Ori Feibush first parachuted into public consciousness last September, after he claimed a small plot of land adjacent to his brand-new OCF Coffee House in Point Breeze, the second in what is now a three-coffee-shop franchise. (Like his office space and his realty signage, they’re decorated in a jarring lime green.) Long vacant, the lot was strewn with trash and overgrown with weeds, so he spent close to 30 grand refurbishing it with park benches and cherry trees.
Trouble was, the land wasn’t his to fix up. Like nearly 300 other vacant lots in Point Breeze, this one was owned by the City of Philadelphia, which in August threatened to sue Ori for trespassing.
A month later, after the story broke, conservative outlets like Reason and TheBlaze picked up the delicious morsel of big-government lunacy. International papers like the Pakistan Daily Times couldn’t resist, either, while the hacker collective Anonymous shamed the city on YouTube. Ori added fuel to the fire using his company’s own real estate blog, NakedPhilly, eventually creating a website—PleaseFixPhilly.com—to document the brouhaha. “Lotgate” was born. (Bludgeoned by bad PR, the city eventually allowed Ori, who’d been trying to buy the spot for several years, to maintain the newly spruced lot on his own.)
A few months later, Ori’s name appeared in the papers again, after 35-year-old CHOP doctor Melissa Ketunuti was found dead and burned in her Rittenhouse apartment. He began rooting through video surveillance from his South Street coffee shop, eventually finding footage of Ketunuti being trailed by a man wearing a hat and jacket. An hour and a half further along on the tape, Ori saw him again, alone, looking “very, very different.” Using the tape, police caught the suspect (an exterminator) later that day.
For Ori, each parable fits squarely into a larger civic narrative: a shortage of surveillance cameras, a surplus of blighted city-owned vacant land, routine incompetence all around. For others, the Cory Booker act speaks to a larger truth: Ori’s doing the dirty work no one else wants to. “We’re not seeing enough people investing in Philly,” urbanist and development maven Greg Heller tells me. “I think he’s legitimately trying to develop a disinvested neighborhood.” Or as Matt Pestronk, another pugnacious developer, puts it, “He’s taking his money and fixing broken-down shit. Without him, neighborhoods like that fucking rot.”
Neighborhoods like Point Breeze, they mean. While many residents might bristle at Pestronk’s characterization, no other neighborhood so close to Center City has suffered from so much neglect in the past half-century. Though the area once bustled with a mix of white ethnic immigrants and African-Americans, by the late 1960s, those who could afford to were leaving in droves, and over the next few decades, the neighborhood spiraled into crime and drug-fueled disrepair, with dilapidated houses and crumbling sidewalks. Point Breeze Avenue at its peak boasted close to 200 shops; today that’s down to about 50, many of the hair-salon and Chinese-takeout variety.
The homes Ori’s built—along with his coffee shop, a restaurant, and a large-scale mixed-use project to come—represent the most significant private investment in Point Breeze in decades. “My only goal, my professional, my personal goal, is for the neighborhood of Point Breeze, which I consider my home, to be better,” says Ori, who enjoys showing me his meager coffee-shop receipts as proof of his altruism.
One Thursday night in March, I sit in on a packed neighborhood meeting at a Point Breeze church where plans to combat the twin scourges of rising property taxes and new development will be unveiled. When I tell one of the organizers, a wary middle-aged black woman named Theresa McCormick, that I’m writing about Ori Feibush, her face drops, and she demands I leave immediately.
After the meeting, once I’ve proved my impartiality by sitting far away from Ori, who’s also in attendance, McCormick explains her aversion. “He sells his properties at a rate that’s going to price us out,” she says, getting straight to the point. And then, as if addressing Ori directly, “And you’re not from here. You know, my family has been here since the 1920s.”
McCormick’s currently suing the Zoning Board of Adjustment, arguing that OCF Coffee House’s additional car traffic will impede the path of fire trucks. (Never mind that OCF has a mere 10 tables, and that most of its customers aren’t exactly fossil-fuel types.) She’s also a charter member of a small but influential group called the Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze, which routinely opposes new development and excels at oppo-flier-making. (Ori on CCPB: “Terrible, terrible people.”)
McCormick is right, though: In this neighborhood, Ori is an outsider. At the meeting, every resident except for a guy from Ori’s office and his wife is black. And Ori’s not some harmless old-timer who slept through white flight, either, like the stooped gentleman who attends a similar gathering a week later. Rather, he embodies statistics like these: Since 2000, the median sale price for a home in Point Breeze has jumped from $30,000 to $150,000. Ori is selling his three-story houses for about double that. Meanwhile, according to census data, the neighborhood’s black population has fallen by a fifth, and its white population has increased by about a third.
And while McCormick’s primary concern is economic, fears of an imminent culture shift are perhaps more pervasive. Lifelong resident Alice Gabbadon, youthful and chatty at 71, supports Ori’s progress; she and her former husband once ran several bakeries off Point Breeze Avenue, whose business corridor she used to manage. “He hasn’t done anything to me except make this neighborhood look better,” she says. But she can’t help but notice that he and his ilk are nothing like the Irish and Italian working-class families around which she grew up.
“Since they are a little more educated, they are a little more arrogant,” Gabbadon says. “I don’t know if they’re going to be the kind of neighbors who you can knock on the door and say ‘I need a cup of sugar.’ They’re usually busy, in and out, they’re riding their bicycles, they’re preoccupied with business and always have the cell phones.”
In this way, it doesn’t really matter that Ori moved to Point Breeze when he graduated from college, or that he’s building himself a house there now. What matters is that he moved from somewhere else in the first place.