This incredible mural graces Philly’s William Way LGBT Center

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Pride and Progress by Ann Northrup for Mural Arts Philadelphia
Pride and Progress by Ann Northrup for Mural Arts Philadelphia (Photo by Jack Ramsdale).

The William Way LGBT Center is Philadelphia’s community center. You’ll find it at 1315 Spruce St, Philadelphia, PA 19107. It’s in the heart of the Washington Square area, which is known as the city’s gay neighborhood.

The building is difficult to miss: One of its exterior walls features a huge mural, entitled Pride and Progress. Painted by muralist Ann Northrup in 2003, the vast work measures 55’x165’. It’s also got distinctive rainbow stained-glass windows above its welcoming, red front door!

Center staff and volunteer peer counselors march in Philly’s annual Pride parade (Photo: William Way Center)

The William Way Center began life as the Gay Community Center of Philadelphia back in 1974. Its first home was at 326 Kater Street. In 1981, it moved to 222 South Camac Street, but that building had to close in 1984.

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For four years, it found itself homeless. During this time, board meetings would often take place in the living room of local LGBT activist and city planner, William “Bill” Way.

The late William “Bill” Way, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. He died of AIDS in 1988 (Source: unknown)

During this time, the center, now renamed Penguin Place: The Community Center Without Walls, rented library space at the Community Education Center at 3500 Lancaster Avenue near Drexel University.

Penguin Place took over new premises on South Camac Street between 1990 and 1997. Then, finally, it was able to quit renting and buy its current premises on Spruce Street. Here it was able to expand and set up its library, archives, youth programs, peer counseling, support groups and cabaret space.

“Pride & Progress” mural by artist Ann Northrup and Mural Arts Philadelphia on the side of William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce Street, Philadelphia, PA (Photo: Bob Skiba)

In honor of Bill Way, who was one of the most high-profile Philadelphia figures to disclose their HIV-positive status and who died in 1988, the center was renamed the William Way Center.

Related: New York’s Stonewall Inn celebrates the family of LGBTQ Pride Flags

Since that time, it has continued to grow, gaining an art gallery space, cyber center, and hosting big annual events, like its Indigo Ball, and concerts. It also organizes local LGBT Walking Tours, offering an introduction to Philadelphia to visitors from far and wide.

Community members check out the art installation “Tonight Is Forever,” by artist Gabriel Martinez, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Stonewall in 2019 (Photo: Kelly Burkhardt)

Although it had to adapt during the pandemic, it continues to host a wide variety of events for all members of the LGBTQ community, from youth to seniors. There’s a monthly book club and Queer Writers Collective, dance classes, peer counseling, trans programs, smoking cessation help, and extensive LGBT archives. Its Philly LGBT Mapping Project documents over 1,100 places in the greater Philadelphia area of importance to LGBTQ history and culture.

Center staff, board members, and LGBTQ community advocates pose at the opening of the Arcil-Adams Trans Resource Center in 2019 (Photo: Kelly Burkhardt)

“Like everyone else, we have had to pivot quickly to reach our communities virtually,” Executive Director Chris Bartlett told GayCities when asked how challenging the last 16 months have proved.

“We lost portions of our revenue during the pandemic, but also received significant community support that allowed us to retain all staff and continue to provide high-quality services and programming.

Checking out an exhibition at the William Way Center (Photo: @rsklar207/Instagram)

“Our physical center was closed from March 2020 to June 2021. During that time, we both saw how critical the Center is and how strong virtual programs can be. We will likely have a combination of both in-person and online offerings for the foreseeable future.”

At the time of writing, city and state restrictions had been lifted, and the center is “phasing back in person work throughout the summer.”

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Bartlett says he and the rest of the team “are excited that a number of in-person events are being scheduled over the summer.”

Community members attending an LGBTQ Community Digitizing Day learn about queer history and the holdings of the Center’s John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives, from curator Bob Skiba (Photo: Colin McCrossan)

Although it’s not been able to mark Pride month with as many activities as it normally would, it couldn’t let the month of June pass without acknowledgment.

Related: Gay bars and clubs in Philadelphia

“For June, we are focused on returning to the building and amplifying other exciting Pride events throughout the city, including our own amazing virtual Pride Run event! We’re also proud that on Monday, June 28th at 7 PM the Philadelphia Orchestra’s recent recording at the Center, including maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin, will be broadcast. You can find it here.”

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