The 10 Best Philadelphians
Marcie Turney & Valerie Safran
The empresses of the Gayborhood laugh when they talk about opening their shop Open House. That was 10 years ago, and there they were, selling quirky kitchenware and throw pillows on a block whose biggest draw was a showing of Dawson’s Crack at the gay-porn Samson Cinema. They closed shop at six every night, when the streets emptied.
The business story here is impressive: how, after the bank refused their loan request, they started Open House on Val’s credit card; how she paid the card off within the year; how they then opened Mexican hot spot Lolita, with chef Marcie (left) in the kitchen; how that snowballed into a nearby grocery store and three more restaurants, another boutique and a chocolate shop. Now Food & Wine writes about them.
More impressive, though, is this: In a city where what has been usually dictates what will be, in a neighborhood that nobody else wanted or cared about, two women came in and breathed change all over everything. There was no grand vision—it was just that it was their block, and they had ideas. Then Stephen Starr’s El Vez came; so did Capogiro. And suddenly, their unloved, unlovely swath of 13th Street wasn’t just the center of Philly; it was the heart. “What Marcie and Val have been able to accomplish, in such a short amount of time, is astounding,” Starr says.
Val simply says this: “We’re neighborhood people. And that’s what Philly is: neighborhoods. That’s why this all works.” —Christine Speer Lejeune
Todd Carmichael could just as easily make our list of Best Philadelphians who are hardly ever in Philadelphia. But when he’s off gallivanting on coffee business or his famous adventures—say, a solo trek across Antarctica—we forgive him, because he leaves behind the IV-worthy coffee from La Colombe, the roasting company he co-founded here in 1994, and his singing wife, Flyers muse Lauren Hart, to comfort us. And his journeys serve a civic purpose. He is one of the city’s best ambassadors, the reason the créme de la culinary world buys its beans here (three million pounds per year). More important, for a city that’s constantly being labeled fat and boorish, he presents an image of boldness and vitality. “I love the walkability of the city,” the 48-year-old Gladwyne explorer says, “but there’s a beautiful ring of neighborhoods around the city, too.” The guy who tests himself to extremes is challenging us to think differently about ourselves. Chef and restaurateur Marc Vetri, his friend for almost 15 years, values that fearless spirit. “Todd’s quest to do things the right way and make a difference is second to none,” he says. “Philadelphia needs more people like Todd.” —Janine White
In 1996, Agnew, now 34, dropped out of Drexel to pursue a career in the concert-promotion biz. He was a self-described “punk kid” booking loud, odd shows in warehouses and churches through his one-man R5 Productions, named for the SEPTA regional rail route he rode from his native Ardmore. “Sean has been bringing really cool, weird and big artists to Philly for more than 10 years, in all sorts of different venues,” says celeb DJ (and BlackBerry pitchman) Diplo. “If it wasn’t for him, Philly would be a lot less cool.”
In 2003, Agnew’s profile got a major boost when Harper’s published a cover-story takedown of concert behemoth Clear Channel, painting Agnew as David to the industry’s Goliath. His little business took off. “That was the tipping point,” he says.
Last year he opened the 1,000-person-capacity Union Transfer; on Memorial Day, he helped debut Morgan’s Pier. He’ll open Boot & Saddle, a smaller Broad Street venue, in 2013, all through a partnership with, among others, nightlife entrepreneur Avram Hornik. He continues to produce shows that most underemployed 20-somethings can afford—not for good karma, but for good business. “Keeping shows cheap is important, as it keeps folks coming for years,” explains Agnew. “It builds loyalty.”
Despite the success, Agnew has managed to retain his indie-guy vibe, though he does admit to recently buying a suit. Two, in fact. And that’s okay. We’re sure Larry Magid has a few hanging in his closet, too. —Victor Fiorillo
He is the man who lost the mayor’s race three times, and three times bitterly. But it turns out Sam Katz had an even higher calling: explaining Philadelphia to Philadelphians.
It all came about, as these things tend to, by accident: After watching documentaries on several other cities, Katz went looking for Philadelphia’s. None existed. This, he decided, would not do. So in 2008 he founded a production company, and has since created three stellar documentaries on our past, part of a planned 12-episode (plus 20 hours of other media, including webisodes and oral histories), $4.8 million series covering pre-Colonial days to the present. 6 ABC is airing it; the ultimate goal is to go national, to broadcast a perspective of Philly that goes deeper than the cheesesteak, or Andy Reid’s offense. “Sam is smart, caring, and committed to the best interests of the city,” says his onetime rival John Street. “There is no higher qualification to catalog its history.”
Katz, 62, is taking his abiding love of the city beyond filmmaking. He’s the CEO of USA250, a nonprofit aiming to make sure Philly is the focus of the nation’s 250th birthday in 2026—and to avoid the screw-up that was the Bicentennial. “Philadelphians beat the crap out of their city for all kinds of reasons,” he says. “But their sensitivity to their place in it is powerful. The more they know about it, the more they understand their own stories—black, Irish, Italians, female—and the more prideful they feel.” He should, too. —Michael Callahan
Joan Myers Brown
At 80, an age at which most of her peers are playing pinochle, the woman known to her students as “Aunt Joan” doesn’t appear to be slowing down much. She arrives at the West Philly studio of what may be her greatest creation, the 43-year-old dance company Philadanco, every morning around 8:30, before the rush of classes and rehearsals that will continue past 10 at night. Brown often stays well past 11, to keep the maintenance man company. “She lives, eats and breathes dance,” says dancer Brenda Dixon Gottschild, who recently penned a JMB biography. “She is the epitome of the Philadelphia work ethic.”
Over five decades, Brown managed to break down the color wall in modern dance. As a result, Philadanco has become not only a cornerstone of the Philly arts scene, but a national beacon as well. “People think I’m smart,” says Brown. “I get calls every day from people trying to start dance schools.” She offers practical advice—align with a community center or an active church—but what she really offers is hope. Hope that modern dance has room for performers of all stripes. That a career in the arts is still viable. “I address needs,” she says plainly. “There was a need for the company. There was a need for the school. That’s why I do what I do.” —Nick Vadala
Why do we love Jimmy Rollins? Because we always love a winner, and the man is a flat-out champ, no matter what the standings say. We love him, too, because of the way he plays—tough, hard, but like it’s fun. And of course we love him because he married a Philly girl, and because he chose to stay when he could have left.
But mostly we love Jimmy Rollins because he’s been unafraid to call us, the big bad nasty fans of Philadelphia, on our crap. “You get to a point where you’ve lived here long enough and understand the city well enough that you feel brave enough to say how you feel,” he says. Like the time he dubbed us all a bunch of front runners. Or the time after a playoff loss when he said that fans at the ballpark were “waay too quiet.”
Do we like this? Of course not. But from Jimmy, we’ll take it. Maybe that’s what we should be most thankful to him for—for reminding us that real love isn’t easy, for caring enough to boo us back, for giving Philadelphians something we’ve never really had: a grown-up relationship with a professional athlete. —Tom McGrath
Thirty-six years ago, Jim Gardner went to a Phillies game alone. He’d just moved here, didn’t really know anyone. It took three innings for the Phils to win him over. It didn’t take even that for Jim Gardner to win us over.
On May 11th, 1977, Gardner made his debut as the anchor of the 6 and 11 p.m. Action News telecasts. “His record of success is unprecedented in American television news,” says Gardner’s predecessor, the venerable Larry Kane. “He’s got great ethics. And that, to me, is very important in an era when television news has gone to shit.”
But while his reputation is Tiffany, it’s his presence on Twitter that’s endeared him to a new generation that has changed the channel on TV news. He tweets everything from sweater-vest jokes to why Cliff Lee needs a therapist. “Twitter is really the town crier out there with the bell,” Gardner says. “It’s the front line of telling other people stuff that’s happening. It’s exciting. It’s fun. And it gives me a wider range to express myself.”
For Philly’s hipsters, Gardner is proof that integrity still matters in an arena where not every 140-character alert that pings in your pocket is to be trusted. For a prior generation, he’s still literally the city’s anchor—a nightly reminder that before local news became a collage of chalk outlines, shell casings, fires and weather, it was a tie that bound us together. —Mike Bertha
Elena Delle Donne
In 2008, 18-year-old Elena Delle Donne, the number one women’s basketball recruit in the country, signed to play for powerhouse Connecticut. Then she changed her mind. As she hitched a ride home to Wilmington in the middle of the night, “I knew the entire basketball world would come down on me,” she says. “But that didn’t matter. It just wasn’t right.”
Delle Donne left the glitz of a national program because she couldn’t leave what mattered most: her sister, Lizzie, born blind, deaf, autistic and with cerebral palsy, with whom she shares a special connection based solely on touch and smell. That bond gave her the strength to come home. “I realized that as long as I was with my family, I could play basketball and love it,” she says. “But it just wasn’t worth having without them.”
She now plays for Delaware, 20 minutes away. In her three years, fan attendance has increased 250 percent; Delle Donne has been the MVP each season. This past spring, she led the Blue Hens to their first-ever victory in an NCAA tournament game. “Elena makes everyone else around her better players,” says Harry Perretta, the 34-year coach of rival Villanova. And better people, too. —Carrie Denny
Of all we can appreciate about Comcast CEO Brian L. Roberts, what we appreciate most is that he’s stayed in Philadelphia. He’s had endless opportunities to uproot his company for more glamorous climes, but though he’s heard it, he’s never heeded New York’s siren song. “Sometimes when we have meetings in other cities,” says Roberts, “I overhear someone say, ‘The team from Philadelphia is here.’ I love hearing that.”
As one would expect of a CEO, Roberts contributes to various philanthropic causes. But the biggest gift he's given us, through his company’s almost brazen acquisition of NBCUniversal, is the idea that Philadelphia doesn’t have to be the land of the acquired—that Philadelphia can own a chunk of New York. “Just walking into the Comcast lobby says a lot about Brian and the company,” says Microsoft legend Bill Gates. “It’s an amazing showcase of some very cool technology. Brian’s vision for technology—and how it could transform the cable business—was the reason we at Microsoft invested with Comcast.”
“We wanted to create a world-class headquarters,” Roberts says of his company’s towering building, “but we also wanted a place Philadelphians could be proud of and enjoy.” Mission accomplished. —Steve Volk