Updated: Friday, January 17, 2014, 1:09 AM
I had to go deep into The Inquirer's archive to look up the name John C. Anderson. A rising star in Philadelphia politics, he was a first-term city councilman from Wynnefield when he died suddenly in 1983, at age 41. Anderson was gay, and his life was cut short by AIDS. But in keeping with the times, none of that was mentioned in his obituary.
Just how much the world has changed since then is poignantly visible when you walk down 13th Street, in what is popularly known as the Gayborhood. On a site dominated by a city garage, there now stands a stylish new residence cloaked in charcoal brick and pumpkin panels that caters to low-income seniors who are gay. It's called the John C. Anderson Apartments, his name emblazoned in big silver letters next to the front door with the words "An LGBT-Friendly Community."
The Anderson Apartments is the first senior citizen housing project built by and for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community in Pennsylvania and only the third of its type in the United States. That alone makes it a huge accomplishment for Philadelphia. But the LGBT-friendly apartments - that's the official term - also happens to be a useful model for how to build urban-friendly, affordable housing in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
The project was the brainchild of Mark Segal, publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News and a gay activist who has been fighting for equal rights since the '60s. He belongs to what he calls "the first out generation," the cohort that insisted on being open about sexual orientation. Having lived through the historic gay-rights protests at Independence Hall with Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, the Stonewall uprising, the AIDS crisis, and other pivotal moments, Segal realized this band of young radicals was no longer so young.
With members of the "out generation" now entering their golden years, Segal saw a need for low-cost housing where gay people would feel comfortable, not unlike the senior homes built by Chinese and Jewish groups.
Many gay people don't have families, he noted. There's also a myth about gay people being affluent, but few can afford the fancy duplexes springing up in the once-run-down Gayborhood. "A lot of gay people didn't get good jobs," Segal said, "because of discrimination."
In many ways, the trajectory of the Gayborhood - south of Chestnut, east of Broad - mirrors what has happened to the LGBT community over the last 50 years. The area became a center of gay culture when gays and those seedy blocks of Center City were both shunned. But as discrimination has waned and Philadelphia's downtown became a desirable, even glamorous, place to live, prices soared. Gentrification accelerated after Tony Goldman developed 13th Street into a hip restaurant row from Chestnut to Locust.
Although the Gayborhood's population is diversifying, activists insisted that their housing project should be built there, close to important anchors like the William Way LGBT Community Center. They were able to buy the truck garage from the Redevelopment Authority for $1.5 million and an empty lot next door. But with little development experience, Segal decided to partner with Pennrose Properties, which specializes in affordable housing and has worked on such projects as the new Martin Luther King Plaza a few blocks south.
Penrose hired Joe Salerno, a WRT architect who has worked on dozens of affordable-housing projects. He happens to be gay, a member of the "out generation," and he sees the commission as the capstone of his career.
Anderson Apartments may be a pioneer of its type, but it's also an old-fashioned urban building that fills its lot, comes proudly to the street line, and uses plenty of glass to connect to the life of the city. In addition to the lobby, there is room on the ground floor for a small retailer, probably a cafe.
While the six-story residence acknowledges its neighbors, which include a row of sedate 19th-century townhouses and one of the city's last SRO hotels, the Parker-Spruce, it doesn't dress in historical drag. Initially, Salerno had gone for a more traditional look, but the Washington Square West Civic Association pushed back and urged him to be openly modern.
That liberated him to design a trim, layered facade that pops with color and texture. Like all affordable housing, the budget was tight, $19.5 million for everything - $6 million from the Corbett administration, $2 million from Washington, and $11.5 million in low-income tax credits. To keep the building from feeling static, Salerno composed the facade as a series of overlapping planes. An enormous rectangular bay, clad in burnt orange panels, juts out like a shield from the main facade. It's pierced with an off-center void, treated in black seamed metal.
Inside, the 56 one-bedroom units are all saturated with light from a large internal courtyard. Segal's favorite part, though, are the walk-in, "drag-queen closets."
Salerno's passion for the project shows in the details, like the windows at the ends of the corridors. There's even a window in the laundry room. Because the lobby and a community room wrap around a glass wall looking onto the courtyard, both are also bathed in light. It might have been better, though, if the community room had been placed at the rear of the building, facing picturesque Camac Street, so there could be a door and activity there.
Residents began moving in last week. Not all are gay. Anderson is open to any eligible senior, although Segal expects 90 percent of residents to be part of the LGBT community.
Even now, it seems remarkable that Pennsylvania, a state with no laws against discrimination and no legal gay marriage, could pull off such a project. San Francisco and Chicago are only just starting work on their own LGBT-friendly senior housing. Chris Bartlett, who runs the William Way Center, has a theory: "I think we may be aging out of homophobia."