Philadelphia is Ori Feibush’s World, We Just Live In It

In which a brash young gentrifier fights with the city, catches a murderer, calls Mayor Nutter a retard, accuses Jim Kenney of being drunk, and announces he wants to run for city council—all while transforming South Philly’s struggling Point Breeze neighborhood.

“I didn’t have a challenging childhood,” Ori tells me the first time we meet. “I’m not suggesting I was on the streets.” We’re eating dinner in Graduate Hospital, at Sidecar, whose outdoor tables Concerned Citizens once featured in an anti-gentrification flier. Ori has brought along his friend Steve, who chimes in once in a while to say things like, “He’s ahead of his time by 10 years.” Dressed in a gray suit that hangs a little limply off his slight frame, Ori looks older than he is. His hairline is retreating, and he exudes an air of weariness, as if always on the verge of a massive sigh.

The son of two Israeli immigrants, Ori was born outside Boston and grew up in Montgomery County’s Upper Dublin, comfortably middle-class. (His sister, a stay-at-home mom, still lives there.) His parents, now retired, were chemists who had moved from academia to corporate work. In high school, Ori says, he made straights C’s. According to his mother, Penina, he thought he was too smart to study, and spent all his free time running the Philadelphia chapter of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization.

Of the 11 colleges he applied to, Temple was the only one that accepted him. But there, he found his calling, graduating summa cum laude in 2007 and triple-majoring in economics, risk management and actuarial science. A little more than a year later, after a stint as an actuary in Princeton, he founded OCF, which serves at once as developer, broker and real estate agency. Ori claims Point Breeze was all he could afford, but his college buddy Joe Milicia thinks he chose the neighborhood because “hethought it could be good” and because “he wanted to prove people wrong.”

Despite Ori’s success, part of him still feels like the C-student kid of a couple of Ph.D.’s: “For them, real estate was always a sideshow until I became a doctor or an attorney,” he says.

Ori is acutely aware that his own parents grew up poorer than he did. (They also didn’t eat Omaha Steaks brand hamburgers in college, as Milicia fondly recalls Ori doing). Indeed, though the 20-odd Birthright trips he’s led in Israel speak to a deep affinity for his heritage, Ori bristles at the notion that his identity as “the Jewish kid from the suburbs” could possibly be relevant in the here-and-now.

“Listen,” he cuts me off atone point, after I’ve asked one too many questions about racial politics. “I’ve declined more interviews than I’ve accepted. And by more I mean, like, 20 to 1.” (Ori is prone to hyperbole.)

Why?

“It’s so easy for every reporter to get their soundbite. Every single reporter that’s ever covered me in Point Breeze has talked about the dead dog on our doorstep.”

What?

“Never mind.”

No, what?

He sighs. “My girlfriend and I came home and there was a dead dog on our doorstep.”

Was it a threat?

“Who cares!” he says, pissed-off now. “It’s not a white-black issue!”

That he’s a well-off white guy redeveloping a poor black neighborhood—irrelevant. That he’s trying to revitalize a commercial corridor that 50-some years ago was full of Jewish businesses, while blacks were being redlined—missing the point. A few token gestures—a flier depicting him as Mr. Burns, a flowerpot through his window, a dead dog on the doorstep—have been blown out of proportion, suggesting a culture war that isn’t there.

“This neighborhood used to be magnificent architecturally,” he tells me a couple days later, at his Point Breeze coffee shop. “It’s not white flight, it’s not the crack e­pidemic—it’s the city’s failed policies that interjected themselves and tried to correct a solution that the market would have corrected itself.” Ori pauses.

“So let’s say you had white flight, or black flight, or Asian flight. That could have lasted five, six, 10 years, and then another culture, the same culture, would have moved back in.” But instead, Ori argues, the city bought up abandoned homes, razed them, and sat on vacant lots for decades, letting neighborhoods fall into disrepair and depleting the stock of available housing. What broke Point Breeze, in other words, was a lack of supply, not a lack of demand. And Ori insists that what’s keeping it broken are politicians who’d rather appease fear-mongering anti-capitalists than build up their own neighborhoods.

Which is why politics, not race, Ori says, should be the focus of my story. And if I should make my story about race? “It’s like when your father says, ‘I’m not mad at you, I’m disappointed.’”

So, forcing my hand, he tells me he’s made up his mind to run for City Council.

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