It’s 10 to six on a Saturday night, and Ori Feibush and I are stuck in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike.
“Don’t quote my cursing,” he says somewhere near Newark, berating himself for being in the wrong lane. “My mother will kick my ass for that.” After several weeks of impossibly rude statements about important Philadelphians, this is Ori’s first attempt to strike something from the record.
At the helm of a weeks-old Mini Cooper, Ori’s a little jittery tonight. Could be because he’s on his third cup of coffee. Or because he ditched plans to see Blue Man Group with his girlfriend so he could take me to a boxing match in Brooklyn. Or maybe, over the course of our three-hour road trip, he’s just begun to wonder if he’s said too much.
“I feel like your story would be better off just being Twitter hashtags, just little one-liners by Ori,” he says. It’s not a bad idea. Two nights ago, over beers, discussing the city’s controversial new property- tax assessment plan, he told me that Mayor Nutter should have been President Obama’s “Chief Retard,” and that the Mayor looks like “Shredder from Ninja Turtles.” Also on his radar: “racist” community activists, imbecilic newspaper reporters, and an empty-suit politician “preying” on his constituents.
“Forgive me,” he continues, back in the car now, “but I just live in a world where people say exactly what they’re thinking.”
Ah, yes. Ori’s world. Where doing business with boxer Bernard Hopkins secures you floor tickets to the light-heavyweight championship of the world. Where you receive more attention for cleaning up a vacant lot than you do for catching a murderer. Where you pack heat to walk to the neighborhood gastropub. Where you say … exactly what you’re thinking.
In the span of just a few years, 29-year-old Ori Chaim Feibush has become the most influential developer in South Philadelphia’s blighted Point Breeze neighborhood, injecting it with a dose of sorely needed investment. Since 2008 he has helped develop close to 200 relatively pricey new rowhomes, attracting scores of white, educated 20- and 30-somethings to a section of town, just south of Graduate Hospital, that otherwise might never have been on their radar. But while Ori’s efforts have won him praise citywide, they’ve made him persona non grata in his own backyard—particularly among Point Breeze’s mostly black longtime residents, some of whom worry about being priced out of their homes. Put another way, Ori is a near-perfect embodiment of a new generation of brash young urban “pioneers” whose proliferation into Philadelphia’s poor and working-class neighborhoods has created a bitter tension between the promise of revitalization and the fear of displacement.
But this isn’t just the story of an iconoclastic entrepreneur thumbing his nose at the establishment, and playing Pied Piper to a generation of gentrifiers. Because Ori Feibush wants entry into another world, too. And in that world—the world of city politics—insulting public officials and breaking laws (usually) isn’t tolerated, and pissing off all your neighbors is an actual liability, because you need them to, you know, vote for you.
Last fall, during the fleeting international phenomenon known as “Lotgate,” Ori wrote an open letter to the city’s Redevelopment Authority titled, “Help Us Save the City From Itself.” The word choice was ironic. Because as he prepares for his next big fight, the enfant terrible of Philadelphia real estate has also become his own worst enemy.