Feature: The Devil & Carl Greene

by Robert Huber | January 28, 2011 6:00 am

CARL GREENE CAN REALLY TALK. He’s been gone from Philadelphia for a few months now, but on this day a couple of weeks before Christmas, he shows up at his lawyer’s office near City Hall, materializing from his hideout in Maryland. Greene’s a bulky man in a dark gray suit, and at first his hooded eyes and wide mouth seem set in a smirk, as if he’s thinking, What do you want? But Carl Greene needs to talk. He needs to explain what he did for the people of Philadelphia.

“I probably relocated several thousand families in the time I was here. I’m talking four to five thousand families in the city of Philadelphia,” he says. “No one had ever done right by these people before — all community leaders wanted was to take care of themselves and their families. And no one really had the skill and commitment to turn around a mammoth housing authority like this ….”

The words go on, spinning rapidly and easily from Carl Greene, and they can be a little hard to take, at least if the allegations that have emerged about him in the past few months — which have cost him his job as head of the Philadelphia Housing Authority — are true. He’s been accused of sexually harassing women who work for him — charges he denies. PHA is being investigated by HUD and Congress for how it spent taxpayer dollars under Greene’s watch. He’s also been accused of throwing lavish parties for himself that employees paid for, and of being a nasty, overly demanding, vindictive boss. These things, too, he says are untrue, and he has initiated a lawsuit against the housing authority board, saying they had no right to fire him last September.

The problem is, there are many PHA staffers, current and ex, willing to tell more stories about Carl Greene. He was the sort of boss you never crossed, they say, for fear you’d come to work and find your desk moved out into the hall, or your salary slashed by $20,000, or that you’d been transferred to some PHA outpost in one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. I heard quite a bit about all those things, too.

Greene is 54 years old, with a large, open face. He was once a promising high-school football player, a linebacker headed for a scholarship. But now his left arm hangs, withered and useless, the result of an injury in a game when he was 17 that severed nerves in his shoulder and changed his life’s direction. Now, as his life is changing again, as he is accused of being a bad man, he has come back today to remind us of all he accomplished.

 

 “I never heard of any other housing authority that had the number of concurrent projects as the Philadelphia Housing Authority,” he says easily, smiling and showing off very large, very white teeth. “We had sort of a stunning transformation over a short period of time, going through all the really bad housing projects …. A lot of people across the country wanted to do the same, but what you won’t see is the same scale in any other city.”

 And here’s the thing: He’s right. Carl Greene rode in from Detroit a little more than a decade ago and demanded — through sheer force of personality — that his agency would no longer be a patronage dumping ground for Bob Brady and city council and ward leaders, that employees would come to work and really do their jobs and perform on a level that would remake public housing in this city.

There is plenty of hard evidence — the stuff of mortar and bricks — on how Greene changed the landscape of Philadelphia. How he improved the lives of 84,000 “customers,” as he calls them. How he not only rebuilt communities, but created senior centers and job training initiatives, and recently began pushing the housing authority into public education. Where there were drug- and crime-ridden high-rise towers in West and North Philly and East Falls, there are now functioning neighborhoods. Where PHA-owned homes blighted blocks in places like Spring Garden, they’ve been rehabbed. Where Section 8 housing was a horror in the Northeast, Greene trained owners and tenants in the art of joining a community.

Carl Greene will tell you, again and again, that he did all that — and so will a lot of other people. He was on a mission. Which, of course, only makes the other side, the apparent great divide in him, more perplexing: Why, Carl, why?

Greene has had a lot of time over the last few months to think, to come up with his own answer to that. He’s been in therapy, and it’s given him a language to explain himself.

“While you can bury things and not think about things and wrap yourself up in the present,” Carl Greene says, “the past is not far behind.”

BEFORE HIS LIFE BLEW APART LAST SUMMER, Greene seemed to be on top of the world. The extraordinary things he’d accomplished with PHA had given him stature nationally in public housing. And there was no sign of him letting up — he had some $200 million worth of new housing projects in the works.

The downfall began in August, when the Inquirer reported that his Naval Square townhouse, worth $615,000, was in foreclosure; Greene hadn’t made a mortgage payment in months. The previous December, the paper also reported, the IRS had filed a $52,000 lien against him for unpaid taxes on income earned outside of PHA. (Greene paid off the lien in March of last year.)

 

This was odd — the PHA financial whiz who was being paid more than 300 grand a year in financial trouble? It got odder: In the days after the story appeared in the Inquirer, Greene suddenly stopped coming to work. The PHA board couldn’t get in touch with him, nor could his PHA spokesman.

A few days later, Greene emerged to announce that he was taking a break from PHA and to offer, via the Inquirer, “my most humble apologies to the world.”

His problems got worse the following week: It came to light that PHA insurers had agreed to settle a sexual harassment suit against him for $250,000. Then, a few days after that, we learned that PHA had agreed to settle three other sexual harassment suits against him, without the board’s knowledge, for a grand total of almost a million dollars. Greene was toast. On September 23rd, the PHA board — led by former mayor John Street — fired him.

When someone close to him — as close, at any rate, as Carl Greene would allow anyone — was finally able to get him on the phone at his townhouse, Greene was largely incoherent, not making sense at all. The friend thought that everything, including 12 years of nonstop pressure to reform the authority, had caught up to Greene and that he was cracking up. His lawyer, John Esty, soon escorted Greene to an inpatient treatment facility in Maryland.

It is really not all that unusual, of course, for men of some accomplishment to be exposed for being personal train wrecks. We love discovering the bad behavior, even as we find the extremes residing in the same person stupefying.

A PHA executive who worked closely with Greene says that he was “a revelation.” But not in the good sense: “Here’s a guy I’m watching up close every day, doing great things, but being a bastard at the same time. In my view of the world, a guy doing great things would be an equally great guy behind the scenes.”

But is that ever the case? Not here, it seems, not by a long shot. But like any downfall, it’s not so simple — trouble had been building for a long, long time.

If you first take a look at what Greene confronted coming in as the savior of our public housing — it’s really pretty astounding, the challenge he took on, when he arrived in town.

 

Ed Rendell hired Carl Greene away from Detroit’s housing authority to run Philadelphia’s in 1998, near the end of his second term as mayor. (Greene had been sued for sexual harassment by one of his employees in Detroit — a case that was later settled — and Rendell dispatched a lawyer to check into it; the Mayor concluded that it would not be a recurring problem.) PHA, which had 2,700 employees and owned or controlled 22,000-plus properties — many unusable — had long been a cesspool of patronage and inefficiency and neglect.

If you were a PHA tenant with, say, water leaking into your kitchen, it would take an average of 200 days for anybody from Housing to come take a look at it. PHA workers didn’t much care. Many of them, Greene found, had all kinds of family working there — sons and daughters and cousins and so forth. The city’s political culture had installed workers with a sort of lifelong tenure.

Moreover, the authority’s computer systems were ages behind, the business practices outdated, and enforcement of basic workplace expectations — such as coming in to work every day and actually working — nonexistent.

His first day on the job, Greene showed up at 6:30. His employees began straggling in at 9:30, 10. So for the next six months, he called a meeting every morning at 7:30 with different groups of workers. He created a new organizational chart. He regularly dressed down employees in meetings if he felt they were unprepared — workers would sometimes leave meetings and walk right on out of the building, never to return. Within a year, most of the senior staff was gone. It was the only way to change the agency’s culture: Shred it.

Greene’s explanation of his management style is — well, it is this: “I look at the concept of love, and I look at the concept of evil, and I don’t think that either of them were part of my standards. I think accomplishments, numerical and statistical measurements of accomplishment — I had success or failure, as opposed to love and evil.”

Greene was, at any rate, fearless. He says he had an early meeting with Congressman Bob Brady, who told him, “I want the entry-level jobs. I always get the entry-level jobs.” Greene didn’t even know what Brady was talking about at first. But he quickly caught on to what was happening — patronage — and pressed his only point of power: He owed the political culture nothing.

One of his first tasks in his first month in Philly, when he was still commuting back to Detroit three days a week, was to address public housing in Spring Garden — nearly 100 rowhomes scattered around the neighborhood; they were a thorn in the area’s gentrification. The local civic association wanted control of PHA properties. So did Vince Fumo, who owned a mansion at 22nd and Green. So did council president John Street, whose district it was. Rendell just wanted the problem to go away.

Greene had to hit the ground running. At his first Spring Garden community meeting, he was sworn at in at least two languages: The Latinos and Puerto Ricans who lived in PHA houses were sure they’d be forced out of the neighborhood. There would be many more meetings, where Greene would preach his gospel over and over: The tenants would be moved while their homes were rehabbed, then brought back. They were not being pushed out.

 

Meanwhile, Fumo took Greene aside after one neighborhood meeting to tell him, “If this doesn’t work out, we’re going to take over the PHA, and we’re going to blow it up.”

Greene was undaunted. He understood that Fumo, Street, Rendell — they all wanted what was right from one perspective or another. Then there was his perspective. “I wanted them to allow me to do it my way — proper procurements, bids, selection of contractors, and protection of residents,” he says. “My way. I’m the trained professional in public housing.”

But Spring Garden — not to mention the mess of an agency that he inherited and the politics he had to wade through — all that came at him when he was still commuting from Detroit. Before Carl Greene was even living in Philadelphia. Which makes you wonder: Who would even want that job?

CARL GREENE, you might say, was born into it. He grew up in public housing in Washington, D.C., the seventh of eight children. The older six had one father, Greene had another, and his younger brother had a third. “The last time I saw my father,” Greene says, “I was three or four years old. I couldn’t tell you what he looked like.”

He always felt like he was on his own. But he says he was “good at resource development”: When he was seven years old, Greene collected bottles in a little red wagon to return for deposits. He delivered papers. He had summer jobs.

Greene got the attention he craved through school and sports, and he was very good at both. In fact, he was a high-school football star, a linebacker who by his senior year was receiving letters from schools, feelers for scholarships, maybe his ticket out of poverty. But a week after being named local high-school player of the week by the Washington Post, Greene hurt his arm in practice. Pushed by coaches to suit up for a game, he severed nerves in his shoulder and lost the use of his arm. Over the years, it has atrophied and now hangs, with his hand, tiny and curled, turned out from his body. Eventually, Greene would sue his high school and win $1.5 million.

The injury spun him into a severe depression. There was no one to help him — his mother had never even bothered to attend one of his football games when he could play. Greene cobbled enough aid together to attend the University of Maryland, but he was isolated there, too. He didn’t date. He didn’t join a fraternity. He didn’t feel “a connection to the rest of the world physically.”

His junior year, Greene headed to Key West during spring break to visit an old neighborhood friend, then stayed for another month, hanging out on the beach, eating crabs. He was still severely depressed, and at risk of simply giving up. But he returned to the University of Maryland, finished his degree in 18 months, got a management accounting job with the Washington, D.C. lottery commission and then one with the D.C. housing authority. He’d decided to run hard toward success. Greene would move on to the housing authority in Atlanta, then become the head of housing in Detroit in 1995 at age 39.

 

“I was trying to do good in measurable ways,” Green says now, “so that I could get that positive interaction from people.”

Just as he did as a little boy, through sports, through getting good grades. Winning praise, and a place in the world. But the psychic pain of his injury and isolation never went away, and it’s still palpable, as chronic physical pain, in his left arm.
But Greene didn’t just bury himself in work; the nuts and bolts of PHA became his emotional life. I confirmed with him that he has never married — I had heard the rumor within the agency that Greene is secretly wed to a senior employee.

“No, I never married,” he says. Then, in the next breath: “But I dedicated my life to achieving things and making things happen, and understanding systems and building systems, and understanding technology and building technology, and making infrastructure and systems work. Part of what you see at PHA today is an infrastructure. You see technology, you see buildings built with community centers and health centers, and supports, a whole infrastructure that — ”

I interrupt to ask a question: “Has there been anyone in your life you could go to, to talk about how you really felt?”

Carl Greene is uncharacteristically silent for a moment. Then, very softly, he answers: “No.”

OVER THE YEARS, Madeline Rodriguez has worked a variety of jobs at PHA, and sometimes quite closely with Carl Greene. A few days before Christmas, she tells me a story, with her lawyer listening in, about something she says happened back in 2001, when she was an assistant general manager.

One afternoon, Madeline got a call on the cell phone that Carl Greene had given her. Even though she was conducting a meeting with other managers, she excused herself, went out into the hall and took the call. Carl Greene had told her she had to answer that phone whenever it rang.

Greene told Madeline to come downstairs — she was at a Section 8 office near 30th and Market — to see him. Never mind the meeting. So Madeline excused herself, grabbed her jacket — leaving her purse behind — and left.

 

At this point, three years into his tenure at PHA, Greene had taken complete control of the workforce. He was upgrading technology; he was working various channels to procure wads of funding from the city and state and feds. The old public-housing towers that had plagued Philadelphia forever were coming down, and Greene was beginning to build his modern, low-rise, integrated-into-the-communities housing. The authority was, in fact, becoming a developer itself, which gave Greene more control and opened up avenues for financing. And the Spring Garden project was well into Phase I, with the rehabbing of 30 homes.

Madeline says that on that day in 2001, when she went outside, Greene was waiting with his black Crown Victoria, his driver Tony up front, the car running. The rear door was open. Greene told her to get in. Tony started driving.

“Where are we going?” Madeline asked Greene. She was shaking.

“Don’t worry,” Greene told her. He began asking, nonchalantly, how she had been, how her two young children were. How was her husband doing? He wondered how she felt, making more money than her husband.

Less than a year earlier, Greene had promoted her to work in an office next to his. He demanded that they meet every day, that she check in with him every afternoon. Sometimes Greene wasn’t ready to meet until eight or nine at night. She told him she had to get home to her children. He would wonder what was more important, her family or her career. And Greene always seemed to single her out at company holiday parties. He would burst through a group of people to hug and kiss her. Sometimes he tried to kiss her on the lips. Madeline was nervous being alone with him.

Now they were on 95, heading south — she still didn’t know where they were going. Tony wove through a traffic jam by turning on the Crown Vic’s police lights.

They were headed to Washington. A new HUD secretary had been appointed, and Carl Greene was giving a speech.

In D.C., Madeline was put in the back of a big conference room; Greene sat up front. She slipped out to a bathroom and called her husband to tell him where she was.

“What the hell are you doing there?”

Madeline didn’t have much of an answer. Carl Greene was her boss. She would do what he told her, to a point. She loved working for PHA.

After the speech, Greene paraded Madeline around, introduced her. Then Tony dropped them off at a nice restaurant — Madeline can’t remember the name — where, she says, Greene ordered wine and encouraged her to drink. She sipped it slowly, only half a glass. She told Greene she had to get home. He told her that her husband could take care of the kids.

 

Finally, they drove back to Philadelphia and Tony dropped her off where her car was parked. Greene got out too. At her car, he wouldn’t let her close her door. He bent down, his face near hers, waiting — he seemed angry. Finally he kissed her on the cheek, and Madeline pushed him away and got out of there.

Greene demoted Madeline to a dangerous PHA outpost — 4th and Huntingdon. She says he threatened to fire her. But she didn’t quit.

MADELINE RODRIGUEZ never filed any charges against Carl Greene, who, through his attorney, denies what she alleges — denies any unwanted advances, denies demoting or threatening to fire her. But if her story is true, there is no turning back from behaving that badly. It colors, and controls, everything.

The shame of that is, the harder you look, the greater the loss of Greene seems for the city. One day in December, I take a drive around Spring Garden with Pat Freeland, head of the neighborhood’s civic association and a big believer in Greene. She plays a game with me on the 1900 block of Wallace, where we idle past elegant 1890s-era rowhouses: Can I figure out which houses are owned by PHA?

It’s immediately apparent: The PHA houses are the nicest ones, with redone Victorian fronts, repointed brickwork, original-looking window treatments.

Freeland and I visit Minnie, an African-American woman of a certain age, on Mt. Vernon. Minnie was one of the beneficiaries of the renovations here that Greene took on when he first came to Philadelphia. She used to live up the street, in another PHA property. Her redone living room is fresh and white and homey, filled with pictures of family. “This block was rough,” Minnie tells us. “Drug dealers. Shootings. Bullets flying past. It’s safe now. It’s a blessing to feel safe.”

Imagine: public housing helping usher the drug dealers somewhere else.

It’s the same story deep in West Philly, at the Lucien Blackwell Homes, between Brown and Fairmount. Greene took a classically awful public housing project — three ’50s-era high-rises with a central courtyard, largely abandoned — and built 627 units, an oasis in an otherwise blighted area. One Saturday in December, I stop a mailman there and ask about drugs in the projects. He thinks for a moment, then cites one corner of PHA housing, on 46th, as having some action, “but for the most part, it’s not bad around here. It’s definitely safer because of Blackwell Homes.”

 

When I ask Greene about Blackwell Homes, he launches into an explanation of planning and applications for funding from the city, state and federal government, and dealing with myriad political players, and “You’ve got to deal with the planning commission, deal with the water department, streets department, Licenses and Inspections, gotta deal with the Redevelopment Authority if you’re using land they own …. ”

Listening to this — which is just the tip of the iceberg — I have two reactions. One is how amazingly complicated these projects are. The other is how Greene clearly slipped into the fray of rebuilding public housing as if entering a warm bath. It’s where he lives — or lived. It was his life and his lifeline. And he was still pushing, at Blackwell Homes — pitching schools head Arlene Ackerman on building a community center and a dorm near a high school where disadvantaged kids might live — until his world fell apart.

THE GREAT AND THE UGLY
don’t reside as two separate parts of Carl Greene. While it’s tempting to divide him in two, the driven housing czar who’s a mess of a person, it’s really the case that Greene, like the rest of us, is a jumble of his best and worst.

I heard a story about Greene losing control a few years back, when he brought in consultants to teach senior staff how to constructively criticize each other. The consultants had each of the 25 or so people in the conference room write his name on a piece of paper. The papers were put into a hat. An employee would draw a name, go up to that person, and deliver a critique of his workplace performance.

The lawyer who drew Carl Greene’s name told him that he was a great, inspirational leader, but that it would be nice if he could be a little … a little less demanding. A little more sensitive and understanding of others. And that she wished he wouldn’t yell so much.

 Greene accepted this with equanimity. Or seemed to. But after a lunch break, he dismissed the consultants early and commandeered the microphone. He spoke for an hour and a half, his annoyance escalating into rage. He yelled and ranted, spit flying from his mouth, as he lashed into the lawyer for attacking him. “A good organization doesn’t have people criticizing each other …. What do you mean, I yell too much? Where does that come from? Who said I yell too much?”

 

It was a chilling performance, though when I ask him about it, Greene says that he didn’t “think that I was personal,” and tells me again and again, talking faster and faster, the problem was that “I really can’t pretend to be equal — my training should be among other CEOs, not in that kind of environment.” The lawyer he confronted, Sybil Bryant, still lives in Mount Airy, but quit working for PHA. She now commutes up the New Jersey Turnpike to Newark’s housing authority, nearly two hours away from Carl Greene.

He was a horror of a boss. But there’s another explanation, one that doesn’t excuse Greene’s behavior but attempts to understand his vulnerability: There was no division in Carl Greene, between the person and the housing executive. He lived his job. Which is what made him transcendent on the nuts-and-bolts level of it.

But, more sensitive? More understanding?

It was very simple. Sybil Bryant wasn’t trying to give advice. She wasn’t performing an exercise that Greene himself had set up.

She was attacking Carl Greene where he lived. And of course he couldn’t stand idly by and let that happen.

THE PAST
, Greene says, is not far behind. He also says, “I don’t know that I ever really repaired my identity and who I built my psychology around being. I don’t know that I ever really repaired that.”

Now Greene has reemerged to sue the housing authority board for wrongful termination. A former PHA executive says that, in denying the sexual harassment allegations, Greene claims that those suits are common against CEOs of big organizations, that they’re typically brought by a disgruntled employee, or one who misread interpersonal signals, or one out to make a buck.  

It’s a bad end all the way around. Ed Rendell, who brought Greene to the city in the first place, calls his firing “a tragedy for the people in public housing and the people of Philadelphia.”

Though Rendell, too, was not ignorant of Greene’s more difficult side. Early on, a
story circulated that a particular PHA employee on whom Greene had been very, very hard went home on a Friday and dropped dead of a heart attack. So Rendell’s standard greeting of Carl Greene became: “Hey Carl, did you kill anybody today?”

Great men, after all, are not good.

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