Birdie Africa: The Lost Boy

Birdie Africa survived the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia

Birdie in the now-famous Michael Mally photo during the MOVE siege, May 13, 1985.
Photo by Michael Mally/Philadelphia Inquirer

HE WENT TO THE FIRE

The city was burning, and he went to the fire and got as close as he could. Something strange had just happened, something that would haunt the city for decades. A police helicopter had appeared in the sky above a West Philly rowhouse. The house was occupied by a black revolutionary group called MOVE. Seven adults and six children lived inside. The copter dropped a satchel onto the roof. The satchel contained four pounds of explosive. The explosion shook the neighborhood; people could feel it blocks away. Michael Mally gazed through his Nikon and took photos, as the flames leapt from home to home to home and the smoke rose in dark columns.

Mally was a staff photographer for the Inquirer. He knew, of course, the basic outline of MOVE—its back-to-nature philosophy, its history of confrontations with neighbors and police. The people inside the house all went by the last name of Africa, a practice begun by their founder and leader, a man born Vincent Leaphart who now called himself John Africa. Africa believed that modern technology had sapped black people of the ability to fight a racist system. In archival footage from Let the Fire Burn, Jason Osder’s astonishing 2013 documentary about the MOVE bombing, one MOVE member says, “We see John Africa the same way that people saw Jesus Christ.”
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Walt Keller, Leukemia Survivor, Has Passed

Walter Robert Keller, 1953-2014

In late 2011, I saw a story in the New York Times. A clinical trial of a new kind of cancer therapy at the University of Pennsylvania had jolted two elderly leukemia patients into apparent remission. The therapy had never been tried before in humans, only in mice. Developed over 25 years by a team of Penn doctors, it used genetic techniques to give new powers to a patient’s own cells, transforming them into “serial killers” able to attack and eliminate tumor.

It seemed to be one of those rare moments in cancer science when an experimental treatment actually worked. I wanted to know more, so I asked Penn if they’d connect me with a patient. They pointed me to Walter Keller, a cabinet refinisher in Southern California, the seventh adult to ever receive the therapy.

Read more »

West Philly’s Quest for the Automotive X Prize

Photo by Ryan Collerd.

Photo by Ryan Collerd.

The bell rang at 3 p.m. Kids burst from their second-floor classrooms at the West Philadelphia High School Academy for Automotive and Mechanical Engineering and leapt down the stairs. Most filed past the metal detector onto the street, where a trash bin spilled colorful garbage, but a few stayed behind, making their way into a drafty garage and slapping down their backpacks with purpose. A vaguely fungal smell emanated from racks of motor fluid, tools and spare parts, and a sign straight out of the ’50s read ALL SKIRTS & SHORTS MUST BE WORN KNEE LENGTH. It was February 2010. On a wall, a lime-green banner was emblazoned with a quote from Henry Ford: “Thinking always ahead, thinking always of trying to do more, brings a state of mind in which nothing is impossible.”

Several students entered a small, brightly lit classroom to the side of the garage and dug into a cache of snacks. Others clustered around Simon Hauger, 40, a spindly white guy with an icy thatch of prematurely gray hair. He stood next to a black sports car. The body was removed for now, sitting off to the side, meaning that the steel frame beneath was visible, along with two separate propulsion technologies: an electric motor and battery pack in the front, and a diesel engine in the back. This was a hybrid vehicle of original design, built by Simon and the kids to travel the energy equivalent of 100 miles on a single gallon of gasoline. If they could get to 100 MPGe (the “e” stands for “equivalent”), they had a chance at winning a $10 million contest for the Automotive X Prize. They called themselves the West Philadelphia Hybrid X Team.

Simon said he wanted to work on the sports car’s turbocharger.

“What’s a turbo?” he asked Diamond Gibson, 17, a native of Liberia.

“A turbo, it uses air,” Diamond said.

“It’s like a fan or something,” said Azeem Hill, a thoughtful junior with freckles and thick glasses.

“If I took the fan that I put in the window in the summer, my box fan, and blew air in, would that push enough air?” Simon asked. “No. That only sucks so much air.”

A turbo, he continued, is basically an air compressor—a tool that converts energy into quick bursts of air. The point is to increase the engine’s efficiency by allowing it to squeeze more air into each piston.

“Now, here’s the hard part,” Simon said. “You need to pay attention. Anytime you compress anything, what happens to its temperature?”

“It rises,” Diamond said.

“Right. It gets hotter. And when things get hot, like in a hot-air balloon, what do they want to do?

“Expand,” said Azeem.

“Expand. So our goal for a turbo is to pump air in. So you’re compressing air. It’s getting hot. You’re fighting yourself, right? You need something that cools it off.”

The kids liked Simon; he had a way of relating abstract concepts to the real world. “The way he teaches,” said senior Jacques Wells, “he could teach algebra to a guinea pig.”

Can a Philly Movie Studio Really Compete with Hollywood?

Jeffrey Rotwitt at Sun Center Studios in Chester, PA outside of Philadelphia.

He never admitted to anyone that it was a crazy idea, even though at first glance it was obviously crazy. He did keep a self-deprecating joke at the ready: He liked to say that the vision had come to him after he drank a bad vodka tonic. But once the joke was out of the way, he laid down the elements of the plan like bricks in the wall of some inevitable future. Read more »

Has Carl June Found a Key to Fighting Cancer?

Carl June and his group of researchers at U Penn may have found a cure for cancer.

What’s your full name?
Where are you?
What month is it?
What day of the week is it?

Walter Keller tried to speak, but no words came out, only a dry rasp. The man asking the questions had dark, close-cropped gray hair and a kind, level gaze.

Eventually the man left the room. Walt wriggled up in his bed. Someone put a hand on his shoulder and pressed him gently back into the mattress.

Walt—tall and rawboned, with marbly green eyes and muscles hardened by a lifetime of physical labor—tried to elevate himself. An earsplitting noise went off. A nurse came running in and told him to get back down. When she left, Walt found that the nurses had clipped an alarm to his bed that would alert them whenever he tried to get up. He ripped it off and threw it to the ground.

The man was back:

What’s your full name?
Where are you?
What month is it?
What day of the week is it?

Walt had to get out of this room. He had a baseball game to coach, over at the ball field in Upland, California. The Upland Pony Giants were waiting for him. Michael was waiting, the skinny kid with the cannon arm, and Cody, the kid who could steal two bases on one pitch. The game was starting in five minutes—didn’t anyone understand that?

Walt glanced to his side and saw his 19-year-old son, Dustin. Dustin was here, thank God. Dustin would listen.

“Dustin, get my shoes,” Walt croaked. “Dustin, I have to get out of here. I’ll give you a ride on the boat.”

Walt knew his boat was right outside the door of the room—the wakeboard boat he drove every year up and down Lake Mohave in Nevada, giving water-ski rides to his grandkids. His boat was right here at the hospital. If he could only make it out of the bed, to the door, he could climb into the boat and drive it back to his house.

Dustin shook his head: broad shoulders, soft voice, cherubic face, dark brown hair.

“Dustin,” Walt said, eyes soaked with confusion, “you are infuriating me.”

 

Walt wasn’t in California, as he thought. He was 2,700 miles east, in Philadelphia, where he’d come to be a guinea pig in a test of a new kind of cancer treatment. Leukemia had invaded his bone marrow and spread like a stain through his lymph nodes; the traditional options, including chemo and radiation, had failed. He was 58, and his body groaned with tumors potentially weighing as much as seven pounds. Walt needed something radically different if he was going to live. And the treatment he’d been given a few days ago was certainly that.

Over the past several years, a couple of hundred mice had received it, but Walt was only the seventh adult human. (Six men had preceded him, as well as a six-year-old girl.) The treatment wasn’t a chemo drug, and it wasn’t a vaccine. Instead, doctors at the University of Pennsylvania had tried to make Walt’s own body the drug. In an approach known as gene therapy, they’d taken his own immune cells, modified them to give them new powers, and injected them back into his blood.

Gene therapy represents a break from the medical past. Like open-heart surgery, antibiotics and low-cost medical imaging, it’s a “disruptive” technology capable of changing the way doctors do business. It could transform how we treat many types of cancers in people of all ages—if it can be made to work. But that’s the problem. Before this trial at Penn—a Phase 1 trial, the earliest possible human test of a new treatment—gene therapy had scarcely worked in cancer, anywhere in the world. A typical gene-therapy experiment in cancer was as exciting as a sip of warm tea. Nothing happened, good or bad. In other kinds of gene-therapy trials, there had been tragedies: At Penn in 1999, in a trial run by doctors unrelated to the team treating Walt, a teenager with an inherited liver disease had died after a gene-therapy infusion sparked a runaway reaction.

But Walt’s doctors had done things differently than past scientists. Their approach was original and new. And, incredibly, they’d already succeeded in making tumors vanish in a few of the patients who’d come before Walt. Using their custom technology, the Penn physicians had jolted two cancer-riddled men into sudden apparent remission—an outcome dramatic enough to earn mentions on TV news and a write-up in the New York Times. In September 2011, the paper described Penn’s work as “a turning point in the long struggle to develop effective gene therapies against cancer.”

But now, eight months later, at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, something dramatic was happening inside Walter Keller’s body—a riot of cells and signals. His blood pressure had crashed, so doctors had pumped him full of fluid to raise it, and the fluid had blown up his neck like a balloon. Socks were wrapped around his bloated legs to help with blood circulation. His kidneys were failing. He shook at times with “the rigors,” excruciating full-body shivers that made his whole body feel the way his heart would if he had just run up a huge hill.

Scientists don’t talk about “curing” cancer. A cure is the hope so great, so seemingly out of reach, that it must never be invoked. They’ve built a wall around the word. Still, the Penn researchers—as careful as they were, as professionally sober and skeptical—couldn’t help but wonder: Was their small experiment the start of something that could one day affect thousands, tens of thousands, more? Was it revealing a secret about the human body that could point the way to treatments for other cancers, not just leukemia? There was no way to know until they gathered more data. They needed to show that the therapy was safe. And they needed to prove that the early patients—the men whose tumors they’d blasted away—weren’t flukes.

Which is why so much now depended on Walter Keller. If Walt’s condition improved and his tumors diminished, the trial would move forward, and the potential of the Penn therapy—the result of a decades-long quest of scientific passion and discovery—would continue to grow. But if he suffered harm, Penn would have to pause the trial and maybe stop it altogether. Then everything would spiral down. Other scientists would argue that gene therapy was a dead end. Funding would dry up; research would wither. The Penn doctors might never get another chance to prove the merits of their idea, and we might all lose out. It had taken 20 years to get to this point, and it could all be over in the space of a few moments.

>>To read the rest of this story — including the team’s fight for funding, the tragic personal history of lead researcher Carl June, and what happened to Walt and his fellow patients — buy the e-book, Patient No. 7, available for e-readers, tablets, phones, and desktop computers at Amazon’s Kindle store.

Tesla Opens First PA Car Dealership at KOP Mall

You’ve probably heard of Tesla Motors by now, the California company that designs and manufactures electric cars. Founded in 2003, Tesla almost didn’t make it through the recession, but today its fortunes are rising, thanks in large part to the car it released last year: the Model S (top photo). A premium sport sedan, the Model S is aimed at people who would otherwise buy a Mercedes S Class or a Lexus. It starts at $69,900 ($62,400 with a $7,500 federal tax credit). You recharge the car by plugging it into a wall outlet or a public charging station. The charging port is built into the taillight. Automotive journalists have gone nuts for the Model S; Motor Trend and Automobile named it their car of the year for 2013, and Consumer Reports gave it a rare 99 out of 100 rating. Read more »

Philly Mag’s “Being White in Philly” Doesn’t Make Sense as Journalism

The March issue of Philadelphia magazine is unfortunate. I saw the issue late last week. I still have sort of a hard time believing it’s real.

Others have already made powerful arguments about what the cover story gets wrong about race. I just wanted to make a few points about why I think the story—“Being White in Philly”—doesn’t make sense as journalism. That’s my lens, and that’s how I’ve been thinking about it. Read more »

Jeremy Nowak’s Vision for a New Philadelphia

William Penn Foundation former President Jeremy Nowak

The lobby of the William Penn Foundation, on the 11th floor of a skyscraper two blocks north of Market Street, is a quiet place. It may be the quietest place in the high-rise corridor of Center City. It may be the quietest room in any office in the country that c­ontains actual working people. When I walk in on this autumn day, a woman behind a reception desk directs me to a couch. Next to the couch is a glass table piled with copies of the Inquirer and the Wall Street Journal and also Grid, a local magazine about sustainable living.

I sit under the soft, warm lights. I look up at the painting of John C. Haas, son of Otto Haas, the co-founder of Rohm and Haas, the chemical company. Otto created the forerunner of the foundation in 1945. I can’t hear anything from the offices that line the hallway that stretches away in both directions. When a staffer walks past reception, it is a moment—the sound of displaced air, of shoes shuffling on carpet—and then the noise fades, the room reasserts itself, and there is utter silence once again.

After a few minutes, one of the most powerful people in the city appears. He has a shiny bald head, glasses, a gray blazer and no tie. He’s built like a wrestling coach. A few days ago, a source in the education world described him to me as Philadelphia’s own Bill Gates. The same person guessed that he was probably more powerful than the Mayor, reasoning that the Mayor may speak for the city, but the Mayor isn’t sitting on $2 billion in the bank. This guy is sitting on $2 billion in the bank.

“Do me a favor,” he says, smiling. “Don’t make me look like too much of an idiot.”

His name is Jeremy Nowak, and he’s the 61-year-old president of this place, and I’m not surprised that he’s slightly reluctant to speak to a reporter. It’s been an awkward couple of months for the William Penn Foundation, mostly because of Nowak’s recent decision to make a major push into the most controversial issue in the city right now: the fate of our public schools. How do we fix broken schools? Do we give them the resources they need to get better? Or do we shut them down and add charter schools, giving parents more choice? Under Nowak, the foundation has pushed, hard, for option number two, steering millions to charter-school activists working to transform the system. But there’s a whole network of teachers and activists on the other side, and they’ve fought back, writing blog posts, holding protests, talking to reporters.

The foundation isn’t used to bad press. The foundation isn’t used to any press. Relatives of Otto Haas still control the board; to that point, the chairperson had been Janet Haas, daughter-in-law of Otto’s son and a physician who specializes in palliative medicine. The Haas family are said to be private, retiring people, which made their decision to hire Jeremy Nowak a somewhat surprising one. When
he officially took over in June 2011, replacing the mild-mannered Feather Houstoun, he’d never run a philanthropy before. For more than 25 years, Nowak served as CEO of the Reinvestment Fund, a financial institution that, among other ventures, raised money from corporations and individuals and lent it to developers building grocery stores and housing in poor neighborhoods. In the early 2000s, he was an adviser to then-mayor John Street on his Neighborhood Transformation Initiative to clear blight; whatever you might think of NTI, and its success was mixed, you have to admit it was staggeringly ambitious.

Nowak speaks the language of entrepreneurship. He talks about risk and the importance of allowing yourself to be wrong sometimes. He talks urgently about urgency. “I may not be right about this,” he tells me. “This may have just been my prejudgment. But … you go into a business or even a good nonprofit, they’re runnin’ around, you know? Philanthropy doesn’t have to run around.”

I tell him that William Penn’s waiting room is the q­uietest waiting room I have ever seen.

“You got it,” he says, leaning forward, nodding. “This is true of any philanthropy you go to. It’s not like going to an architectural office or going to the Water Department or going to a business or a tech company where you … rrrrr!” Nowak puts up his fists and emits a growl.

“We’ll see how this plays out,” he goes on. “It’s only 17 months in, right? There’s no inherent sense of urgency in a philanthropy. And yet this family, and the board, and obviously the staff here, we have a great sense of urgency. We think there’s really important things to do in this town.”

Over the next 45 minutes, we talk about the foundation’s vision for the city. We talk about watersheds and charter schools and the Zoo. Nowak answers all my questions with care and precision. I ask how he wants to be viewed after several years—what will his legacy be?—and he jokes, “If I last that long. We’ll see after your story comes out.”

I laugh.

Eight days later, before I can write a word, he’s gone.

Fergie Carey Would Like to Make a Wee Toast

I don’t have stories from the evening I spent with Fergus Carey so much as a series of drunken impressions. Fergie giving a toast. F­ergie singing about he­roin and cocaine. F­ergie seeing me talking to a short man in a paisley shirt and telling me, with a grin, “Don’t talk to this little fook.” Fergie clapping along to a singer in a white wig and a p­urple codpiece. Fergie raising up a whiskey glass and downing a shot—and another, and another.

Some of this stuff happened at the traditional Irish pub he owns, Fergie’s, on Sansom Street, and some of it happened at a theater space in the Loft District, where he went to see a show. My notes are only partly reliable. From about 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., they’re clear enough. After that, they’re just semi-random black marks on a page.

I do remember that Fergie, who is 49, was wearing a black leather jacket, a black t-shirt and jeans. He was lean and ropy; he said he’d lost 40 pounds in the past 18 months, mainly by drinking less beer and working with a personal trainer. His long hair was Gandalf-gray at the roots, slurring to white as it curled away from his head in wisps. His voice was thin and Irish-accented, and between words he uttered this low, sustained musical hum, which became like glue that he used to link one word to another. He conveyed a lot with hand gestures. At one point, in the pub, Fergie joked that I was like those reporters with the troops in Afghanistan, only instead of embedding with soldiers, I was embedded with him. At least, I think that’s what he was trying to say. I know he found the idea of someone shadowing him hilarious. When I first emailed him to ask if I could write about him, I included links to other profiles I’ve written about durable Philadelphia characters—Jerry Blavat, the deejay, and Schoolly D, the rapper. Fergie called me a few days later. “So you’ve exhausted all the other people,” he said. “You’re scccccraping the bottom of the barrel.” Inside the pub, he threw his arms out wide and looked around: “Afghanistan!” (The next day, presumably hungover like me, he sent an email, subject line “Afghanistan”: “It might be more fun than being embedded with a platoon in Afghanistan but it might be more dangerous too. Ouch.”)

Often during my night with Fergie, he was the center of attention. When he walked into the theater in the Loft District, a man came up to him and started playfully punching him in the ribs, saying, “You motherfucker, you motherfucker you, I’m gonna head-butt you.” At the pub, beautiful women approached and put their hands around his shoulders and started telling me stories about the old days, stories about the time before Fergie was a minor hospitality tycoon, when he was just a broke bartender with a dream of opening his own place and a reputation for hard partying. (One of my notes reads simply, “Naked party at the fountain.” The next note says, “Which one, Fergie?”) I lost track of Fergie for long stretches, times during the night when I couldn’t see his hair or hear his voice. He seemed to recede into the bustle and the noise. And then suddenly I’d swivel my neck and he’d be there, right there, the corners of his lips curled up, surveying the scene with pale blue eyes, pushing more beers in my direction.

 

It’s kind of hard to figure out what Fergie actually does. He’s a publican, obviously. He owns pubs, four of them, including Monk’s Cafe on 16th Street in Center City, the Belgian Cafe in the Art Museum neighborhood, and Grace Tavern in the Graduate Hospital area. (His wife, Christine Chisholm, is also part owner of the 13-year-old Nodding Head Brewery & Restaurant, bringing the family’s Philly haul to five establishments.) But a lot of people own pubs. Fergie is different. Almost every night, Fergie is on the premises of one pub or another, sweeping the floor, hyping the band. He greets his repeat customers warmly, asking after their wives and parents and cats, and if he doesn’t know a person’s name, he makes sure to learn it. Other pub owners do that, too, but Fergie is just better at it. His mental Rolodex includes many hundreds of Philadelphia drinkers. And it’s reciprocal: Thousands of Philadelphia drinkers know who Fergus Carey is. He isn’t the most famous person in the city, but he may be the most uncomplicatedly beloved. When he walks in the city, it takes him 45 minutes to go two blocks, because people are always shouting his name, stopping him, telling him stories and jokes. It drives his two young kids nuts.

Much of this has to do with the remarkable longevity of his establishments. According to Suzanne O’Brien, a restaurant consultant and former platonic roommate of Fergie, when you open a new bar or restaurant, you’re supposed to stick to a five- or six-year plan. You pay your investors back in year three, start making money by year four. By year six, you either sell or change the concept. But Fergie’s has been open now for 18 years, and Monk’s, a mecca for Belgian beers, for 15. Grace Tavern is eight years old, and the Belgian Cafe is five. In the past decade, as many of Philly’s 20-something drinkers have pushed their way beyond Center City into new territories, pulling up bar stools in South Philly and Northern Liberties and Fishtown, Fergie’s properties have continued to thrive. Fergie, who gets around the city mainly by bicycle, has never considered opening anything in Northern Liberties or Fishtown, because “it’s a fuckin’ different landscape, really. I’m not cyclin’ over there, that’s all I’m saying.”

He also owns part of a beer bistro in Canada and an inn in Scotland, which his friends refer to, offhandedly, as “Fergie’s Scottish hotel.” Fergie lives in a handsome rowhouse off South Street and owns a tiny shack on cheesy little Lake Garrison in Jersey. But you’d never know he was prosperous. His bike is a Sears-model beater; his yellow Jeep dates to 2001. “Any fookin’ idiot can do this job,” he says with a mock sneer, adding, apologetically, “I’m just a lucky bartender, really.” Other public figures in Philly thrive by showing people how much effort it takes to be them. But Fergie thrives by concealing it. He makes the act of running a pub look like such a natural extension of his personality that it doesn’t even qualify as work, which, of course, is an illusion. “He has the same qualities as people I know who are incredibly talented community organizers and activists,” says Chisholm, a schoolteacher by training. “This ability to reach out and make things happen. I just feel like his cause is pleasure.”

Why You Missed One of Philly’s Best Schools Debates

Something unusual happened to journalist Daniel Denvir last Wednesday: Another journalist in the city accused him of libel. Denvir, 29, works for the alternative-weekly City Paper. Young and aggressive, he has made a name for himself in the past few years by breaking big stories about politics and education. A lefty, he has also developed a reputation as a staunch critic of the city’s mainstream media (including, yes, Philadelphia magazine). It stings to be on the receiving end of a Denvir barb. But every city needs its media watchdogs, and Denvir is a talented one. He’s performing an important role. Read more »

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