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?

MO-college-shakeout-940x540

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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Why Am I Paying $110,000 a Year in College Tuition?

The author in one of his more desperate moments. Photograph by Adam Jones

The author in one of his more desperate moments. Photograph by Adam Jones

There are some jobs I would love to have. Professional baseball player. Writer for Saturday Night Live. U.S. Congressman. With the exception of baseball (I’m only five-foot-six, unfortunately), I think I’d be pretty good at those jobs. But you know what job I’d be really good at? Running a university or college.

I’ve navigated my 10-person company profitably through the economy’s ups and downs over the past 20 years. And now I have the “pleasure” of paying my kids’ college tuitions as all three of them enter their sophomore year. Yes, all three at once. Two go to state colleges (one in-state, the other out-of-state), and one goes to a private university. Total tab: $110,000 a year.

My kids love their schools. They’re happy. I’m happy that they’re happy. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. And from what I’ve seen over the past year, as both a parent and a business owner, there is lots of room for improvement. A university president? Me? Here’s what I’d do if given the chance.
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How to Skip College — and Thrive

Grace at her South Philly home. Photograph by Adam Jones

Grace at her South Philly home. Photograph by Adam Jones

The lecture hall is packed. The elephant-gray room is set up like a mini-arena to allow for maximum capacity and good acoustics. It’s new but generic — there are probably a million of these very same tank-like spaces in universities around the world. The concrete step I’m sitting on cuts into my back as I shuffle my feet to make room for the other kids and parents who are streaming in. My mom — in her usual chic all-black attire — is perched above me; my friend Carlo and his mom are on a step right below. We are at McGill University in Montréal, the first stop on our college tour — a high-school student’s version of online dating, where we pick out some colleges we think we would like, schedule a visit, and see if sparks fly.

We look toward the middle-aged speaker, one of McGill’s top faculty members. As he rattles on about the perks of being a student here, I feel myself pull away, hearing only background noise — the audience laughing at a joke, someone standing up to ask a question. I can focus only on my quickening breath, attempting to slow it down. None of this feels right.

The program ends, and the crowd surges out of the room, chatty and eager to attend the next lecture. We make our way out the front door, and I’m blasted with a gush of arctic air. Thank God it’s cold here, I think; I can bury my face in my scarf and my hands in my pockets — no one can see that my lips are pursed tightly together, that my jaw is clenched, that my hands are in fists, that I’m doing everything I can to not cry.

We go to a French bistro for lunch, and I excuse myself to the bathroom. The lock on the heavy wooden stall door clicks, and the battle is over: My face is soaked with tears, and my mind is racing. This is supposed to be my time, the first chapter of my adult life. This isn’t nervous energy I’m feeling; it’s just plain dread. People are always reminiscing about their college days — the adventure, the possibilities, the freedom, the emotional evolution. All I can see is a socially acceptable prison.

I fake my way through lunch. We talk about junior-year exams, about which summer jobs would improve our college applications. All I want to do is something real, something meaningful, something new. As the waiter brings our check, I wonder how much he makes a year, and if it’s enough to live on. I try to figure out a way to tell my mom that all of this isn’t right for me. That college isn’t the answer to my dissatisfaction about high school. I had imagined college would be different — challenging classes, worldly people, professors who are passionate about teaching. But today had been a profound first date: I couldn’t sit in another classroom. I wanted to really learn.

This overwhelming stream of emotions was the inception of a clear and sudden reality: I wasn’t going to college.
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Bonus Slideshow: The Working Dog Center

Enjoy these behind-the-scenes shots from the Working Dog Center, featured in “This Puppy Could Save Your Life” in the September 2014 Philadelphia magazine.



Philadelphia Pop-Ups Are Why We Can’t Keep Nice Things

Illustration by Nick Massarelli

Illustration by Nick Massarelli

If any one thing cinched Spruce Street Harbor Park as the summer’s best pop-up, it was probably the hammocks — dozens of them scattered in the shade, cocooning people reading or napping or making out. The sprawling swatch of riverfront, complete with swan boats and floating barges and water lily gardens, was so picturesque that it felt more like the Hollywood set of a park than it did an actual park nestled on the southeastern edge of Philadelphia, within spitting distance of the I-95 on-ramp.

If this were a movie set, it would be for one of those cheery rom-coms, the type where the city is all twinkle and no grit. (In essence: More Nora Ephron than Woody Allen.) Just look! Down the river there’s a boardwalk lined with shipping crates that hold hot-dog vendors and games like air hockey; behind that, children play with four-foot-high chess pieces and venture barefoot into a wading fountain. Around them, dozens of park-goers are sprawled out on beach chairs or waiting in line for a Jose Garces truffle-and-cheddar burger, while park employees hand out maps and greet newcomers: “Hi there, welcome to Spruce Street Harbor Park.”

That this place appeared to draw and delight every possible demographic is no wonder, really. The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, collaborating with David Fierabend from Groundswell Design Group, did such an amazing job creating this $600,000 shaded Shangri-la that upon entering, you forgot it was very recently a boring swath of nothingness sandwiched between the Independence Seaport Museum and the USS Olympia. You forgot that behind those greeters is the rest of the city, where people sit in airless cabs, where planters are dead-bolted to front porches. And you forgot, until too late, not to fall in love with this place that will eventually vanish as quickly as it popped up, like a vaguely hipster Brigadoon. (Update, 8/27: You now have a one-month reprieve — the new closing date is September 28th.)

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Killer Wasps

killer-wasps-cover-amy-korman-400x602When antiques store owner Kristin Clark stumbles upon Barclay Shields, Bryn Mawr’s newest real estate developer, lying unconscious beneath the hydrangea bushes lining the driveway of one of the area’s most distinguished estates, the entire town is abuzz with intrigue and gossip.

In this excerpt from Amy Korman’s new novel, Killer Wasps, Kristin and her three best friends — Holly, a glamorous chicken nugget heiress with a penchant for high fashion; Joe, a decorator who’s determined to land his own HGTV show; and Bootsie, a preppy but nosy newspaper reporter — have joined forces to solve the crime. And since they’ve been invited to a cocktail party at the home of Barclay’s soon-to-be-ex-wife Sophie Shields — well, what can they do but go to the soiree, drink, and snoop?

The debut novel by Korman, a former Philly Mag senior editor, is available from Witness Impulse on September 16th.

“THESE ARE MY FRIENDS, Holly Jones and Joe Delafield,” I said to Sophie. “Sophie Shields,” I added unnecessarily to Holly and Joe. “And you know Bootsie.”

“Good to meet you. And nice to see you, Beebee,” Sophie added to Bootsie, who nodded and then rudely took off, making a beeline for the house with a determined look.

“I think she’s hungry,” I explained, embarrassed. I knew exactly what Bootsie was up to. It had nothing to do with the buffet, and everything to do with rummaging through Sophie’s belongings.

“Your friend with the flowered outfits doesn’t waste any time!” giggled Sophie good-naturedly, watching Bootsie dash past the loaded hors d’oeuvres table and up a flight of stairs into the house. “I guess she must need to use the little girls’ room! ’Cause the party’s outside, not inside. But that’s okay!” The only thing Bootsie was interested by in the bathroom were the contents of Sophie’s medicine chest, and that would be only the first stop on a full forensic snooping tour of the house. Hopefully Sophie didn’t mind Bootsie rifling through her shoe cabinets and flinging open the drawers of her nightstands.

“This is so nice,” I said to Sophie, gesturing to the pool, where more guests had arrived, including Honey Potts, in a Bermuda-shorts ensemble, and Mariellen Merriwether, in her usual tasteful linen dress accessorized with opera-length pearls. The Colketts were there, too, futzing around with some potted boxwoods.

“You look amazing!” I added to Sophie, not sure what else to say about her appearance. She looked attractive enough, to be sure, but amazing was the best I could muster up at the moment.

“It’s Versace!” blinked Sophie. “Listen, I gotta go mingle, but I’m so glad you came over to my humble abode!”

“Speaking of which,” said Joe smoothly, “Sophie, who’s your decorator on this, um, fabulous place? Let’s get a drink.” He took her arm and guided her down to the pool as he started his pitch.

“Sophie’s husband has mafia ties!” I hissed to Holly as soon as Sophie was out of earshot. “That is, he probably does.” I gave her a quick update as we made our way along a slate walkway flanked by Colkett-installed peonies.

“I love it,” said Holly happily. “This town is seriously lacking in organized crime. Just think of how great it would be to have an occasional drive-by shooting!” I was about to remind her that we weren’t exactly Drea de Matteo and Edie Falco, but she’d lost interest already.
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