A Tale of Three Villages: Contested Discourses of Place-Making in Central Philadelphia
The Urban Book Series
AbstractAs the acceptance of queer identities has proceeded in fits and starts over the last few decades, the question has been raised, is it still necessary to have dedicated queer spaces? City dwellers often reason that with supposed improvements in safety and social mixing, the "gay ghettos" that form a transitional stage in neighborhood revitalization should now become common areas. Yet the capitalist logic that drives this thinking often trades the physical threat of exclusion or violence
... or an existential one, jeopardizing a distinctive culture that remains valuable in the self-realization process of local queer citizens. This is visible not only in changing demographics, but also in the production of discourse across multiple levels; language and semiotics help to constitute neighborhoods, but also to conceptualize them. This chapter examines how public signs and artifacts reify and sustain three competing narratives of a single central Philadelphia neighborhood in flux: the traditionally queer "Gayborhood" that developed shortly after World War II, the officially designated "Washington Square West," and the realtor-coined, recently gentrifying "Midtown Village." I argue that the naming and describing of these spaces, and how their associated discourses are reflected by their contents, continues to play a role in the ongoing struggle for queer acceptance. Combining observational data of multimodal public texts (storefronts, flyers, street signs, etc.) and critical discourse analysis within the linguistic/semiotic landscapes paradigm, I present a critique of the presumed inevitability of queer erasure here. This is supplemented with a comparison of grassroots, bottom-up, and official, top-down documents in various media (maps, brochures, websites, social media, etc.) that perpetuate the different discourses. Ultimately, a change in urban scenery and how a neighborhood is envisioned only masks the fact that spaces of queer expression, marked by their eroding distinctiveness rather than their deviance, are still needed.