Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Tenants of OCF

If we're learning one thing from the COVID disaster, it's what we've known all along: rich people gonna rich. 

After a couple alleged unannounced "wellness checks" and harassing phone calls, residents of local development pariah Ori Feibush's OCF Realty have formed an unlikely union: a union of tenants. If you've managed to get outside since the shutdown, you've probably seen the "Rent Strike" movement has arrived in Philadelphia, and it's mounting, even if primarily in graffiti. The workers.org's Tenants of OCF campaign appears to be the first organized movement of its kind in Philadelphia related to the stalled economy. 


What's less unique about the campaign is that it's aimed at a local developer despised in multiple circles. Let's be honest, there are a lot of shitty landlords in the region, but mega-groups like PMC and Campus Apartments don't come with a name and face easily attached. Feibush is a visible and vocal advocate of his company. That might be applauded when retail employees can afford pricy Point Breeze apartments, but when the paychecks stop coming in and the rent is due, he's just another millionaire banging on the door with a moneybag over his shoulder. You can't tout yourself as a successful entrepreneur who cares enough about his neighborhood to run for office, then turn around and hound your struggling community for money it doesn't have. Plenty of landlords and real estate companies are petty with lease agreements that nickel and dime their tenants, and just as many don't give a shit about anything but the bottomline. But Feibush made his face the mascot of his company, and that made his business as a landlord personal. 

If the shutdown lingers into the summer and fall, tenants' unions could begin to catch on. Renters' rights have been in the toilet since the 1990s. Ever since buying in urban centers became vogue, renters have become the scourge of cities, even to those who own their leases. 

In 1996 my first lease was one page, month to month, and I moved out after giving a week's notice and got my full deposit back. Prior to the first building boom of the 2000s, tenants had leverage. If I hadn't taken that apartment, it might have been a few months before they found another prospect. Twenty four years later, my current lease is a massive legal document, every facet crafted to protect the landlord: 60 days notice to vacate, full year renewals or a $100 surcharge to go month to month, a monthly surcharge for one cat, a non-refundable pet deposit (which can't be correct, a deposit is contingently refundable), and an itemized list of potential damages that reads like ordinary wear and tear. 

But I don't rent from a mascot, I rent from a cynically pragmatic business. If I have a problem with pricing, the nice ladies in the rental office can offer nothing but a resigned, "it's up to the accountants." That's why I'm moving into a larger apartment for the same price elsewhere while my current unit is already on the market for less than I'm paying. For years, marketing apartments in urban centers has been obsolete because there's always been a willing tenant in wait. My building's firm can afford to lose me, and my pre-COVID inflated rent, because it's offset by existing residents and some hipster fresh off the Chinatown bus from Brooklyn who doesn't know $1030 is a bit pricy for a small, musty hotel room. 

But renters' rights weren't always absent, and developers like Ori Feibush could be creating an artificial bubble that replicates an urban reality where those rights meant something. For much of the twentieth century, especially after the midcentury flight to the suburbs, renters in cities were king. The market was saturated with vacant units and plagued by skyrocketing taxes. It was far cheaper to rent than own. Storied hotels became by-the-week flophouses, factories were retrofitted as shabby but chic lofts, and small houses were rented to the willing for less than $100 a month. Property owners were desperate, which might explain why OCF Realty is collecting unpaid rent with all the couth of an outsourced debt collector assigned to a twenty year old Columbia House account. 

Developers have overbuilt - and blindly continue to do so at the resumed construction of ArtHaus and The Laurel - on the assumption that the real estate economy will return to a baseline of demanding tenants once the COVID crisis ends. 

But what if it doesn't? 

The last housing market crash decimated suburban property values, sent developers fleeing half-built skyscrapers, and plunged us into the Great Recession. We were already priming ourselves for a reboot, then COVID came along. The new urbanites funding our current building boom, haplessly suburban-minded, are growing weary of the proximity of city living amid an outbreak. Real estate is cheap and plentiful in rural Pennsylvania, and we're proving everyday how much work can be done remotely from a living room. The Tenants of OCF union might not grasp the timeliness of its campaign; the Next Philadelphia could be as eager to embrace it as it would have been in 1960.  

Landlords like Ori Feibush would be wise to begin shifting their investments away from flooding their own markets with empty units and start putting their money into pharmaceutical research, because if COVID-19 doesn't disappear in the next few months, those tenants withholding rent are going to begin to move to more affordable places. And those who remain could engage in rent strikes legally and financially backed by more tenant unions to come. Feibush is desperate thanks to a housing crisis he helped cause, and the Big Boys won't be far behind. Rome is burning, and I have to say, it's nice seeing the culpable getting burned. 


Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Homophobia Shut Down 12th Street Gym

If I were to tell you there was a fitness center in the heart of the city that had a swimming pool, racquetball court, basketball court, sauna, sun deck, about ten thousand square feet of gym equipment, and sprawling classrooms for endless free classes, you'd think I was crazy. If I told you it cost about $29 a month, came with two free training sessions, seven individual guest passes, all without the nefarious upsell and membership cancellation practices of corporate gyms, you'd have me committed. 

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."  



Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Status Quo of Optimization

Among all the "four letter words" the internet age has wrought, none may be as underhandedly ugly as "optimization." Among the obnoxious buzzwords pouring out of cubicle pools, it's far from the newest. But it reigns over every facet of today's corporate realm, public or private, as a positive way to maximize profits, but because it's so complicatedly metric-driven it's hard to explain the damage it does to the spirit of product development and design in a sentence or two. 

When I joined the ranks of information technology nerds in the late 1990s, the internet was the Wild West. It was also merely supplemental, like a telephone or answering machine. It didn't run our lives, it simply enhanced it. The first wave, you might say, of the Technological Revolution was rooted in this simplicity. The internet just made lives a little more convenient. Optimization wasn't central to development. Graphic designers designed interfaces and product experts made decisions based on experience. Today, let's call it the second wave, or post-boom, development is driven not by experts but optimization: algorithms that determine exactly what will sell the most units, and in many cases keep you engaged with a product as long as possible. 

We binge, and profits soar. 

The good ol' days

The problem, though, with optimization is that it doesn't build optimal products, only optimal profits. When you eschew designers and experts for algorithms and metrics, you're merely seeking to reach the largest audience. And the largest audience is squarely in the middle of the Bell Curve. It's average, the status quo, not good or bad but too boring to really note. Take Netflix, for example. The online streaming service put nearly all brick-and-mortar video stores out of business. That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, just marketplace evolution brought by invention. But over the last year, in the name of optimization, Netflix's content has gone unarguably downhill. There are diamonds in the rough like Stranger Things and Arrested Development, but rather than pay for the rights to great movies, their catalog of full of oddball foreign films, found footage b-movies, and hoards of forgettable television shows that users will binge watch because nothing else is available. It's right to point out that Amazon owns the market for online movie rentals, but it's also true that Netflix abandoned its unique model for the status quo of optimization.

So what's this got to do with architecture and urban planning? Well, architecture, like everything else, has joined the optimization movement. The most notable examples in Philadelphia would be Toll Brothers and OCF Realty, where sturdy and unique buildings are demolished for cheap construction not built to last. Rather than convert landmarks like the Society Hill Playhouse, the Royal Theater, the Boyd, Frankford Chocolate Factory, and countless 19th Century row homes for a handsome return, profits are optimized by metrics dictating low-cost construction. Our modern culture has been so groomed to not only tolerate it, but desire sameness squarely within the status quo. 

Cheapness is in vogue. 

Built to last as long as a tax abatement

This has been going on in the suburbs for decades, one might even say since the suburbs were invented with Levittowns. Today, McMansions are the status quo of desirability, symbols of wealth and status that ironically fail to stand out among the crowds of sameness. It's as if the housing market's target audience wants to display a status symbol while blending in. Keeping Up With the Jones's is an exercise in futility when you're either afraid to stand out or live within your means. Urban centers used to be a reprieve from such pointless efforts, but the trend is tiptoeing back downtown. Once home to the opulent excess of the Gilded Age and Roaring 20s, each mansion more grand and storied than the last, followed by eight decades of artistic Bohemian diversity, cities are now full of cheap construction, canned design, and flash-in-the-pan businesses that will never survive long enough to become institutions. 

You'll re-think this investment the first time you need to replace that massive roof.

Architecture, too, suffers as much as the urban planning and business concepts, and not just in the cases of press-board row homes clad in plastic and metal panels paraded as some sort of "modernism." The most lauded skyscrapers pale in comparison to the landmark limestone towers of the early 20th Century, even some mid-century Brutalist examples. For well over twenty years, glass curtains have been the optimal status quo. Some critics and architects might argue that the use of blue glass is intended to allow the building's height to blend in with the sky. But that's a cop out, and unnecessary. Why would a company spend upwards of a billion dollars to build something that fails to make a statement? You wouldn't spend $5000 on a wedding dress that looks like every other dress in the crowd. The reality is, glass is the optimal alternative to stone and brick and the employment of a curtain is an affordably chic way to cut the cost of designing anything more dynamic. 


In places like New York and other skyscraper-heavy cities, there's little incentive to truly stand out when the most basic design is financially optimal. It's also not hard to stand out when the bar has been driven so low. 

Of course all of this may be coming to a head, and a lot of that has to do with the unrealistic profits demanded by optimization, especially within publicly traded companies. It also has to do with our unsustainable disposable society. When million dollar homes built by companies like Toll Brothers begin to fall apart, the market may begin demanding quality over excess. Everything from smartphones to cars are built to be discarded and planned obsolescence can't last forever. Likewise, there will come a point where there are simply no profits left to meet quarterly goals. 

This happened in some small part during the last Recession and on an unprecedented scale in the Great Depression. If history repeats itself, and given the election of a neo-Herbert Hoover, it is, the Technological Revolution will end very much like its Industrial counterpart in 1929. That's not bad, though. Like the late stages of the Industrial Revolution, optimization has come to replace innovation. We're not inventing anything but perpetual and exponential profits. 

Our society has become more financially polarized than any era since the Roaring 20s. The waste of our excess is unchecked. When the market inevitably collapses it may hit harder than it did in the 1930s, but we'll be forced to recon with our disposable society, economic polarization, and the fast-fashion way we attack architecture and corporate design in general. Quality and optimization can't go hand in hand, but quality can be forced by financial hardship where longevity becomes necessity. We might build smaller and live more simply, but we'll re-learn an appreciation for history and building things to last. We'll also be forced to reject optimization's cheap and boring status quo. The next Depression will be rough, but it will bring welcomed change. 

Sunday, May 13, 2018

More Historic Loss in the Midst of Preservation Month

After this month's demolition of the historic Frankford Chocolate Factory, thanks to an endless array of loopholes within the city's preservation-dedicated agencies, another element of mismanagement has allowed the same developer, Ori Feibush of OCF Realty, to demolish the Christian Street Baptist Church. 

In this instance, this Historical Commission voted 5-4 to protect the 19th Century Italianate church with two abstentions. It's those abstentions that allowed the church to remain unprotected despite a vote in favor. As it turned out, the Department of Planning and Development requires the Historical Commission to grant at least six votes in order to protect a building. This all happened nearly six months ago, and since then no re-vote has been cast. 

Chalk one more up to the nation's first World Heritage City in the midst of Preservation Month. It's curious why two of the Historical Commission's members declined to vote. After all, they're the primary body responsible for making these sometimes tough decisions.

Did those two members just not bother showing up?

Feibush, who paid $1.5M for the property, briefly held out in search of a buyer willing to convert the church into apartments. It certainly wouldn't be unheard of. There are a number of converted churches in the city and surrounding areas and they make breathtaking living spaces, some fetching much higher prices than newly constructed town homes. Feibush even offered to let the property go for $1M, but claims no offers were made.


In the wake of the demolition of the Frankford Chocolate Factory and other properties razed by Feibush and OCF Reality, this all sounds a little sketchy. Though it seems Feibush extended an olive branch after his much-criticized demolition of the factory (which reminded many he also demolished the Royal Theater), he only extended that offer for a month. As of Thursday, demolition was back on, with hopes to quickly ready the site for two buildings comprised of eight apartments.

Like the factory and the Royal Theater, this speaks to the erratic fashion under which Feibush conducts business. Unlike developers with firm project plans, i.e. Carl Dranoff and Eric Blumenfeld, Feibush targets threatened sites, moves quickly and confusingly. Before the dust settles, he's often erected one of his superfluously cardboard carbon copies and preservationists are left scratching their heads, wondering what exactly just happened before he's moved on to his next idea. This is characteristic of a developer who once ran for City Council which, would he have won, would have imposed massive conflicts-of-interest were he ever to sign the death warrant of a property he stood to profit from. 

But as it currently exists, Feibush and OCF Realty function within the confines of the law, however unethically they may exploit the spirit of it. Why can't Feibush himself convert the Christian Street Baptist Church into four or six unique apartments? He might not see the same expansive profit of a tear-down replaced with cheap construction, but he'd easily make back his investment. As many noted while he began razing the Frankford Chocolate Factory, residential conversion of these urban properties was the status quo in the 1980s and '90s, most notably in Callowhill's lofts. 

OCF Realty seems to have found a loyal and steady flow of income in Millennials and New Philadelphians who don't really understand Philadelphia's history, or care to. 

While neighbors ferociously opposed Feibush's plans for Christian Street, their opposition was almost exclusively surrounding (you guessed it) parking. It's a just complaint. While the site would get eight cars off the street, it would bring eight cars to an already congested and car-heavy part of town, all a few blocks from a subway and next to several major bus routes. However, given that the church is not technically under any historic protection, arguments regarding parking may have been the pragmatic way to make a case for saving a beautiful old building and neighborhood landmark. 

None of this matters so long as Feibush owns the church. Anyone remotely familiar with development in Philadelphia is aware of Feibush's nefarious track record for sameness crammed with "luxury" amenities. McMansionHell could franchise a subsidiary dedicated to piss-poor post-post-modern urban architecture without ever straying from OCF Realty's website. 

Feibush and other one-trick ponies like Toll Brothers don't have a vested interest in Philadelphia that doesn't solely benefit their bottom lines. Preservation isn't as profitable as new construction, it never will be. This is exactly why we have organizations like the Historical Commission, the Preservation Task Force, and the Register of Historic Places. They are the gates between history and profit-blinded development. 

Hope for preservation can't exist when those charged with protecting history aren't willing to do their jobs, or bother to do something as simple as vote. In Philadelphia, preservation currently only exists in hindsight, and in those of us who can do nothing but look at falling buildings and shake our heads. Currently we're seeing a level of historic loss not seen since the post-war demolition spree responsible for some of the city's largest urban voids: Dock Street, Penn's Landing, Vine Street. By now, we should know better. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Shop Local

In the wake of Starbucks' 911 call that led to a perp walk of two innocent black men, the company has taken to an apology tour, an in-person meeting between their CEO and those arrested, and shutting down for a day to conduct obligatory sensitivity training. But if you followed Chipotle's embarrassing diarrhea fiasco or Facebook's less-than-grueling two days in front of the Senate, you can certainly spot a trend: feign shock from the top down, promise future accountability, and keep an apologetically low profile during Twitter's 48 hour attention span.

Wash, rinse, repeat. 

I have to wonder when the general public's patience for the corporate excuse-mill will begin to wane. Or if, in the age of rapid-fire social media, the past's inability to instantaneously expose all ill-repute has simply been traded for our collective 21st Century ADD. 

A month later, does anyone but those afflicted remember that this even happened? No doubt The Onion is already drafting satirical replies to Starbucks' closure on the 29th #FML #ThisIsTheWorstThingThatsEverHappenedToAnyone.

Aside from recent gun reform debates that went on for an unprecedented month, I can't remember a post-smartphone boycott that lasted for more than a few days. Stocks inevitably fall for a few hours, but the cycle has been so normalized that even Facebook's value managed to surge while the Silicon Valley's prodigal son was testifying before Washington. 

Wall Street owns our outrage, even when it's directed at them. 

Shareholders know that corporate remorse is designed to benefit themselves, and it's time we begin to recon with this, and what it means as consumers and suppliers. 

Public corporations (pick one) function under business models layered far more insidiously than simple bigotry as the street knows it, and treating the symptoms that expose themselves the way they did at Starbucks is akin to bandaging a malignant tumor. The response - be it Starbucks' apology, Chipotle's investigation and blame-game, or whatever Southwest decides to do about the commercial airline industry's first death in almost a decade - is always a measured calculation backed up by data that proves it won't just repair its stock price and image, but actually advance it.

We expect this from politicians, but when perceived ideologue CEOs tout the same modus operandi, brand loyalists continually return to freely advertise their products by literally wearing and carrying their logos. 

"They've learned" and "they're actually better now" become the aftermath's rally cry from consumers who either don't want to kick the habit of their guilty pleasures or are afraid to admit they ever shopped somewhere so blind-sidedly money-minded in the first place. In the end, inevitable Starbucks apologists (among others) will sound like religious Trump-supporters excusing his extra-marital affairs. We all know better, but continue to embrace whatever is offered up so long as it supports our fractured ideals or ability to be as lazy as humanly possible. 

Any "good liberal" wants to assume Starbucks is a good company. They offer benefits to part-time employees and pay more than the minimum wage. But we ignore the fact that these decisions themselves are also the results of pre-packaged analytics that have invented an infallibly profitable model.

Remember those dastardly deeds carried out by Facebook's partner in crime, Cambridge Analytica? They don't exclusively apply to "free" ad driven companies like Facebook and Twitter. Starbucks analyzes the very same type of information. It's gathered through in-app purchases, registered gift cards, and social media, then used to determine what it needs to maintain its customers and grow.

In the realm of public corporations, we're more than customers, we're extensions of their products. Companies like Starbucks continue making money off us long after we've walked out the door.

If the Senate was really interested in (or understood how to) put the kibosh on Facebook's ill repute, one would have suggested banning targeted advertising altogether. 

Most would like to think we shop ethically by supporting companies that seem to support us back. But public companies don't have a social consciousness. Companies that offer unisex dressing rooms and wedding cards for same-sex couples don't do so at the behest of LGBT equality, only popular opinion and how it can be monetized.

Just watch as the outcry over gun reform and school shootings returns to a stable baseline and you'll see the banks and retailers who promised they'd block the purchase and sale of AR-15s back away from the subject or ignore they ever made such statements in the first place, none of which were very specific to begin with. 

The only business you can trust is the one you know. Whole Foods isn't expensive because it's healthy, it's expensive because it's fostered a clientele that assumes anything affordable is unhealthy. Does anyone really think Jeff Bezos is worth $119 billion because he wants his customers to reap the health benefits of kale?

Likewise, Starbucks has strategically weighed the pros and cons of catering to a niche, and whether their bottom line dictates change or it's more profitable to just weather the storm.

The sad truth is, this Starbucks has long been known locally as the "racist Starbucks" and that's never been formally addressed. Something about these two men didn't sit well with the manager and by extension, the clientele her company caters to. That doesn't inspire a lot of hope that anything will be remedied on May 29th but Starbucks' stock value; then it can return to the status quo. 

Like any massive company, Starbucks can always play it off by pointing out their "diverse" staff and clientele, but let's not tiptoe around the obvious: no Starbucks looks like the crowd at Dunkin' Donuts, and Starbucks doesn't want it to. 

Black, white, Indian, Asian, gay, trans, Hispanic...Starbucks customers are of a certain demographic, apparent tax-bracket, and a look that is colloquially "white." The police were called on these two men because they were black, and the thin racial veil that Starbucks (et. al.) surfs under is every bit as deplorable, if not more, than textbook black-and-white racism. 

The fact that Starbucks claims arbitrary training will somehow eradicate racial bias among its 238,000 employees isn't just disingenuous, it's offensive. If erasing 241 years of institutionalized American racism were as easy as a poorly produced corporate video and a jam session with Linda in human resources, we'd all go through it in elementary school and I wouldn't be writing this. 

To Starbucks, and any corporation that gets caught with its pants down, this isn't about social progress. It's about their bottom line. Blatantly bigoted events like this should be used to explore why businesses are obligated to welcome everyone. Instead, they're used to advertise a brand's image as inclusive and compassionate while explaining to managers how much money each specific minority spends in their stores per annum. 

Doing otherwise would negate the bottom line. They've gamed the process so well that they know exactly how to spin the worst press into free publicity. 

Starbucks has long established itself as classist, at best. They have "a look." It behooves their investors to expect this mentality of their customers, and manifests itself when franchisees call the cops on people who don't blend in. If they openly catered to the demographics of a roadside gas station, i.e. everyone, they might lose the honey pot of self-righteously woke customers who excuse their own covert racism by re-Tweeting YouTube videos of Beyonce at Coachella. 

Handing your money over to Wall Street darlings shouldn't be second nature, only a necessary evil that comes with credit cards and cable. In cities like Philadelphia, especially, brand loyalty should be the realm of local chains like Saxby's and La Colombe, and even then only when owner-operated businesses aren't available.

Shop local - Green Street, Last Drop, Square One - only then can you really know why you should, or shouldn't, support a business. By the time any company has ballooned to the size of Starbucks, it's nothing but under-vetted employees operating within a vacuum of data points telling them exactly how to keep Wall Street happy. And how prejudiced they're allowed, or need, to be. Any apology, response, or sensitivity protocol is every bit as soulless as this profitability matrix because each is merely a cog in exactly that machine. 

No one needed to wait for two peaceful black men to get handcuffed in a Starbucks to find a reason to avoid a corporate chain. Our default setting should be supporting our neighbors, not Wall Street. I'm not sure when that became such an impossible idea. 

Monday, May 7, 2018

What to Do About Philadelphia Magazine

In Ashley Primis's article, "What to Do About South Street," Philadelphia Magazine does what it does best: pose a question nobody asked and then spend a whole bunch of words complaining about the magazine's namesake. If the title rings familiar, it's not unlike Annie Monjar's 2011 tone deaf piece, "Do We Really Still Need Eastern State Penitentiary?," where another transplant ruthlessly berated one of the nation's most revered historic landmarks. If either's arrogant unfamiliarity with Philadelphia also sounds familiar, you've likely read Ernest Owens' regular rants about the city's LGBT community and a neighborhood Primis herself once referred to as "the former Gayborhood" without a hint of remorse. 

All part of a cynicism that's become disturbingly common in Philadelphia Magazine, it's certainly worth noting that none of these three writers are native to the Philadelphia area. It's not as though journalists aren't welcome to cover subjects they aren't intimately familiar with, but hit-jobs are usually reserved for those rooted in the subject matter. Otherwise they can sound ignorant at best or prejudiced at worst. For example, Owens has spent a number of his stories criticizing events and venues he boycotts. 

Ironically, shortly after lauding South Street's uncharacteristically posh new venues and making some comment about lattes, Primis gushes about her first experiences on South Street, claiming - accurately - that one "couldn't build something like South Street today." She then begrudgingly likens to strip to an aging rocker, specifically Keith Richards, who might be the human embodiment of the street, now or thirty years ago. 

The article is weird. Primis waxes and wanes between an appreciation for the street's past and vitriol, even copping to her own unfamiliarity with a street she's lived on for ten years. Perplexing, she lands on saving the street's inherent grit by essentially turning it into a kid-friendly shopping mall with a grocery store. Fun. 

While it's true South Street has seen better days, it's also seen worse. Like many neighborhoods once emblematic of Philadelphia's Bohemian mid-century past, it's facing the growing pains of a city on the rise. But the knee jerk reaction to treat it as the status quo and propose stuffing it with upscale boutiques selling $900 jackets only provides residents and tourists with more of the same. South Street could use an injection of new businesses, but treating it with the same canned response employed everywhere from Kensington to Passyunk Square, or suggesting some sort of cohesive makeover, strips away an eclectic appeal formed through decades of urban evolution. 

It's also shortsighted because, as opposed to the aforementioned neighborhoods, South Street isn't necessarily outdated, just not Philadelphia Magazine's apparent cup of tea. But that is the exact problem with the magazine's flawed take on Philadelphia, and gentrification in general. South Street thrives in the summertime and sees no shortage of business during the winter months. It's a destination attraction drawing people from all over the world, and they seem to like it. It's the sole locale for Baby Boomers, the bane of gentrifiers and the ilk writing for Philadelphia Magazine, to find a concert from their youth without hoofing it out to York County. 

What's troubling about Philadelphia Magazine's sort of commentary is that, in a city of a million and a half residents, and a massive geographical footprint for the mid-Atlantic, there's seemingly no room to leave something that hasn't failed well enough alone. 


South Street will hardly be the first casualty of this urban dementia. Nearby, the Gayborhood might appear to be thriving with its abundance of bars and restaurants, but the LGBT community itself has been scattered throughout the region by sky rocketing rents and corporate chains. Recently, 12th Street Gym, a vast and wildly popular business that was as much an LGBT community center as a fitness center, was forced to close after being purchased by a New York-based developer and targeted by the Department of Licenses and Inspections. When the luxury apartment building Commonwealth 1201 opened, the Mazonni Center left the Gayborhood for Bainbridge Street. The Italian Market too may soon see its own luxury apartment development at the corner of 9th and Washington, inevitably altering a unique streetscape that still retains the provincial aesthetic from some of the nation's earliest immigrants, catering alongside some of our most recent. 

Most unnerving in Primis's assessment is her awe inspired witness to the reclamation of, among other areas, the Gayborhood's re-branded "Midtown Village." Coupled with her former jab at the Gayborhood, I can't help but read the thinly veiled homophobia shared by so many neo-liberals who desperately want to appear progressive while harboring resentment for anything that doesn't cater exclusively to their brand. "Midtown Village" reclaimed the LGBT community's safe space for a bunch of homophobic frat boys and real estate agents who know their clients are too covertly bigoted to buy condos in a neighborhood with the word "gay" in its name. 

With so many costly and already-posh neighborhoods straddling the river, where does this gut instinct to terraform every last square foot of real estate in the name of sameness come from? With an almost hostile disdain for anything not clad in glass, plastic, and steel; sanitized to suburban perfection, one has to wonder why those moving to Philadelphia in droves ever bothered to move somewhere so oddball in the first place if not to simply bully a bunch of weirdos into submission like they did in the high school cafeteria where they once reigned supreme. 

South Street is an institution. It's empty storefronts could be filled with something far more dynamic than more restaurants. Our foodie scene once rivaled some of the world's best, but an influx of high-end poverty appropriation - fancy tacos and french fries - has turned a scene once brimming with quality and panache into one that's exhaustively cliche. Instead, the evolution that South Street demands is one reflective of its past: art stores, tattoo parlors, shops packed with oddities, and lots and lots of color. What's wrong with head shops and districts that cater to those not shoving $2000 baby carriages through our narrow sidewalks? Primis points out the diversity of the South Street strip - diversity that can be hard to find commingling in Philadelphia - but her pitch to turn it into a destination for the spendthrift threatens to make it about as "white" as Starbucks on a Monday.  

This is the Philadelphia Philadelphia Magazine wants, despite hiring Chicago muckraker Ernest Owens to challenge its straight, white image of yoga and beer gardens. 

Misunderstanding this, not to mention taking aim at nearly everything that defines Philadelphia as something apart from a New York borough, has made Philadelphia Magazine the least Philadelphian local outlet, and continues to prove that it's incapable of shedding its notoriously banal past. Not only do the magazine's contributors not get Philadelphia, they simply don't want to. Unfortunately they speak for a voluminous influx of new residents who never liked Philadelphia much to begin with, and came to remake it in their own boring image. Sameness is the enemy of diversity and what once made cities great. Why is Philadelphia, and its namesake magazine, defiantly embracing the most basic elements that ruined New York, San Francisco, and Seattle? 

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Odd Bedfellows: Frankford Chocolate Factory

Inga Saffron's articles at the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News are some of the region's most "don't miss" reading. And like some of the best binge-worthy television shows, most are great, but occasionally there's that one that truly stands out as astounding. If the architectural critiques found within Philly.com were Season 3 of Twin Peaks, today's column is easily Part 8, right down to its inexplicable and stunning nuclear detonation. 



Hard hitting and investigative journalism is hard to find in the age of the internet. In the column titled, "What's the connection between a Philly blogger and the demolition of the Washington Ave. chocolate factory?," Saffron expands well beyond the confines of architectural design reviews and local development news to explain exactly why the "fuddy-duddy legacy media" still matters. Held (mostly, we hope) to journalistic ethics standards, the legacy media, especially print (and its online counterpart), enforces conflict of interest guidelines, clearly notes sponsored content, and resists click-bait and high-revenue-generating infotainment. In a frenzied 24-hour news cycle competing for advertisers, it's easy to overlook when some of the largest media outlets (looking at you CNN and FoxNews) treat fact checking like old hat.

But they're also competing with the internet's vacuum of anonymity: blogs, message boards, YouTube videos, even user generated content in the comments sections. That the legacy media of print journalism and the nightly network news have managed to survive, barely, amid an echo chamber of subjectivity doing little more than preaching to its own choir is utterly amazing. That Saffron managed to use its platform to turn on that very blogosphere in an objective and insightful way is unprecedented, and it's why she has a Pulitzer Prize. 

Like Starr Herr-Cardillo's column for Hidden City, Saffron points out the shady connection between Point Breeze developer Ori Feibush's demolition of the Frankford Chocolate Factory and Dennis Carlisle, a.k.a., GroJLart, bloggercontributor to Hidden City. and long-time favorite foul-mouth of architecture nerds throughout the tri-state area and beyond. In short (you should really read both columns for yourself), Carlisle had nominated the Frankford Chocolate Factory to be placed on the Historic Register in December. In January he was hired by Ori Feibush's firm, OCF Reality. In March, still writing for Hidden City, an outlet championing above all historic preservation, he appeared before the Historical Commission to retract its nomination, a retraction that was denied. To ultimately bring the factory down, Feibush hired his own engineers to deem the building unsafe, and demolition was finally granted by the Historical Commission and L&I. 

By then, Carlisle's identity as GroJLart had been exposed, at least to the small, but vocal community of preservationists familiar with his work. 

Herr-Cardillo's column delved into the nitty-gritty of the unusual process that led to the factory's demolition, but it was uncharacteristically passionate for the outlet. With GroJLart's columns aside, Hidden City can be described as dry. Those who love architecture and local history routinely pour through its virtual pages, but the articles might be too lengthy and bespoke for some's taste. After speaking with Herr-Cardillo briefly on Instagram, she used the word "hopeless," a sentiment all of us vested in the city's built history can surely sympathize with right now. Those at Hidden City undoubtedly felt duped by Dennis Carlisle. 

The fact that no laws were clearly broken in order to raze a building on the National Register, that Feibush could refuse an independent engineering assessment in lieu of engineers he himself hired to deem the property unsafe, categorically puts every historic building in Philadelphia in jeopardy. We've seen this all play out before in one way or another, the most insidious tactic being the economic hardship exemption that allows developers to demolish often historic structures when they can prove renovation or reuse unprofitable, as if millionaire developers deserve the same exception that the variance was designed for. "Hopeless" is really the only way to describe how preservationists, and people who simply love what Philadelphia is, feel right now.  

Saffron took a somewhat different route in her column, calling out the odd marriage of a demolition-happy developer and a journalist focused on historic properties, and particularly the fact that the OCF Realty employee who retracted the factory's historic nomination was anonymously moonlighting as a preservation-minded writer. In general, she pointed out how this is another example of the dangers of anonymity in journalism, comparing Carlisle to none other than FoxNews muckraker, Sean Hannity. 

Without a massive overhaul of multiple layers within the city government - L&I, the Historical Commission, the Register - it's clear this is just getting started, especially with a growing population and an inexplicable demand for more new construction in a city with an abundance of handsome and affordable old homes. In a New Philadelphia that would consider everything I've personally lived in a "shell" just because it's cheaper to tear down than add central air, nearly every house in the city is threatened by developers. Like Pearl Properties' demolition of the Boyd Theatre's auditorium, Southern Land Company's razing of nearby Sansom Street, and Toll Brothers at Jewelers Row and the Society Hill Playhouse, Ori Feibush is another in a line of developers providing more blueprints for how to abuse the intended purpose of our city agencies. 

Of course Feibush might be the lowest common denominator, evident in his shoddy construction and poorly chosen architectural merit. Unlike the others mentioned, Feibush is a slumlord for the upper-middle class and behaves every bit as erratic. Private developers are capitalists who begrudgingly work within (or around) city ordinances to turn a handsome profit. It speaks to arrogance, and perhaps even more conflict of interest, that a private developer would run for office as Feibush did in 2015, a trait he shares with President Donald Trump. 

Like Trump, Feibush hasn't kept professionally silent when challenged. Instead of deferring to lawyers and spokespeople, Feibush has taken to Facebook to defend the demolition of the Frankford Chocolate Factory. Using a handful of dimly lit videos of damp rooms within the factory, he seemingly "proved" that it was in imminent danger of collapse. Never mind the fact that it looked like any warehouse that had sat empty for a decade about to be rehabbed, apparent to any developer or architect who has converted a factory in Brewerytown, Callowhill, Fishtown, or Kensington; attempting to justify his actions on Facebook was an unnecessary means to keep himself in the spotlight inviting more critics to rake him over the coals. 

As the bottom rung of online media, social media is a juvenile platform to speak to those who've already made up their minds. Friends of his will vocally agree, pointing to the videos of an abandoned warehouse to say "good riddance." Opponents might view them with frustration, ignore them, or call out images so blatantly designed to look bad before Facebook's firing squad. None of this matters because, on social media especially, opinions can't be swayed. 

Professional demolition men, nefarious as the likes of Toll Brothers can be, know how to keep quiet until the dust settles. Dennis Carlisle knew to go dark on social media the second he was outed as GroJLart. Maybe Feibish should have spent some time reading Carlisle's columns and heeded what he once had to say about historic preservation and architecture instead of just hiring him for his pending historic nomination. Or maybe, like our President, Feibush will continue to buy his way throughout the poorest parts of the city, remaking them in his cheap and tacky image, fired up by columnists who might as well be resurrecting Graydon Carter's riotous Spy magazine until he's got enough personal social media stock to run for Mayor and really fuck things up. 

That f-bomb's for you, GroJLart. We all need jobs, and I know how easy it is to sell out.