But it did exist, for nearly three decades, and it finally closed its doors because New Philadelphians and Millennials have turned Philadelphia into a hot-bed of pro-corporate snobbery.
From the outside, 12th Street Gym is unassuming. The only thing indicating it's more than a warehouse along the Gayborhood's 12th Street Strip is the stunning mural of LGBT rights activist, Gloria Casarez. Once a gay bathhouse - community code for a den of anonymous sex - the gym had a hard time shaking its former reputation. Many straight men and women no doubt avoided the notion of joining a "gay gym," while gay men scoffed at the connotation it carried, all despite its bevy of services and modest membership price. Nonetheless, it catered to over 4000 active members, many dedicated for a long time. I'd been a member myself since I moved to Philadelphia in 2004. When 12th Street Gym closed, I declined the extended membership offered for Philadelphia Sports Club, and like so many others, opted for Optimal Sports Health Club nearby at Walnut and Juniper.
Optimal is a fine facility, casually referred to as "the other gay gym." The day after 12th Street closed, Optimal was taxed with a barrage of new members. Underestimating just how many would reject PSC's offer, Optimal quickly annexed an additional 800 square feet of space. Still, the gym is small, roughly the size of one of 12th Street's many floors. It's practical. There is no common space, no juice bar, and it's tucked down a small street. Once again, like so many LGBT venues in Philadelphia, the community has been hidden from plain site.
What made 12th Street Gym so popular with those of us who embraced it, and the very reason we sought out Optimal in lieu of PSC, is that it was more than a fitness center, it was the Gayborhood's community center. With more and more mainstream development expanding throughout the neighborhood, with developers adopting the phrase "Midtown Village" beyond the confines of 13th and Chestnut, it's not hard to feel the pangs of gentrification. We need places like 12th Street Gym, places to gather beyond booze and hookups. I like Optimal, but it isn't one of those places.
"Midtown Village" itself, though it started merely as a business collective along the once-beleaguered 13th Street, is a concept met with understandable reservation within the LGBT community. Real estate agents use the term to sell and rent apartments to those who might be skittish about living in a "gay ghetto." You wouldn't be hard-pressed to overhear a few sipping mimosas at Green Eggs Cafe, even cocktails at Woody's, espouse how the neighborhood is changing without a hint of dismay.
Indeed it is changing.
Woody's, once Philadelphia's go-to gay bar, is now avoided by local LGBT individuals: it caters to bridal parties on some sort of safari.
While this change may be good for developers, it's not for a still-marginalized community. Exposed by the apparent connotation in the word "Gayborhood," a brand only whispered by heterosexual newcomers, is a latent underlying homophobia more dangerous than arbitrary protesters at a Pride parade. Why? Well it's hard to know your enemy when they're self-professed liberals from Park Slope who don't want to admit they don't want you around their kids.
This discrimination would be far more apparent were developers renaming the Italian Market. What would it say about race if real estate agents began referring to Chinatown as "East Market Village" because, for some reason, they had a hard time moving condos in an ethnic enclave? But that's exactly what's happening in the Gayborhood, and it's going unchecked.
12th Street Gym had financial problems, that's very true. Several years ago, the Department of Licenses and Inspections slapped them with a fine for inadequate fire doors necessitating $500,000 in renovations. However, as I was getting my hair cut at Rossi's next to the gym shortly after it closed, I was talking about those exact problems with several former members and my barber, and it became clear that the gym easily could have crowd-funded the money needed to remain open. $500,000 is by no means a small sum, but the LGBT community is by no means loose. Thanks to dealing with a whole lot of shit, we're a tight group that comes to the aid of one another. In a few years, even a few months, we could have raised the funds. I would have gladly pitched in one of those thousands.
The truth is, 12th Street Gym didn't fit in with what the city is becoming. The gym didn't close when it failed to meet L&I's standards, it closed when a development company from New York purchased the property. No doubt two lawsuits regarding a handsy massage therapist didn't help matters, but the second lawsuit was incredibly sketchy. In a facility as large as 12th Street Gym, and one that had been open for so long, these unfortunate cases happen. That's why gyms, therapists, and trainers pay massive insurance premiums.
None of this would have closed 12th Street Gym a decade ago. L&I's fire safety standards haven't changed that substantially, if at all in the last ten years. But L&I and other city agencies have been working at the behest of gentrification, targeting locally owned businesses and granting passes to the corporate conglomerates that fall in line with developers' largest profits. It wouldn't be hard to imagine Midwood Corporation flipping the bill for $500,000 in renovations if they could land a corporate tenant like Planet Fitness, or something more marketable to the "Midtown Village" set. 12th Street Gym just didn't fit the mold of newcomers, and the L&I violations and lawsuits proved worthy scapegoats to shut the place down. In 2018, gay owned and operated businesses still carry a stigma amid the happy couples pushing baby carriages through "Midtown Village." And that's profoundly sad for those of us not born with the privilege of being "normal."