Deconstructing Bart Blatstein

Understanding Bart Blatstein's impact on Philadelphia is easy: He's the most creative developer this city has seen in a generation. Understanding the man himself? That's a whole different story.

AFTER BLATSTEIN SHOWS me his plans for North Broad Street, something shifts. “You’re over the barrier,” he tells me.

He stops there, as if I should understand exactly what he means. But the moment is so unexpected that I have no idea what he’s talking about.

“The barrier?” I ask.

“The barrier,” he repeats. “The barrier I had erected—between us. You’ve crossed it. I trust you now.”

At this juncture, it’s worth noting that Blatstein is like a cross between Woody Allen and Nixon—neurotic, vulnerable, secretive and controlling. The mind reels at the prospect that Blatstein might prove, like Nixon, tricky. Is the barrier singular, while beyond it lies the circle of trust? Or does the circle merely conceal a pit inlaid with many spears?

If you want to go looking for Bart Blatstein’s Rosebud, the influence that shaped his direction in life and will form his last breathy utterance, try “Harry.” Or “Oxford Circle.” Or “Boulevard Pools.” Indeed, mention “Boulevard Pools” and the reflex hits: Blatstein smiles. “I grew up around fun,” he says.

A vast entertainment complex where people could eat, sun, swim, ice-skate, play mini golf and hold special occasions in banquet halls, Boulevard Pools sounds like a rudimentary version of the community-oriented­ developments for which Blatstein is most admired. The complex also typified life in the area, around Oxford Circle, where Blatstein grew up. “It was magical,” says Blatstein. “It was safe, and everyone knew each other. You could walk, everywhere, even as a kid.”

Re-creating that has animated his work in Northern Liberties, he says. “The concept is the ‘five-minute community’—everything that sustains a family, within a short walk from the house.”

This upbringing united Blatstein with his architects on the Piazza project, Scott Erdy and David McHenry. Their initial meeting had been set up by one of Blatstein’s then-traditional adversaries in Northern Liberties, architect Tim McDonald. So Blatstein played hard to get. He told them he could make time for them if they came to his house. At the Shore. That weekend.

When they arrived, Blatstein introduced them to his massive barrier. “I had the sense we weren’t getting anywhere,” remembers McHenry. “I mean, he wouldn’t even invite us into the house.”

Instead, the pair started unfolding some of their ideas on Blatstein’s deck. An air show was taking place on the beach nearby. Blatstein stared into the sky the whole time they talked. And after an hour or so, he seemed ready for them to go. Then his wife, Jil, a sleek brunette with whom Blatstein has raised two children, came out with lunch.

Blatstein looked ill at the prospect of keeping company with the McDonald-recommended­ architects any longer. But at some point, McHenry stumbled over the magic words—“Boulevard Pools.”

Suddenly, the whole conversation pivoted. McHenry, too, had grown up in Northeast Philadelphia. “I can be stubborn,” says Blatstein, “but we kind of bonded over that.”

The truth is, for all his bluster, Blatstein is a softie. “I think what people don’t understand about Bart is that feeling himself to be a part of a community is really important to him,” says Matt Ruben, a longtime force in the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association. “He considers himself to be part of Northern Liberties—one of us. And it really means something to him, emotionally.” From Blatstein’s point of view, he may live on the Main Line, but his offices, his work and much of his soul are in Northern Liberties.

The man who built the childhood that has been so influential in Blatstein’s career is his father, Harry, who passed away in 2007 at the age of 85. “He was a very important man in Democratic political circles through the ’60s and ’70s,” remembers longtime Democratic operative Marty Weinberg. “And he was the sort of guy, even though his status was really high, who’d volunteer for any job. If you said, ‘Harry, we need to put out some lawn signs,’ he’d stand up and say, ‘Give them to me.’”

Harry Blatstein was a confidant to Philadelphia mayors James Tate and Frank Rizzo. He could rustle up campaign donations. He could pull in votes. One of the great, fate-begging­ tales of Bart Blatstein’s upbringing is that he was once scooped up from the carpet of a crowded fund-raiser at Boulevard Pools by Bobby Kennedy. “That was how we grew up,” says Blatstein’s brother Marc. “Kind of at the center of things.”

Harry Blatstein’s hustle and hard work earned him opportunities. During the building of Veterans Stadium, he was appointed stadium coordinator. He also came to own Boulevard Pools. And he put his sons, Marc, Bart and Rick, to work as soon as their legs could carry them.

If a man is to be judged by how his kids turn out, Harry Blatstein did well: His oldest, Marc, is a diabetes activist, having survived 50 years with a diagnosis of juvenile diabetes—a significant feat. Rick has suffered some ups and downs in business—first going big, then going bankrupt as a club owner—before finding a profitable niche managing airport restaurants at PHL, LaGuardia and others. And of course, Bart is a millionaire, competing for a slot next to Willard Rouse.

But along the way, Harry Blatstein suffered defeats. In the mid-’70s, he closed the legendary Boulevard Pools—unable to make a go of it financially any longer. And this was on the heels of receiving a year’s probation for soliciting a bribe in connection with the construction of Vets Stadium. “It was a very difficult time,” remembers Marc, “and it was particularly hard for Bart. He doesn’t like to talk about it—at all.”

Blatstein, in fact, flatly refuses to discuss any of his father’s public failures. But when a guy puts up as many barriers as Blatstein, he leaves his autobiography in the rougher hands of biographers—and his father’s up-and-down career does seem to speak to Blatstein’s guardedness, his thirst for control of every situation. What better way to avoid that kind of public pain than to engineer every detail?

It’s a trait that has served him well as a developer. But it’s likely a very difficult way to live—something Harry understood.

“Our father,” remembers Marc, “had a saying: ‘The only perfect man is a dead man. Because he’s made his last mistake.’”