White people own most of Philly's Gayborhood bars. Will that ever change?
"Black men don't have a place to go in Center City. We feel like we are ostracized out of the Gayborhood."
The Gayborhood is trying to move on from its legacy of racial discrimination — which goes back decades — but the lack of diversity among bar owners represents a potential roadblock.
Not one person of color owns any of the 12 bars that underwent antibias training mandated by the city this year. White men own 10 of those bars: the Bike Stop, Boxers, Franky Bradley's, ICandy, Knock, Tabu Lounge & Bar, Tavern on Camac, U Bar, Voyeur, and Woody's. White women own the two others: Stir Lounge, which is just outside the Gayborhood, and Toasted Walnut.
Who's at the top of operations — and who isn't — is important: Owners set the tone for employees. And the largely white ownership of Center City's LGBT bars created some environments that embraced white patrons — especially white men — and made people of color feel unwelcome, the city concluded in January. That feeling persists for some today.
"Black men don't have a place to go in Center City," one man said last month at a public forum on what the city has done to end discrimination at LGBT bars. "We feel like we are ostracized out of the Gayborhood."
"Are we ever going to hear from the bar owners?" another person asked.
The Inquirer and Daily News reached out to them this week. Among the questions: Is it possible for the Gayborhood to move beyond its troubled history with racism when all the bar owners are white?
"I believe it can, and maybe that's because I'm white, and somebody else would have a different opinion," Tabu owner Jeff Sotland said. "But I believe that we can't define how we move forward by just one group of individuals who owns these establishments. It goes back to: My business is nothing without my customers. If I'm not running a good establishment that people want, or a welcoming establishment where they feel safe, then nobody should walk in my door. I should be out of business."
Who could, or should, take the lead in diversifying the bar ownership isn't clear.
There's the city, which can work with business organizations to court aspiring business owners of color. There are the bar owners, who can help and advise aspiring owners. And there are patrons, who can refuse to spend money at unwelcoming establishments and hope it forces them to change their ways or go out of business.
But it's difficult to force this kind of change in a free market, Woody's co-owner Michael Weiss said. He's not sure how much the city or bar owners can do to diversify ownership.
"We have a responsibility to give back to our community," he said. "But I don't know that we have a responsibility to make sure who comes into our neighborhood or who doesn't."
Woody's drew controversy last year after black patrons said bouncers had turned them away for wearing sweatpants, even though the bar had no dress code. Weiss, in an interview this week, expressed skepticism about the complaints — "That would be very strange, because I can tell you I've gone there wearing sweatpants" — and argued that Woody's draws a diverse crowd. He said he has fired employees for making inappropriate comments to customers.
"No business owner can watch every single employee every single minute of the day," Weiss said. "But you can have policies, and we do have policies that you do not discriminate."
Still, the lack of diversity among LGBT bar owners can send the wrong signal. Zach Wilcha, who leads the Independence Business Alliance, Greater Philadelphia's LGBT Chamber of Commerce, said he understands why some people of color feel excluded from the Gayborhood's bars.
"How could one not when they see what the demographics of ownership are?" Wilcha said.
Some view the lack of diversity as an opportunity for aspiring owners to create a space for LGBT people of color who feel excluded in the current environment.
"There's a potential market there for a different kind of safe space," said Michael L. Schirmer, an assistant marketing professor at Temple University's Fox School of Business who lives in the Gayborhood with his husband. "And I think the city could help promote those."
The Philadelphia Department of Commerce is one resource that helps minority-owned businesses. It provides access to grants and small-business lenders. But the department does not have an initiative to attract businesses owned by people of color to any specific neighborhood, spokeswoman Lauren Cox said.
The department is open to holding a business information session in the Gayborhood but hasn't heard from any person of color who wants to open a bar there, Cox said.
The city mandated antibias training at the area's bars after black patrons reported having to show multiple IDs to gain entry and bouncers turning them away for wearing sweatpants or Timberland boots. A video was also posted on YouTube of ICandy owner Darryl DePiano saying the N-word, leading to boycotts and protests.
DePiano did not return a request for comment for this article. Efforts to welcome people of color back to his bar have stoked disagreement. The nonprofits organizing the efforts have said they want to protect patrons from discrimination. Others have demanded that the bar shut down and that people of color refuse to go there.
Elsewhere in the Gayborhood, there are signs of progress. Although it's not marketed specifically to an LGBT crowd, Writer's Block Rehab was opened in January on Cypress Street by an Indian man, Ram Krishnan.
Other bar owners say that they're ready to move on from the area's ugly past — and that any business that still discriminates should leave.
"I think we're seeing light at the end of the tunnel," Boxers co-owner Bob Fluet said. "We're not going to hold back on what we want to do, what should be done for our community. If any of these bars don't want to, they're just going to be left behind."