Sitting behind a big wooden desk on the fifth floor of City Hall is the man Ori would run against in two years, freshman councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who represents a wide swath of Center City and South Philadelphia. Johnson, 39, grew up in Point Breeze and lives there now, a block from Ori’s coffee shop. Two staff members sit behind us, one of them recording our conversation. They know that their boss, who won his 2011 primary by just 46 votes, is vulnerable. But Johnson, bored and fiddling with his cell phone, doesn’t seem overly concerned with his antagonist.
“Why, as an elected official, would I want to go after someone who wants to do development?” he asks, frowning. “This whole ‘Kenyatta don’t like me’ approach is something he concocted, not me.” One prominent developer who knows them both agrees, telling me that Johnson has always been willing to extend the olive branch.
But Ori sees Johnson the way Dreyfus sees Inspector Clouseau in The Pink
Panther—as a mortal enemy he can’t quite live without. He Googles him enough that during the Kenyan elections in March, he grew frustrated when he kept drawing search results about president Uhuru Kenyatta. The litany of insults Ori lobs at Johnson is too burdensome to provide in full, but here’s a sampling:
- “I look at somebody like Kenyatta as somebody who actively is engaging his staff in harnessing his power for evil.”
- “I think the word … is ‘poverty pimp.’”
- “He’s just a terrible human being.”
After letting Ori finish one such tirade, I ask him for an example of some bad councilmanic behavior. He offers this: When his coffee shop first opened in Point Breeze, it was subjected to highly tedious health and L&I inspections at least once a week for a month, a move he thinks Johnson was behind. (When presented with the charge, the Councilman laughs it off and denies it, along with a host of similar accusations, none of which Ori can prove.)
When I suggest to Ori that he hasn’t exactly given me a smoking gun, he tells me he’s got something bigger. Much bigger. “I’ll give you one example,” he says. “And so you know I’m not full of shit, I’ll give you the transcript.”
Several weeks later, he shows up outside my office in the Mini and rolls down his window, handing me a thick, bound legal document: Commonwealth v. Rayti Myers, January 6th, 2009. It’s a transcript from a sentencing hearing for a kid convicted of beating a guy over the head with a chair until part of his ear fell off.
According to the court transcript, Myers was a member of the brutal Point Breeze gang M16. Despite that, and despite the fact that Myers was facing a charge of attempted murder in a separate case, Johnson wrote a letter of support to the court in which he called Myers a good kid and noted that he’d recently participated in Johnson’s Peace Not Guns program. (Johnson’s spokeswoman says the Councilman has dashed off many letters for Peace Not Guns alumni in the past and doesn’t remember Myers, who’s currently in prison.)
To Ori, the case is an example not just of Johnson’s questionable behavior, but of something bigger: the way City Hall operates on an economy of political favors. It’s a situation Ori finds so intolerable that he has no choice but to speak out. “My political banter is an extension of my commitment to reforming the system that I’m in,” he says. “I as an individual suffer because I can’t keep my mouth shut when I see an injustice.”
The irony of Ori’s crusade against the system is that the system hasn’t really screwed him personally. Johnson has never blocked any of his proposals. And while he rails against political connections and “pay-to-play,” Ori doesn’t lack friends in City Hall. In March, I filed a Right-to-Know request with City Council, seeking emails concerning Ori. Two councilmen forwarded him the filing, ribbing him that he was in trouble. When I ask Ori who they are, he tells me only that they protect him from “bad guys.”
Late during our first meeting at Sidecar, as we prepare to leave, Ori gestures at his hip, telling me that he carries a loaded gun. In part, this is a by-product of working in Point Breeze; a few years ago, while out for a jog, he got held up (with a fake gun, it turned out) by a 15-year-old who was himself later murdered. But Ori also feels targeted. “What I do is dangerous,” he says. “It’s not a life that anyone wants to live. But you’ve got some jerk-off telling people that what you’re doing is pushing them out.”
What Ori would prefer not to consider is the possibility that it’s neither his race nor his politics that has put a target on his back. Maybe it’s just him.
On January 19th, Ori posted this message on Facebook:
KJ: Please go on vacation for the next 28 months … it’s the best thing you can do for the neighborhoods you represent.
At 1:56 a.m., at-large councilman Jim Kenney commented underneath the post.
You might do better if you take off the nasty edge. Just a thought. No one gets everything they want, but some amount of diplomacy may help.
Jim Kenney: I want someone who dedicates their time and energy to making my neighborhood better. I want someone who works to clean up the city’s derelict lots, and not someone who works to create more derelict lots. I want someone who fights for the needs of the poor, and not someone that misleads them into thinking he is fighting for their needs. I want someone who empowers my police officers to arrest drug dealers and not someone who shields the drug dealers. … I am sorry you do not believe I am entitled to these basic things from my Councilman. I do.
No problem with any of that, and I supported you in your side lot efforts. When I heard you speak in Council a little while ago you turned some members against you on style points. It’s not substantive, but it’s human nature to react to the way folks present their issues.
When I ask Ori about the exchange, he laughs and tells me Kenney was drunk. Kenney, not surprisingly, declined to comment.
What Kenney said publicly, I heard again and again privately. “I don’t think he’s working in the best interests of this community” is the first thing Claudia Sherrod, director of the politically involved neighborhood nonprofit South Philadelphia H.O.M.E.S., tells me about Ori. As we continue to talk, however, it becomes clear that she, like several other longtime residents I interviewed, doesn’t really oppose his work as a developer. “I know most people were overwhelmingly happy to see the coffee shop there,” she says. But “you can’t aggravate people and expect them to participate in things you’re doing.”
Ori has done more to catalyze gentrification than anyone else in Point Breeze. But many of the newcomers, who themselves are sensitive to long-timers’ fears of displacement, aren’t pleased with him, either. Jesse Leonard, a 35-year-old who works in the nonprofit world, is in many ways the typical arriviste. She attends all the relevant neighborhood meetings, wants to turn a debris-filled lot into a cute little side yard, and bought her three-story, $278,000 home from Ori C. Feibush. And yet she can’t stand him. “We sold a little bit of our souls” buying the house, she says.
Becky Marx, wife of Andrew, who’s president of Point Breeze’s gentrifier neighborhood association Newbold Neighbors, feels the same way. In 2011, Johnson’s Second District predecessor, Anna Verna, proposed a one-year moratorium on all three-story construction in Point Breeze. Around the time it was clear the bill was headed for defeat, Ori sponsored a roof-deck party. “And it was basically like a big fuck-you,” Becky says. “Like, ‘Hey everybody, we’re awesome, you suck, we win.’ It was just the worst possible message you could ever send. I lost all respect for him after that.” (Ori topped that performance last fall, when he dubbed the opening party for his Point Breeze coffee shop “Let Them Eat Cake.”)
In 2006, Columbia urban planning professor Lance Freeman published a book called There Goes the ’Hood that examined two rapidly gentrifying black neighborhoods in New York City. In speaking to indigenous residents, Freeman was surprised to find that many of them welcomed gentrification for bringing “their neighborhoods into the mainstream of American commercial life” and heightening “the possibility of achieving upward mobility.”
Likewise, while it seems inevitable that Point Breeze will come to resemble Graduate Hospital to its north, Ori and his antagonists probably agree on more than they think. Despite his reputation for not considering the community, Ori says he builds only on vacant lots, to avoid pushing anyone out directly. He’s raised funds for neighborhood schools and local police, and supports the formation of a preservation district that would ban most three-story buildings on two-story blocks.
Even so, it may be too late for him to rehabilitate his image. A couple years ago, Ori was at H.O.M.E.S. to present one of his projects for community approval. A healthy cohort of his supporters attended. According to Ori, Claudia Sherrod pulled the plug on the vote at the last minute. (Sherrod says the proposal was never even up for vote, which Ori should have known.) Regardless, Ori went ballistic. “The only reason you’re not having a vote is you don’t like the complexion of the room,” Ori yelled, suggesting Sherrod knew Ori’s white supporters would tip the scales in his favor. Within “nine seconds,” Ori says, Sherrod called 911 and he was escorted out by police.
Which of the last two paragraphs do you think you’ll remember tomorrow?