Joan Shepp and the Rebirth of Chestnut Street

Joan Shepp and daughter Ellen in front of the outdoor garden in their new Chestnut Street digs. Photograph by Steven Laxton

Joan Shepp and daughter Ellen in front of the outdoor garden in their new Chestnut Street digs. Photograph by Steven Laxton

It’s a steamy evening on Chestnut Street, and not just because of the humidity. It’s the press opening for Joan Shepp’s new boutique, and the requisite champagne flutes and trays laden with hors d’oeuvres are present, as are the chic people who wouldn’t dream of taking a bite. (This is the fashion set, darlings.) PR maven Rakia Reynolds, wearing what appears to be a corset made of white wicker, gabs with Where Philadelphia publisher Laura Burkhardt, who will show up to the opening of an envelope. Nicole Paloux, another PR maven, though of the more mousy, elfin variety, peruses some jewelry near Nigel Richards, a fledgling fashion designer better known as the husband of the city’s brassy high priestess of PR, Nicole Cashman, whose absence is surely due to Ebola or some such catastrophe. Elizabeth Wellington, the Inquirer’s fashion writer, is here, channeling Audra McDonald chic, while in a corner flits Danuta Mieloch, the Polish beauty who has made Rescue Rittenhouse the place where Women of a Certain Station come to have their crinkly complexions turned to the texture of mayonnaise.

They’re here because Joan is here, and the style story line in town has been All About Joan since last fall, when her eponymous shop on Walnut Street suddenly shuttered and then turned up in the mall at Liberty Place (the mall! At Liberty Place!), and then she said she was going to open a new store on Chestnut (Chestnut!), and, well, kittens, it turned out she meant it. This has raised the fashion stakes considerably. Now the question isn’t whether Joan Shepp,who has been dressing the stylish Philadelphia woman for four decades, can make a success on Chestnut Street. It’s whether she can make a success of Chestnut Street.
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Why Does Neil Theobald Think Football Will Save Temple?

Photography by Clint Blowers

Photography by Clint Blowers

It was a date that would live in infamy.

The news hit the scholar-athletes gathered in Temple University’s Student Pavilion on December 6th of last year like a brick to the gut: The sports teams they’d been recruited for, trained for, worked for, played for, were being eliminated — “Chop, boom, you’re gone,” read the headline in the Temple News. Seven teams went poof: men’s crew, women’s rowing, softball, baseball, men’s gymnastics, and men’s indoor and outdoor track and field. Dozens of young hearts — along with those of their coaches — were broken as the university’s new athletic director, Kevin Clark, wielded the ax in a brief, succinct speech. And everybody knew where to lay the blame. “Make no mistake: Football drove cuts” was the headline on a student-newspaper editorial. The Inquirer’s Bob Ford chimed in: “No kidding they had to cut sports to save money. They just didn’t cut the one they should have.”
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Philadelphia + a Pipeline (or Two) = America’s Next Energy Hub

The PES refinery in South Philly. Photograph by Jonathan Barkat

The PES refinery in South Philly. Photograph by Jonathan Barkat

About 1,400 miles from Philadelphia, at the northern edge of the Louisiana bayou, lies a spaghetti junction of steel tubing called Henry Hub, where 13 natural-gas pipelines converge amid farmland and little else. The nearest town, Erath, population 2,100, is about four miles away.

Gas from all over the country flows through the Henry Hub. Even gas extracted from drill pads just 100 miles or so from Philadelphia — gas sucked from the almost unfathomably rich reserves of the Marcellus Shale — is often pumped to distant Louisiana before making the long, and expensive, return trip to homes and businesses in Philadelphia.

Apart from Henry Hub, this section of Louisiana is probably best known for the bizarre cautionary tale of extraction run amok at nearby Lake Peigneur. There, in 1980, an oil crew dug too deep, puncturing a hole in a working salt mine that lay beneath the lake bed. As water rushed into the mine, a swirling vortex formed on the lake surface, swallowing two drilling platforms and 11 barges. The suction reversed the flow of a canal leading to the Gulf of Mexico, and within a few hours, a shallow fishing hole had turned into a 1,300-foot-deep saltwater lake.
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Terrell Owens: 10 Years After the Eagles

Photograph by Drew Hallowell, Getty Images Sport

Photograph by Drew Hallowell, Getty Images Sport

The wide receiver explodes off the line of scrimmage, shakes his defender, and curls hard to the right sideline. He’s a step ahead of his man, more than he needs to make a catch. The football sails high, but he reaches up and pulls it down, tiptoeing to stay in bounds.

“I would cut all that chit-chatter out!” he hollers to the defensive back he just beat, without so much as a glance in the man’s direction. “Let’s go!”

I’m on the sidelines of an empty football stadium at Pierce College in suburban Los Angeles, on a cloudless Tuesday morning in August. All across the country, NFL teams are midway through their training camps, and the start of the season is just weeks away. Here, the handful of athletes who work out twice a week are mostly in their 20s, with pedigrees from big-time schools like USC and stints in the pros. They’re staying in shape, hoping for the football equivalent of a winning Powerball ticket — a call inviting them back to the big show. Then there’s that receiver who looks so familiar. The long, chiseled frame, factory-built for highlight reels. The trash talk. It’s Terrell Owens.
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Jim Brady Profile: The Billy Pulpit

Jim Brady is launching a mobile-focused local news site. Photograph by Jauhien Sasnou

Jim Brady is launching a mobile-focused local news site. Photograph by Jauhien Sasnou

There exists an unwritten rule in many of America’s newsrooms. It stipulates that when a journalist of sufficient stature departs his job, he is sent off, in a display of real or feigned goodwill, with a parody publication — a magazine cover, say — poking fun at his personal characteristics. It is this practice that Jim Brady would like to discuss for a moment.

“Every farewell home page I’ve ever gotten in my life, leaving any site, has had the same three things,” he says. Brady, 46, is sitting at the Marathon at 16th and Sansom, about to commence a lunch of grilled chicken and corn fricassee, along with a lump of vegetables he won’t touch. Brady names the three things: “Diet Pepsi consumption, the Jets, and my wearing jeans.” This information is relevant partly because he happens to be drinking Diet Pepsi, wearing jeans, and talking about the New York Jets. (Not a fan of this year’s first-round pick.) More to the point, Jim Brady’s last two journalism ventures didn’t quite work out. Which, alas, has given him a good deal of experience in the parody send-off department.

Brady began his career as a sports reporter in Washington, D.C., before turning the Washington Post’s website into an industry standard-bearer, before eventually embarking on a monomaniacal quest to create a model for online news that doesn’t completely suck and actually makes money. Despite his recent failures — or perhaps because of them, in an only the good die young kind of way — his journalistic stature seems only to have increased.

His latest baby — and the reason he’s been traveling to Philadelphia from his home in the D.C. suburbs — is a website called Billy Penn, which soft-launched in mid-September. (You may also know it by its previous name, Brother.ly, which was scuttled after a small band of critics deemed it too sexist and/or lame.) Brady aims to turn Billy Penn into a media nerve center for the city, by breaking news and “curating” content from legacy publications and local blogs. Brady, who appears to be in healthy financial shape despite those earlier failures, says he’s sinking more than $500,000 of his own cash into the site — enough to staff it with eight employees for 18 months. His hope is that Billy Penn will start making some money, or at least attract additional investors, before that cash runs out.

Already, Billy Penn has garnered a good deal of national attention (sample headlines: “Jim Brady’s Philly Gamble”; “Brady Takes Another Shot at Local Journalism”). That’s because Brady is a high-profile missionary for a specific type of new-media evangelism that, to its boosters, promises to create a model for sustainable online journalism, and to its detractors is a bunch of techno-utopian nonsense. If the site succeeds, there will be up-voting and liking and retweeting. If it fails, there will be schadenfreude.

In Philly, the stakes are higher, less abstract. Brady is only the latest in a long line of philanthropists, hedge funders and would-be visionaries who have vowed to revive the city’s beleaguered news media. “We know you’ve heard this all before,” Brady noted a few weeks before our lunch to a roomful of journalists at the Pen & Pencil Club, as if addressing some sort of support group. Billy Penn arrives at a critical moment. The city’s dailies and alt-weeklies seem unwilling or unable to craft a coherent Web strategy, while their print products continue to atrophy. (Not helping: Over the summer, the Inquirer’s brand-new owner died in a freak plane accident, while the free tabloid Metro bought the City Paper and laid off a number of its staffers.) None of the city’s digital media start-ups, meanwhile, has come close to filling the gap the thinning legacy publications have left behind, and several have collapsed in the past few years. (Full, probably self-evident disclosure: Philadelphia magazine also has an active online presence.)

The consequences of Philadelphia’s shriveled media environment are almost too obvious to state: Less journalism equals less information equals less accountability equals more bad stuff happens. This is to say nothing of the more ephemeral but no less important civic fabric that starts to fray when no one reads the local stuff — either because it isn’t there or it isn’t worth reading — and everybody just huddles under the covers with an iPad and binges on Mad Men recaps.

Over lunch, I tell Brady I can’t name a single outlet like Billy Penn — local, online, for-profit — that has created solid, meaty journalism on a sustainable basis. “It’s a pretty short list,” he concurs, and proceeds to name zero websites that fit the description. In attempting to fill Philadelphia’s journalism gap, Brady is testing a much larger theory about how to save local news. “I refuse to believe, after 200-some-odd years,” Brady says, “that there’s no longer a model for local journalism.”

JIM BRADY’S BRAND of media disruption made its Philadelphia debut on a Wednesday night in July at the Pen & Pencil Club, the dimly lit journo-haunt situated a few blocks south of City Hall. “The policy at the Pen & Pencil is off-the-record, but we can change that if we want, we were told,” Brady said, wearing a button-down shirt rolled up to his elbows and a requisite pair of dad jeans. He had been invited there to introduce Billy Penn to the city’s journalistic class. Sitting on a stool to his right was the site’s editor, Chris Krewson, a former Inquirer Web guru who most recently ran the website of the Hollywood Reporter. “Everything’s on the record. We’re not trying to hide anything.”

The pitch went like this: Billy Penn is an attempt to “stitch together all the people and the entities in the city that are producing good journalism and providing good information.” What that means: “Reporter/curators” will direct Philadelphians to the stories they most want to read, whether written in-house or by other news outlets or bloggers.

The website, Brady told the crowd at the P&P, will be geared toward the city’s growing millennial population. Its underlying mission will be civic improvement, and it will be calibrated for your iPhone. During a big story — like the 2013 building collapse — it will morph into a throbbing, constantly updated local news hub stuffed with both aggregated and original content. On a slower day, Krewson added, Billy Penn might be “reporting out a great hashtag” or treating you to the “five best Vines” related to Philadelphia.

After about an hour of occasionally pointed but mostly harmless Q&A — Will you cover underserved neighborhoods? Android or iOS? — pizza was delivered, and a roomful of reporters briefly forgot about the many existential threats to their careers. But despite the good turnout and generally good cheer, Billy Penn’s editor wasn’t satisfied with the reception. “Do you know that, like, nobody tweeted out of that thing?” Krewson told me a few days after the event, outside a coffee shop on Sydenham Street, wearing a checked shirt with an iPhone stuffed in the breast pocket. “Why wasn’t there a hashtag? Like, nobody created a hashtag!”

This cognitive dissonance says as much about Krewson’s own social-media awesomeness (18.3K tweets and counting!) as it does about the Philadelphia media establishment’s refusal to fully immerse itself in the digital world. In the late aughts, the Inquirer tapped Krewson and (later, briefly, as a consultant) Brady to “build a culture of thinking about the Internet,” as Brady puts it. Krewson set up the paper’s first Facebook and Twitter accounts, back in 2008. Besides that, it’s unclear either of them made a mark.

Brady and Krewson worked on a couple of mini-sites — one for the Main Line, the other on local colleges — but neither lasted very long. “I don’t know if everybody sitting around the table at the Inquirer totally bought into this idea that they ought to be focusing on the Web,” Brady says. It’s been several years since he and Krewson left, but the papers have barely evolved: The Inquirer and Daily News still upload their content for free on the ghastly Philly.com, a practice that undermines the papers’ paywalled stand-alone websites.

Philly’s online news scene isn’t much more promising. There are the small niche outlets like Plan Philly, Hidden City and the Public School Notebook, which scramble to support themselves largely through foundation grants and memberships. Then there are the dead sites, like wonky Metropolis and hyperlocal NEast Philly. The most successful of the bunch, Technical.ly, which funds itself largely through events, has been clear that it caters to a narrow audience.

The closest the city got to having a broadly useful online-only news outlet was Axis Philly. And it failed badly. Created in 2012 with a $2.4 million grant from the William Penn Foundation, Axis was led by a CEO named Neil Budde, who earned $225K a year but by all accounts accomplished very little. (Jim Brady was offered the job but passed.) “Neil had a talent for spending, he really did,” says former Inquirer columnist and Metropolis editor Tom Ferrick, who ran Axis after Budde. “He went top-flight on almost everything. I literally had my jaw drop over different people saying, ‘We owe this person this amount of money.’” When I ask Ferrick what exactly his predecessor contributed, he replies, “No one quite figured that out.” “I accept some of that as fair criticism,” Budde told me, but added that he was led to believe Axis would receive more grant money.

Budde resigned in the summer of 2013, but by then it was too late to save Axis. The site’s bread and butter — data-driven policy reporting — wasn’t budgeted, organized or promoted according to any discernible strategy. By the time its initial grant money was spent, says Ferrick, it averaged just 18,000 unique visitors a month. With limited prospects for other funding, the site went dead in June 2014.

It’s unlikely a similar nonprofit venture will get a chance to succeed where Axis failed. The William Penn Foundation, Philadelphia’s number one media sugar daddy, decided recently to invest only in local journalism that covers three specific areas of interest: education, the environment and the arts. The man who initiated the shift, former WPF president Jeremy Nowak, says he can’t comment on the decision. (He parted ways with the foundation after a year and a half.) But his explanation for Philly’s start-up failures may help clarify the frugal strategy. “Number one,” he says, “the [traffic] numbers are really low. Second, you’ve got a whole generation of people who aren’t willing to pay for things. … Third thing is, too many of the people trying to do the reinvention grew up in the old world, and they think the reinvention is about re-creating a 20th-century newsroom that just happens to be electronic. So they’re reproducing the same problems.”

The wobbly trajectory of one new-media project lends heft to Nowak’s assessment. Last fall, former Philadelphia magazine and Daily News editor Larry Platt announced his plans for a nonprofit reporting venture called the Philly Citizen. A year later, the Citizen has produced zero journalism. It has, though, hosted a series of events about civic improvement, and recently said it would ask members to “publicly swear an oath” to Philadelphia. The Citizen plans a new website by year’s end designed to “mobilize an army of citizens to take their city back.” Platt declined to speak on the record, but he provided me with a statement about the Citizen’s “dual purpose” to provide “deeply reported journalism emphasizing solutions that can move our region forward, and to actively reignite citizenship.” How the journalism fits in amongst the oaths and salons is unclear.

Ironically, this new-media graveyard, with its dried-up philanthropic funding and balky start-ups, suggests BillyPenn.com is right where it wants to be. First, it’s a for-profit venture that will rely on advertising revenue and membership fees rather than on grants. Second, Jim Brady is precisely the opposite of someone who “grew up in the old world.” “All the people around him, they talk to each other on Twitter all day,” says one Washington, D.C., journalist who’s followed Brady’s career. “In their theory of the world, the only thing holding back Web journalism is the hidebound practices of old-fashioned legacy media.” Time to test the theory.

BRADY, AS FORMER COLLEAGUES and fellow travelers will testify, is perhaps the world’s greatest guy-to-get-a-beer-with. His disarming qualities, however, belie his tendency — the use of mixed metaphors here seems appropriate — to throw bombs at sacred cows. As he told me over lunch: “I’m not particularly sympathetic to newspapers and their plight, because yes, it’s been really hard and all that, but it’s not like you couldn’t see this coming.”

Brady honed his digital-first worldview editing Washingtonpost.com’s sports section, before helming the entire newspaper’s website for a celebrated stretch in the 2000s. More recently, he ran a newspaper chain called, what else, Digital First. But it was his short-lived Washington, D.C., website, TBD.com, that turned him into something of a cult hero among new-media types. “It was the James Dean of local websites,” he joked at the P&P. “Died too young but seems to be remembered fondly.” And it’s pretty much exactly what he wants to re-create in Philly, on a smaller scale.

TBD, which was owned by Politico publisher Robert Allbritton, was launched to great fanfare in 2010 and billed as a competitor to the Washington Post’s battered metro desk. Half a dozen staffers were hired purely to engage with readers, cornering them on social media and at happy-hour meet-ups. The site was also gratuitously transparent, at one point milking an embarrassing gaffe into a sort of Web seminar on the virtues of its own corrections policy. TBD — named thusly because no one ever came up with a real name — was, in other words, putting into practice much of the Internet idealism long practiced in Silicon Valley: High-minded gatekeepers would be discarded, content would be free and collaborative, and the wisdom of crowds would dictate editorial strategy.

Like so many beloved Silicon Valley start-ups, however, it soon crumpled. Three months into his tenure, Brady was out, and by 2012 the site was dead. According to the TBD loyalist narrative — alums are scattered all over, from Slate to the New York Times — the plug was pulled too early by Allbritton, who, Brady says, reneged on a promise to give TBD a three-to-five-year “runway.” “You should be very clear,” says Steve Buttry, who worked as TBD’s director of community engagement, “TBD didn’t fail. If they had executed the strategy and it didn’t work, that’s failing. It wasn’t given a chance to succeed.” (A spokesperson for Politico didn’t respond to a request for comment from Allbritton.)

True or not, that explanation doesn’t address the quality of TBD’s work. “Surely,” wrote former Washington City Paper editor Michael Schaffer in a tongue-in-cheek autopsy several years ago, “this was conclusive proof that the pretensions of hyperlocal journalism were empty, that signing up unpaid neighborhood bloggers alongside professional reporters was stupid.” Schaffer was sympathetic to the TBD-got-hosed-by-Allbritton narrative, but even the most (ostensibly) innovative ideas in digital media can’t necessarily solve local journalism’s bottom-line problem. “People like Brady,” says current City Paper editor Mike Madden, “they have the sense that we’ve got to get people thinking ‘digital first.’ No one going into journalism today is thinking print first. The problem is the revenue. The advertisers are still thinking print first.”

Indeed, Brady belongs to a cohort of new-media soothsayers to whom disruption always seems to be the solution, whatever the problem may be. They include, among others, City University of New York journalism professor Jeff Jarvis and NYU journalism professor Clay Shirky. What binds them is a worldview holding that unwieldy legacy newspapers helped doom themselves by refusing to adapt to the digital age, and that media institutions can best survive by making content as accessible and responsive to reader demand as possible. Brady, who invited Jarvis to Temple over the summer to take part in a Billy Penn brainstorming session, says he swears by Jarvis’s oft-quoted mantra: “Do what you do best, and link to the rest.”

One problem with this crew, as Dean Starkman, an editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, has pointed out, is that they’re “journalism academics known for neither their journalism nor their scholarship.” For all their faith in the Internet, none of them have found a way to make it pay for costly, deeply reported local journalism that has long been subsidized by print advertising.

In 2000, newspapers’ ad revenue peaked at $65 billion. By 2012, that number had plummeted to $22.3 billion. Print ad revenues are in free fall, and while digital ad revenue is growing, it’s not growing fast enough to make up the difference. Going “digital first,” in other words, won’t pay off for a long time, if ever. Why don’t businesses want to pay newspapers and magazines for costly ads anymore? Largely because Craigslist, Facebook and Google, and their billions of users, make for vastly better online advertising partners. All of which makes Jarvis and Shirky’s digital fetishism seem especially glib.

To be sure, massive digital properties like BuzzFeed and Gawker Media have leveraged cheaply produced viral content into profits, and national newspapers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have convinced loyal subscribers to pay for online content. But nobody has come close to replicating similar strategies — or success — on a local scale. Broken promises or not, TBD wouldn’t have been abandoned if it had translated its impressive website traffic into financial viability. At Digital First Media, where Brady was editor-in-chief, an analogous scenario played out: To increase revenue, DFM erected paywalls at 75 of its dailies — despite being run by a Brady ally who had long criticized paywalls. (Brady, who left DFM after the plug was pulled on one of his pet initiatives, told me he didn’t agree with the decision.)

Even if Brady is able to steer Billy Penn toward profitability, it seems unlikely he can do so while regularly serving up serious-minded public-interest reporting. (After all, BuzzFeed and Gawker, despite their occasional investigative dives, specialize in click-bait.) Of Billy Penn’s initial staff of eight, only two are reporters. And at least one of them will be busy compiling “The Five Best Vines in Philadelphia.” What’s more, social media may end up undermining Billy Penn’s concept: Thanks to Twitter and Facebook, there is decreasing interest in “home pages.”

After our lunch, I sent Brady an email asking why he didn’t make Billy Penn a nonprofit, like most successful local news start-ups. “Local journalism needs a for-profit model,” he wrote back. “People keep saying that local isn’t scalable. But neither are foundations and billionaires, despite the high number of terrific nonprofit sites out there. … So I’ve been determined to keep searching for that. Suppose it’s my white whale. :-)”

It’s a noble sentiment, emoticon and all. But if you remember your Melville, it’s not exactly the most promising one.

Originally published as “The Billy Pulpit” in the October 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

John Grady Profile: The Dealer

PIDC president John Grady at the Navy Yard, whose revival he's helped mastermind. Photograph by Colin Lenton

PIDC president John Grady at the Navy Yard, whose revival he’s helped mastermind. Photograph by Colin Lenton

John Grady is trying to show me the waterfront. The Schuylkill is close, just a few hundred meters away, but there’s no street grid here on the river’s wild western shore, no bike trails, no sidewalks — nothing at all, really.

This is just about a mile southwest of the Penn and CHOP mega-medical complex, but those towers seem a world away. In this forgotten fragment of the city, up-jumped weeds form a forest canopy in long-abandoned lots. Roads end abruptly, melting into the overgrowth. Ivy has reached the top floor of the old city incinerator, climbing through the broken windows.

Grady — 47 years old, white, with the look and bearing of a stereotypical mid-career executive — seems just a bit out of place here. We pass discarded mattresses, a 1960s-era refrigerator, a pink toilet and a dead cat. Grady turns his silver Buick LaCrosse down a cobblestone road — it’s 49th Street — that’s usually closed to through traffic by a locked cyclone fence. Today, though, the gate is open, so Grady punches the gas, bumping the Buick across a CSX rail line and past the first two people we’ve seen in blocks — a couple of rail workers. One of them flips us off. Grady seems not to notice.

He’s too busy imagining an altogether different future for this squalid patch of overlooked urbanity. Grady looks and sees Philadelphia’s next “innovation district,” with some two to three million square feet of new offices and laboratories, a gleaming riverfront road, and recreational trails that would make this bastard stretch of the Schuylkill every bit the equal of the jogger-choked path to the north.

It all sounds fantastical, given the present-day landscape. But Grady is the president of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, a little-known but extraordinarily powerful joint venture between business and City Hall.

More than half a billion dollars in public and private grants and financing — for everything from small-business equipment loans to city and state subsidies for Comcast’s new skyscraper — is budgeted to pass through PIDC this year. And the organization has been at the center of most every mega project of the past 50 years: the Navy Yard, the Pennsylvania Convention Center, the Center City hotel boom and much more.

So when Grady dreams, it makes sense to listen. He notes that we’re just five minutes from the heart of University City by car, or by trolley. He tells me about the voracious expansion needs of nearby Penn, CHOP and Drexel, institutions that think about development in chunks of 10 and 20 years.

Grady has been selling cities for a long time. These days, there are more buyers out there. “When I graduated college in the late ’80s, the popular thing was to move to the suburbs. You went as far out as you needed to buy a house, and you put a fence around your house and you drove to work every day,” says Grady, who, as it happens, did none of those things. (He lives in East Falls.) “That paradigm has shifted dramatically for people, and relatively quickly.”

In another city — one with a more robust business culture, with bolder builders, with more capital and fewer built-in obstacles to development — it might be a maverick developer or some far-sighted technology company looking to reclaim the riverside wilds. But this is Philadelphia, where it took 83 years for someone to find the stones to erect a building taller than City Hall. As much as any organization, it’s been PIDC and its roster of powerful leaders, past and present, that has filled this visionary vacuum.

Grady has served as PIDC’s president for just three years. But he has already emerged as one of the city’s leading problem-solvers. I think of him as the unflappable traffic cop in the hectic three-way intersection of government, business and the nonprofit sector.

And in this town, for better or worse, that’s where a lot of the action is.

BY FEBRUARY 1994, there was little hope left for the Navy Yard, which had been building ships and employing vast numbers of Philadelphians for more than a century. The politicians were dragging the imminent closure out as long as they could, and another 19 months would pass before the base was formally shuttered and, ultimately, 7,000 civilians would lose their well-paying jobs.

In preparation, leading regional economists, architects and urban planners met at the University of Pennsylvania to ponder what else might be done with the 1,425-acre site. Some suggested it would serve best as a prison. Others proposed turning it into marshland. The most likely scenario, many of the academics agreed, was that the yard would simply rot, lying fallow until some distant future when a market might exist for so much riverfront land.

John Grady had a different view. He was no Pollyanna, having grown up in Olney and worked in Camden prior to joining PIDC. But Grady, like most economic-development professionals, is allergic to the notion that cities must surrender to adverse market forces, particularly when the stakes are as high as they were for the Navy Yard.

The son of two educators, Grady became fixated on the central necessity of jobs while taking an undergraduate seminar at La Salle University. The course — taught by John Raines, the celebrated Temple professor who early this year revealed himself as one of the eight anti-war activists who burgled an FBI office in Media in 1971 — focused on the ethical value of work. “It showed what it means to people, to communities,” Grady says now. “It was about how work sustains us on many different levels.”

Straight out of school, Grady took a position with Camden’s waterfront economic development agency before moving over to PIDC in 1998. Ever since, Grady has been the point man on the massive conversion of the Navy Yard, which really should be considered one of the most successful urban reclamation projects in recent U.S. history. When the Navy (mostly) moved out, it fell to PIDC to coordinate the integration of the yard into the city. There was no zoning, no street grid, no sanitary connection to the city’s sewer supply, no post-office addresses.

Now the Navy Yard has all that, plus office and manufacturing facilities for 143 companies employing more than 11,000 workers. It’s home to behemoths like Urban Outfitters and the U.S. headquarters of GlaxoSmithKline. It’s become a favored destination for fast-expanding homegrown businesses like motorcycle-gear retailers RevZilla.com, which in the past could well have ended up out on Route 202, or in some other suburban destination.

Critics of the Navy Yard generally charge that it cannibalizes Center City, stealing away tenants that otherwise would be renting office space in skyscrapers. But Grady has little patience for this complaint, and he makes a good case. Consider Urban Outfitters. Floors in an anonymous office tower would have been all wrong for such a company. Richard Hayne wanted a campus environment, with distinct buildings for the company’s different brands and the ability to expand over time. Similarly, Glaxo wanted a radically new kind of office, one with as few walls as possible and more worker mobility — a poor match for the stock in Center City.

As remarkable as the Navy Yard’s reinvention already is, it’s nowhere near complete. On a summer afternoon, with airplanes roaring overhead and the sun reflecting off the immensely wide stretch of the Delaware River that frames the Navy Yard, Grady showed me a bit of what’s yet to come.

There’s the seven-acre park under construction in the yard’s office district, designed by the same landscape architecture firm that designed New York’s High Line park. There’s the Penn State engineering campus, also under construction, and two vast loft-style warehouse buildings on Kitty Hawk Avenue that could become the Navy Yard’s first residential developments. “Ultimately, what we’re doing is we’re building out a whole new neighborhood,” says Grady.

Projects as enormous as the Navy Yard, projects that require massive new infrastructure investment and comprehensive planning, are, I would argue, well served by an organization like PIDC.

Founded in 1958, during the first term of reform mayor Richardson Dilworth, PIDC was created to try and staunch the city’s bleeding of industrial jobs, and to serve as something of a hedge against the government-driven urban renewal policies that held sway in Philadelphia and many other big cities in the post-World War II-era.

From the start, business was the ever so slightly more senior partner at PIDC, with one more representative than City Hall on the organization’s board of directors. But PIDC power struggles between the Chamber of Commerce and City Hall are exceedingly rare, and as a practical matter, a lot of the organization’s clout has rested with its succession of long-serving presidents (including Grady) and with Walt D’Alessio, who has acted as PIDC’s chairman since 1982.

At its best, PIDC combines government’s focus on the public good with private-sector flexibility and competence at executing complex tasks. With a staff of 62 and an annual operating budget of about $10 million (virtually none of which is taxpayer money), PIDC has resources that dwarf those of the city’s Commerce Department. Grady’s salary, for instance, is $230,000 a year, more than Mayor Nutter earns. Grady also has a free hand to run the organization as he likes, unbound by civil service rules or union contractual restrictions.

Ostensibly, City Hall sets policy and PIDC executes. The reality is that the two entities “operate as a seamless organization,” says deputy mayor and Commerce director Alan Greenberger. “They’re not shy about making recommendations about policy, and we’re not shy to weigh in on transactions.”

Bill Hankowsky, one of Grady’s predecessors at PIDC and now the president and CEO of Liberty Property Trust, likened his old job to “translating to government how business works, and translating for business how government works.”

That training worked out well for Hankowsky, obviously, and for D’Alessio, the former senior managing director of NorthMarq Capital. Indeed, PIDC alumni are all over any roster of Philadelphia power players, past and present. There’s Joseph M. Egan, the onetime Republican mayoral candidate, who preceded Hankowsky as PIDC president in the late 1980s; John Gattuso, a onetime PIDC staffer who’s now a big wheel at Liberty Property Trust; Charles Pizzi, former PIDC board member and Tasty Baking CEO; and so on.

Grady chalks this up to PIDC’s appeal to those “who want to roll up their sleeves and make a positive contribution,” and tells me the organization “attracts a lot of people early in their careers who have an interest in development, in building businesses.”

That’s self-evidently true. It’s also mildly disturbing that in Philadelphia, mastering the intersection of business and government is seen as such a building block to success. The men — and they are almost all men — who rise to the top of the economic and power heap in Philadelphia typically aren’t audacious entrepreneurs or market-creating pioneers. They are, more commonly, those who have learned how best to work with City Hall.

PHILADELPHIA IS HARDLY alone in its reliance on an entity like PIDC. Economic development organizations and programs abound across the country. Some are public, some are private, some are a mix of the two, but at their core, these programs and agencies all exist to create or save jobs and revitalize communities. And who can argue with that?

I’ll try.

At their worst and most venal, economic development organizations are little more than filling stations for politically connected developers and businesses, offering grants, tax breaks, dubious real-estate deals and low-interest loans for City Hall’s favorite sons. Some have become the playthings of powerful political figures: Think of Vince Fumo and Citizen’s Alliance for Better Neighborhoods, or Jerry Mondesire’s Next Generation CDC.

A more common failing is the well-intended organization or government economic development program that ends up squandering public money, or signing away tax revenue, or building boondoggles. Consider all the minor-league baseball stadiums built with public funds, the niche museums that nobody visits, the massive tax breaks offered to companies simply to move their operations across a county line. (Just this summer, Camden and New Jersey traded away $82 million in tax credits to snag the sad little plum of a new Philadelphia 76ers practice facility.)

The rationale for these sorts of giveaways is pretty simple: Without them, the jobs would go elsewhere. For low-income cities like Camden and Philadelphia, the need for jobs has been so acute, for so long, that the impulse to give away the store when wooing companies can be overwhelming.

But it’s an urge that Philadelphia, at least, should start to fight. The notion that we can’t compete with other cities or the suburbs just doesn’t hold up as well as it used to, given the spike in educated millennials living in the city, and that our population is growing again after decades of decline.

“This is internalized oppression. It’s like you’ve been told for so many years that you’re worthless that you begin to believe it about yourself,” says Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a progressive Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. “A lot of public officials in cities like Philly have internalized these beliefs, and that sets them up to be weak negotiators.”

PIDC has certainly had its own moments of weakness. It had a small financing role in the “Disney hole” at 8th and Market, and so far, with bookings dramatically off projections, the $786 million Convention Center expansion is looking more like an expensive folly than a boon to the city’s hospitality business. Then there are PIDC-assisted projects that could be reasonably argued either way: the subsidies for the stadium complex, incentives for Center City hotel construction, a low-interest loan to an on-the-ropes Tasty Baking.

When I put this critique of economic development to Rob Wonderling, president of the Chamber of Commerce and PIDC vice chairman, I can almost hear him shrugging over the phone. “What aspect of the free market is not subsidized?” he replies. “We’ve had incentives for a long time. They might have different names or flavors now, but we’ve always had them, whether you call it urban renewal or a tax incentive.”

GRADY, THANKFULLY, IS much more stingy. “If we worked our way out of existence, that’d be great,” he tells me at the Navy Yard. That’s highly unlikely to happen, of course, but it’s the right attitude.

And Grady seems to think we’re at a moment — with cities resurgent — where Philadelphia actually could become a place that needs PIDC just a little less. “Can we use this momentum to solve other problems?” he asks. “Can we use it to reenergize neighborhoods? Can we use it to put school systems on a different trajectory? Can we use it to continue to reinforce quality of life and the centrality of Philadelphia for this region?”

It’s good Grady thinks along those lines. Because while PIDC’s lasting prominence does Grady and his staff credit, it’s also an indictment of Philadelphia’s economic vitality and dynamism. The downside of relying so long and so extensively on an organization like PIDC is that it perpetuates the dependency of city businesses on City Hall. That’s a formula for a weak-kneed business culture, and it’s hard to see how that kind of dynamic creates more jobs than would a more independent, less risk-averse business class.

Grady, though, is a pragmatist. “I think it’d be great if we had a completely functioning market in Philadelphia,” he says. “In the meantime, we have to roll up our sleeves and intervene.”

Originally published as “The Dealer” in the September 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

How the Penn Working Dog Center Turns Puppies Into Saviors

Logan (German shepherd), Felony (Dutch shepherd), and Quest (German shepherd). Photography by Joseph Balestra

Logan (German shepherd), Felony (Dutch shepherd), and Quest (German shepherd). Photography by Joseph Balestra

There’s a golden retriever in the ladies’ room.

It’s my first visit to the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, and traffic was tied up on the Expressway, and I had a large latte on the way here, and pretty much the first thing I said to Ashley Berke, the PR woman who greeted me, was, “Ladies’ room?” She led me through a vast concrete-floored space lined with metal crates full of dogs who yapped and barked as we passed them. Even so, I’m not expecting another dog, in a crate, in the ladies’ room.

The dog stands there, looking at me. I look back. It seems … rude not to address her — him? So I say, “Hey there! How are you?”

The dog doesn’t answer. Doesn’t even wag. Just stands and looks at me.

“’Scuse me,” I say, and duck into a stall.

The dog is still standing there when I come out. There’s something unnerving about its silent vigilance. But there’s also a need in me to try to make a connection. You can’t ignore a dog, you know? So I offer my hand, up against the metal crate. The dog sniffs it, with the merest swish of its tail.
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Which Philadelphia Colleges Will Survive?

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Last spring, a week before commencement at Saint Joseph’s University, faculty in the business school voted 27 to one in favor of a resolution rebuffing St. Joe’s president, the Reverend C. Kevin Gillespie. He was the third member of the administration to be hit with a “no confidence” vote in just four months, a gambit by faculty to reshape the financial future of the Catholic college that straddles City Avenue.

In some ways, it was hard to blame the professors. Gillespie had announced a budget shortfall of more than $8 million for the second year in a row, followed by across-the-board budget cuts and a freeze on faculty retirement contributions. It wasn’t exactly financial doomsday — a senior vice president says the school’s money troubles have been exaggerated — but if this wasn’t a monetary bottoming-out, the administration’s actions were signs of a moral bankruptcy to many on campus. “We no longer trust these administrators to lead us through the terrible circumstances they are responsible for creating,” read an editorial in The Hawk, the student newspaper.

In the wake of this, Gillespie announced that he will resign at the end of the upcoming school year. Still, compared to many private colleges in the Philly area, St. Joe’s is actually facing much less austerity. As of May, 13 other local schools still had space available for the new school year, including Widener, La Salle, Arcadia and Immaculata. And last year, to offset financial pressures, Holy Family University reduced its faculty by 19 percent, trimmed 40 staff positions, and began selling some of its real estate.
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Ladies and Gentlemen … Martha Graham Cracker!

Photograph by Chris Crisman

“Sometimes I feel like Martha’s more well-known than I am — she’s eclipsed me.” Photograph by Chris Crisman

Hard to say what Martha Graham Cracker noticed a few seconds ago as she left the band and the stage and slinked through the crowd. Hard to say why she picked out from the 100 people packed into this blackened room a certain middle-aged white guy in a white button-up shirt, but right now Martha has her legs wrapped around this guy’s neck.

The guy is standing next to a rectangular bar at the back of L’Étage, a nightclub and cabaret off South Street. Martha’s sitting on the bar and leaning back into the bartenders’ space, legs up in the air so that her calves are balanced on the guy’s shoulders, wireless microphone in her right hand. She’s singing Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” — like, really singing it, powerfully, seriously, an emotionally naked song about desperation and fear, singing it in her strong, lovely voice, a spotlight piercing the dark and illuminating her face.

And part of the comedy here, part of the reason that all 100 people are laughing and clapping in surprise and delight, is that Martha’s not even looking at the guy who is struggling between her legs. Smiling but struggling as a friend or partner films it on her smartphone. Almost certainly a new experience for the guy, being this close to a drag queen, much less a drag queen like Martha: six-foot-two and hairy-chested, hairy-armed, hairy-legged; not a man trying to pass as a woman but a defiantly unmown lawn of a man in a blond pixie wig and a blue dress and six-inch heels that are now crossed behind the dude’s neck in a hammerlock as Martha’s guitarist and bassist and keyboardist and drummer play the Whitney Houston song and Martha sings:
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Tom Wolf: Perfect Stranger

The candidate in his home in Mt. Wolf. Photograph by Colin Lenton

The candidate in his home in Mt. Wolf. Photograph by Colin Lenton

In 1957, Tom Wolf and his father attended a baseball game at Connie Mack Stadium.

Wolf’s team, the Phillies, faced the St. Louis Cardinals, including Stan Musial, the player who broke Babe Ruth’s extra-base-hits record. The stadium announcer’s voice crackled through the loudspeakers, informing the crowd that anyone from Donora, Pennsylvania, Musial’s hometown, could get the slugger’s autograph when the game ended.

After the last out, Bill Wolf led his son to the visiting locker room.

“What do you think?” his father asked. “You want to go in?”

Fifty-seven years later, Tom Wolf would be the presumptive next governor of Pennsylvania. But that night, he was just an eight-year-old baseball-crazed kid standing mere feet from one of his heroes.

“No,” Tom replied. “We’re not from Donora.”

“They won’t know that,” his father said.

“No,” Tom repeated. “It wouldn’t be right.”

I hear this story from Wolf’s parents, Bill and Cornelia, at their rambling old country house in the borough of Mount Wolf, about eight miles north of York. The couple is in their 90s, dignified-old-money in every way, but the tale feels as though it hails from an even earlier time, reminiscent of apocrypha and legends like the one about George Washington and the cherry tree. There are other family fables about Honest Tom, and the Wolfs eagerly share them, delighted that their son’s virtue outdoes even their own.

The stories also echo Tom Wolf’s campaign narrative. A virtual unknown when the year began, Wolf blitzed the state with ads that declared him “not your ordinary candidate” and defined him in broadly likeable terms: South Central Pennsylvania kid. Highly educated, with a stint in the Peace Corps. Married to the same gal for 38 years. Two daughters. Started off driving a forklift in the family business, then took over, making it America’s largest supplier of kitchen cabinets.

He shared 20 to 30 percent of the profits with his employees, the ads tell us — and yes, that does sound virtuous. In 2006, he and his partners sold their majority stake in the company, and Wolf resigned and accepted a position as secretary of revenue under Governor Ed Rendell. He donated his government salary to charity and refused a state car, driving a dorky Jeep instead. He explored a run for governor in 2009, but he got a call from his old management team telling him the business he’d led for 20 years faced foreclosure. So Wolf tabled his political dream for a time and manned his old post, saving the family business and hundreds of jobs.

“I’m Tom Wolf,” he says, “and I’ll be a different kind of governor.”
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