut to Pine Streets between 11th and Broad Streets.

Some new favorites you’ll want to discover while you’re here include Pennsylvania 6, where the sleek black and white atmosphere has a French bistro look, not surprisingly since the chef comes from France,though he grew up in Kentucky, which makes for some interesting creations. While a potted chicken liver dish is very French, his southern roots show in a pork collar served with cheddar grits and collard greens. Prime here, though, is the raw bar, where a variety of oysters and crudos pair beautifully with house-designed champagne cocktails. It’s comfy, chic, and the food’s great—what more could you ask?

I also love the hip little Cheu Noodle Bar, a recent opening and already packing them into its tiny storefront. Need a pick-me-up? Cake and the Beanstalk is my favorite among the many coffeehouses in the neighborhood, with its large windows overlooking a community garden, fresh-baked pastries, and amiable staff. Fuel up, because we have a long night of nightlife ahead of us.

Ten bars lie within a few blocks of each other, and you might have such trouble deciding between them that you just have to visit them all! Let’s start at Woodys, where pretty much everyone starts, either at the downstairs bar or upstairs dance floor. It’s something of a neighborhood institution, drawing a general crowd, though tilting young and with many accompanying straight gal pals. Around the corner on 12th is Tabu, my favorite, with its sports bar downstairs and a lounge upstairs that’s seen entertainment from karaoke to drag queens and local promoter Josh Schonewolf’s “Bearlesque” (lots of community benefits, too). Nearby, Knock draws a mature crowd to its atmosphere of soft(er) music, and conversation around the central bar.

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