Emanuel Freeman: The Man Who Duped City Hall

Freeman, a.k.a. The Buddha, was supposedly rebuilding Germantown. And even though project after project failed, political heavyweights—from Ed Rendell to Bob Brady to Michael Nutter—kept giving him our money. Lots and lots of our money.

Freeman rose quickly within Settlement. In 1972, at age 24, he was elected its first black board member. From his new perch, he recruited more black board members, until, by 1983, Freeman was no longer just a board member — he was executive director. The Quakers didn’t know what had hit them until it was too late: Freeman had pushed them out of their own organization. (“The Quakers didn’t see this racially,” says one black activist with a long history in Germantown. “By the time they realized what Freeman was doing, it was over.”)
Freeman began knitting himself into the broader political tapestry of the city. Mayor Wilson Goode named him to his housing task force, and in 1986, Freeman helped pick the city’s housing director. By the early 1990s, he was no longer some rinky-dink neighborhood guy; he was a player.

And next, he did what players do, which is to think big and build big. Along with his deputy, Melvin Burgess, a 300-pound bear of a man, Freeman embarked on an ambitious effort to transform Germantown’s bricks and mortar. So-called “community development corporations” have been doing this for decades. The model is straightforward: If you live in a run-down neighborhood, private developers won’t come in and transform it, because they don’t see any money to be made. So you get some tax dollars, hire some contractors, and start building and rehabbing homes yourself. If you build good homes, people will buy them at market rates, and then those private developers will want in. When CDCs are successful, as they’ve been in North Philly and Mount Airy, it’s a beautiful thing — economic necessity meets racial justice.

And for a time, Settlement got its tax-financed projects done: 87 units of elderly housing at Elders Place I and II; 228 apartments near the Germantown Cricket Club; Freedom Square, a retail development. Former Settlement employees say it was Burgess, a kind-hearted nuts-and-bolts accountant, who drove the company’s success — but it was Freeman who took the credit. By 1994, the Inquirer was calling him the “Willard Rouse of Germantown,” and the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore awarded him more than $3 million over several years to “reverse social isolation and disinvestment” in Germantown. The Casey grant was a game-changer, more steady money than Germantown had ever seen, and it was augmented by $300,000 in yearly “core operating support” from Rendell, who also connected Freeman with additional funds through a partnership with Mellon Bank and gave him a direct line to his powerful deputy, David L. Cohen. (Cohen e-mailed me, “My recollections on these issues are just not that strong.”)

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  • Alexander

    This article was superbly written, informative and revealing in the simple fact that Philly remains a very corrupt and close-knit city. And we thought that we had progressed from here!

    • Shirley Harrison

      It’s unfortunate, that the old regime will remain in power, hidden by a maze of corruption. and maleficent cronies. Emanuel took advantage of the trust, friendship, and respect, a neighborhood had for the Freeman family. He was raised by gospel singers and Pastors. In the same neighborhood he raped and pillaged.

  • Maxine

    I absolutely cannot believe the audacity of the public officials in this city. Here it is the City owes small business owners Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars for legitimate work that was done, and t

  • Stephanie

    I knew Emanuel “way back when” when community voter registration and self-determination were waves of the times. Having spent much of my adult life away from Philly, I didn’t know Emanuel had morphed from respected 1970s activist to greedy profiteer. I am so disappointed.

  • Lauren

    I read with great disgust the article “Emanuel Freeman: The Man Who Duped City Hall” earlier this week in Philadelphia Magazine. I’m infuriated at the waste, mismanagement, seeming corruption, and overall disregard for the residents—by not only Freeman, but also by the Northwest’s elected leaders – who are supposed to have their constituents’ best interest at heart.
    Freeman received $100 million over the last 20 years via grants, tax breaks and low-interest loans and what do we have to show for it? A walk through Germantown is appalling: downtrodden buildings, trash on the streets, failing businesses, underperforming schools, crime, empty lots. Is THIS what $100 million buys?
    Where would our community be today if that money was put to proper use? We could have better schools; thriving businesses; help for mothers and children; community organizations that actually HELP the community. In short, Germantown could be—and should be– a shining example for other neighborhoods in the city. What a wasted opportunity—especially for our youth.
    While Councilwoman Donna Reid Miller seems to have gotten the majority of the scrutiny, I demand to know where our other Northwest elected officials stand on this. My State Representative, John Myers, should be as infuriated as I…

  • Lauren

    yet so far we’ve not heard a single word from Myers on Freeman, Miller or their financial rape of Germantown. In fact, Jason Fagone’s article indicates that Myers is in bed with Miller, Freeman and others who’ve literally robbed the community. He writes, that Myers was part of “Settlement’s freshman class” and “had graduated to positions of real power in the city, thanks in part to Freeman’s connections.”
    And what’s more, despite everything, Freeman still believes he has a pipeline and working relationship with our elected officials. He wants Miller’s assistance to “embark on a significant venture” located behind the failing school he wasted taxpayer money on. What’s wrong with this picture and where does it end?
    It’s time that we demand better. Better for our children, better for working parents struggling to get by, better for our local businesses, better for our community as a whole. It’s time we demand more from our leaders. I am a professional working woman, a mother, a wife, a taxpaying resident and I now accept the challenge of being a community activist. I urge others to stand with me in a fight to demand that the funds invested in our district are put to…

  • Lauren

    good use and to begin to reinvest in Northwest Philadelphia — this time for real.

    Lauren Anderson Youngblood
    Community Activist

  • Steve

    The LAST thing we need is another Youngblood in office. She is just as corrupt as the others in this article, and sold her district away just to stay in office! Sorry, we will fight tooth and nail to make sure that NO Youngblood ever makes in in office again!

  • Pat

    If this article is of interest to you and you oppose the pillaging that has taken place in this great Philadelphia neighborhood, please check out a new Face Book page called Battle for Germantown and become a friend.

  • Enough’s Enough

    I observed Freeman and Settlement in action while working on site but for another employer. A dazed and confused finance wing, late paychecks, the hopeless charter school, and both Mr. and Mrs. Freeman’s aloof manner and fancy cars- all as bad as the article describes. I hope Freeman’s ride is over and other leaders can step up in Germantown.

  • Rozalind

    You won’t hear from John Myers because he was a part of it as well. He sits on the Board of Germantown Settlement and his wife was on their payroll for quite some time. So you should be appalled with him as well. Every last one of them needs to payback all the money they stole from the city and state. LISC had better take a look at their executive director as well, he’s the former COO of Germantown Settlement.