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.
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.
“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.)
“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.”
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.
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?
“I’m embarrassed to live in Philadelphia when I see shit like this.”
Ori is peering up at the glorious rust-colored orb that hovers out above Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. Tonight, inside the arena—a hulking totem of gentrification in its own right—North Philly’s Bernard Hopkins fights to break his own record as the oldest world champion in history, at 48.
Beers in fists, we find ourselves eight rows behind the ring, sitting in floor seats reserved by the Executioner himself. As Hopkins’s realtor and occasional tenant, Ori gets an official place in the entourage, along with B-Hop’s plumber, lawyer and accountant, who are all in attendance. A couple hours before the fight, an even tighter member of the entourage complains to Ori that Bernard isn’t angry enough. “Tell him I overbilled,” Ori cracks.
Yet by the time Hopkins enters the
ring around 10:30, wearing his trademark hood, a change has washed over Ori. He’s stopped talking to me. The quesadillas
I bought him sit on the floor, ignored.
He yells “B-HOP!” until his voice is hoarse. And his right leg won’t stop jiggling.
The bout itself feels quick. In the sixth round, Hopkins cuts his opponent above the eye. Ori relaxes. Hopkins is declared the winner by unanimous decision, history is made, and we head for the Mini.
On the drive back to Philly, it begins to seem odd that we were in Brooklyn at all. Ori actively abandoned plans with his girlfriend of five years, on the night before they would celebrate her birthday. He had “everything to lose and nothing to gain” bringing me along, as he put it. Even for Ori, the transparency seemed gratuitous. What was he trying to show me?
Only later do I remember something Ori told me on the drive up, a comment that barely registered at the time. “You know,” he said, “Bernard’s the only fighter without a manager.”
When Ori was nine years old, his father, Binyamin, was laid off from his lucrative job at Supelco, where he worked as an in-house chemist. Here’s what happened after Ori found out, as his mother Penina tells it:
“He didn’t understand. ‘I know Papa is so good. He has so many patents. How come they laid him off?’ How much I explained, he couldn’t get it. So it was snow in school and they called me earlier, so I went to pick him up. … And he tells me, ‘Ima, guess what?’ ‘What, Ori?’ ‘Remember what I’m telling you now. I will never work for somebody. I will be the boss of myself.’”
Ori’s frustration with bureaucracy, political correctness, people who are dumber than him—much of it boils down to his inability to play by anyone else’s rules. So he wants to rewrite them, sitting on the fourth floor of City Hall.
But there’s something else, too, something he tells me around three in the morning, rolling down I-95. “Bernard went to war with Don King,” Ori says. “They all stole from him. And Bernard went to war. He represented himself. He bucked the trend. He’s a champion for 100 different things. For 100 different reasons. I can’t say we’re similar, because he puts his life on the line every time he goes out there, and my job isn’t that serious. But in terms of mentality and that fighting spirit, I mean, it’s there. … ”
Then Ori trails off, and we sit in silence for a while, waiting for Philly’s skyline to come into view.