In 1921, Edward W. Bok, a publishing pioneer who served as editor of The Ladies’ Home Journal in 1889, established The Philadelphia Award.
The award is bestowed annually to a citizen of the Philadelphia region who, during the preceding year, acted and served on behalf of the best interests of the community, per its description.
Since that time, more than 80 icons, from architect Louis Kahn to former Gov. Ed Rendell, have received the award.
So when Mel Heifetz found out at the end of May that he was this year’s recipient, he was surprised.
Not because he was being humble — though he is surely that, too — but because he’d never heard of the award.
“I was invited to an office on another pretext … and was asked to sit down in a conference room … and that’s where they announced it to me that I was going to be the recipient,” he said. “It came as a total surprise.”
It recognizes the work Heifetz has done in the city’s LGBTQ community, to which he has donated millions of dollars and dedicated years of his life to support.
Heifetz realized early on that the support the community needed wouldn’t be found easily.
After coming home to South Philadelphia from serving two years in the Army, he started coming in contact with other gay people, which served as his introduction to the wider LGBTQ community. He also had his first relationship.
“When I was young and I was just coming out as a gay person, there was no funding from anyone for any causes that we might’ve wanted for our community,” he recalled. “I tried to do fundraising, and I found everybody I asked to contribute told me not to talk to them ever again.”
This spurred in him a mission to support the community any way he could.
“It occurred to me some people would have to step forward if we were ever going to achieve anything as a community, and I made a pledge to myself that if I were successful — and this was in my mid-20s and my direction was not very clear as to what I do or what I would be — I said I would do all I could do to support gay charity,” he said.
“And I’ve very much kept that pledge.”
The answer to who he would be turned out to lie in real estate. He bought his first property by age 23 — a house in South Philadelphia, where he grew up. He bought itfor $600, spruced it up and painted and rented it out for $50 a month.
A year later, he bought a building with three apartments for rent. A third property was situated across from his early alma mater, Kirkbride Elementary School.
Some of those who have worked with him at Mel Heifetz Real Estate have been there for 30 or 40 years. Now in his early 80s, Heifetz is only just starting to think about retirement, but he is still focused on giving back to the community.
“Most recently, all the buildings I have in town, which is about 26 properties, I’ve given them away to charity,” he said.
In 2007, he created the GLBT Fund of America, an endowed fund at the Philadelphia Foundation; in October 2017, he announced a $16 million gift to expand the fund to support LGBTQ causes.
He gave the foundation ownership of those Center City properties, so it can sell them off to interested buyers, per a Billy Penn report.
He is also looking forward to the opening of the Gloria Casarez Residence in North Philadelphia, which will have 30 units of LGBTQ-friendly housing for homeless youth. He supported this development early on in collaboration with Project HOME.
His real estate ventures expanded beyond homes and apartments — and even beyond Philadelphia, as he also had enterprises in Key West, Fla.
Early in his career, he operated a coffee shop in the 1950s, Humoresque, which became the target of a police raid under policeman and future Mayor Frank Rizzo.
It was a total surprise at the time, he said. Its clientele most often included high school seniors from nearby schools or people looking for a spot for a first date.
“The only thing you could do there was either play chess or checkers,” he said. “You could listen to some poetry readings and you would either hear Broadway music — I’m a gay man, what else? — or classical music. There was never anything else.”
He knew the raid was not money-related. On a weeknight, he said, the cafe might gross $12 or $13. On the weekends, he might’ve seen $80 or $90.
The cafe attracted many interracial couples, which the mayor did not like, as Heifetz was later told by a police officer with whom he was friendly and formerly served as Rizzo’s driver. The driver said the politician would remark how many interracial couples he saw walking to Humoresque.
“We worried about being poor, not what color somebody was. … But he said that’s what it was about,” Heifetz said. “That turned my head. It’s a little late to talk about it now because it’s so many years ago, but obviously it’s still a problem in society.”
The raid resulted in a lasting relationship with the American Civil Liberties Union.
He also opened Sisters, the Gayborhood lesbian bar and club that closed in 2013 after 17 years. (It’s now the site of Franky Bradley’s.)
“I came into gay life when there was no signage to indicate that it was a bar or a gay bar,” he said. A light bulb in the center of the room in many bars would be turned on to show the police were coming.
“It’s come a long way,” said Heifetz, who has met and been recognized by former President Barack Obama.
He’s also made contributions to political campaigns and Jewish causes, including to Magen David Adom.
Of the Jewish community, he noted that it is “wonderful in the last several years they’ve made an outreach to the gay community.”
Looking toward the future, he mentors young LGBTQ students and gives them a taste of political activism.
“Our future is going to be up to the younger generation, and the younger generation is in many places stepping forward and assuming responsibility,” he said. “Hopefully, these people take over when I pass on and when others pass on there will be a generation to step up.”