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 »

The Death (and Life) of the Philadelphia Weekly and Philadelphia City Paper

City Paper and Philadelphia Weekly, the city's two alternative weekly newspapers.

They were tiny and ugly and brave. They believed in things and got sued.

The Welcomat made the first real mark, in 1971. It was a weekly paper with awkward fonts, owned by three eccentric sisters who loved nothing better than an argument. But the Welcomat didn’t start to land like a bomb on the doorsteps of Center City until a man named Dan Rottenberg took over as editor, in 1981. Rottenberg didn’t have any money to hire reporters, so he let the readers write the paper. They would write letters and unsolicited manuscripts, stuff them into envelopes, and send them to Rottenberg, and Rottenberg, a lean bulldog of a former Wall Street Journal reporter, would edit the letters, type them up and publish them in the Welcomat: letters about race and racism, gay rights, Israel, Frank Rizzo, AIDS.

Rottenberg, who used to work in Chicago, was a combative character who had been profoundly affected in 1968 when the Chicago cops beat the shit out of anti-war protesters at the Democratic National Convention and the daily newspapers in that city parroted the mayor’s propaganda. Rottenberg had come to believe that the only way to improve the existing media was to embarrass them from the outside. A vibrant alternative media could accomplish that in two ways: one, by critiquing the dailies’ coverage; and two, by covering the stories that the dailies overlooked. The fact that people sued the Welcomat right and left said to Rottenberg that he was doing a good job, that he was having an impact. Rizzo sued. This guy named Earl Stout sued—he was the head of the blue-collar municipal union, and represented by Dick Sprague, the most fearsome libel lawyer in town. Rottenberg fought the suits and won them. One day there was a mass walkout at Overbrook High School over something an Overbrook teacher had written in the Welcomat. (Specifically, the teacher said his students were stupid.) Another day, the gay-rights group ACT UP invaded Rottenberg’s office, incensed about an article on AIDS. There were countless advertiser boycotts. It was all a normal part of life at the Welcomat.

Meanwhile, half a city away, in Germantown, a charismatic Penn graduate student named Bruce Schimmel was putting together a competing paper, the soon-to-be-called City Paper, with friends and colleagues—former­ Vietnam­ War protesters, rock-and-roll freaks, an urban-gardening guru from Oklahoma, a feminist film reviewer. Schimmel had met them while writing articles about contemporary dance for the monthly newspaper of WXPN-FM, the public radio station at Penn. Their newsroom was the 350-square-foot first-floor former drugstore beneath Schimmel’s house—a noisy, joyous place that attracted boarders, Penn professors, young wannabe journalists who didn’t mind writing for free, and thieves. (“I bought a big dog to keep the thieves out,” Schimmel later wrote, “which contracted a disease, and barfed and shitted itself to a horrible death.”) On production days, Schimmel and friends used to cut rows of type with X-Acto knives and wax them, pasting them down by column; to deal with the deadline stress, Schimmel alternated between smoking pot and glugging NyQuil.

His goal with the City Paper was nothing less than to transform the culture of Philadelphia—to feed the counterculture into the mainstream by publishing articles “that we could really use as a solid foundation for action,” Schimmel recalls. He got a huge boost in 1993, when Howard Altman, an investigative journalist with rumpled clothes and a prickly beard, took over as the City Paper’s news editor. The first thing Altman did was send a reporter out to dig through the trash of three people: the head of the Philly Mafia, the head of the city’s recycling program, and Mayor Ed Rendell. The reporter came back with three piles of trash. Altman then recruited an archaeologist to examine the piles without knowing whose trash was whose. It turned out there was stuff in the recycling guy’s trash that should have been recycled. The Mafia don’s trash was full of fancy Italian food. Rendell’s was full of Slim-Fast cans.

Altman knew it sounded cheesy, but he thought sometimes about how he was working in the same city where, 200 years before, another weekly newspaper editor, Benjamin Franklin, had helped to invent the country. He took that legacy seriously. Soon enough, Altman was getting sued, too, thanks to his investigations of then-state senator Vince Fumo, at the time the most powerful man in Pennsylvania. (He’s now in federal prison for defrauding taxpayers and others of more than $2 million.) Altman’s reporters Scott Farmelant and Noel Weyrich became two of the first in the city to peel back the layers of the corrupt Fumo empire. One morning, an intimidating man showed up at Altman’s door, scaring his wife and warning him to stop printing the stories. Fumo also sent countless threatening letters through his lawyer, Dick Sprague, and eventually sued for libel. But the City Paper didn’t back down. Altman remembers one deposition where Sprague asked him to explain why he used the word “freakin’” in one of his anti-Fumo columns.

“What does ‘freakin’’ mean?” Sprague asked. “Does that mean ‘fucking’?”

“No,” Altman said, “it’s the City Paper. If I wanted to use ‘fucking,’ I’d use ‘fucking.’ This is freakin’, as in, this lawsuit is freakin’ ridiculous.”

Schoolly D Is Living the American Dream


I walked into a bar with the rapper Schoolly D not long ago. It was a new place on 21st Street, so new that it still had the name of the old establishment­ on the door. Schoolly had recently begun deejaying here as part of a series of famous Philly DJs, but tonight he wasn’t working. He was trying “to get into some trouble,” he told me. He flashed a toothy grin.

Do you know Schoolly? No? Well, have you heard of Jay-Z? Kanye West? Ice-T or Ice Cube? Any rapper at all, really? You probably wouldn’t have, if not for Schoolly D. Exactly 30 years ago, Schoolly, whose real name is Jesse Bonds Weaver Jr., wrote the world’s first gangster-rap anthem, a tune he called “Gangster Boogie.” He did it right here in Philly. Many people are under the impression that gangster rap is originally a Los Angeles phenomenon, or a New York one. But it was Schoolly, the Philadelphian, who became the first rapper to make bitches and hos, drugs and guns, his exclusive lyrical territory. He was the first to channel the lives of hustlers, gangsters and pimps—people who sold dope and sold sex and broke the law because there were no other options for economic advancement­ in their neighborhoods­—into a new kind of street poetry. He was the first to fashion a motif of the word “nigga.” (Once, he rapped about walking into a bar and seeing a sucker-­ass nigga tryin’ to sound like me. Put my pistol up against his head. I said, Sucker-ass nigga, I should shoot you dead.) He was also one of the first to slow down the cadence of rap from a fast babble, a faucet of words, to a drip, so that you could hear every word with beautiful, terrible clarity. Like Langston Hughes before him, Schoolly was a black man writing a letter to America about a particular slice of the black experience.

Anyways, as soon as Schoolly and I walked into this particular bar, Schoolly spotted a young blond woman near the door. She was tall, with wavy hair. He walked toward her. Schoolly is sprightly and muscular and has a smooth, unlined face. Wikipedia says he’s 45. He looks 30. He’s actually 49. On this night, he wore a light gray Kangol cap with skinny black jeans and black leather Steve Madden boots. He put his hands on the blonde’s hips and twirled her around 360 degrees. Then he spun off of her like a tailback and lurched into the darkened main room of the bar, where he bear-hugged another, different blonde, who happened to be a former top 100 finisher on American Idol. Her name is Erika Schiff. Schiff is lithe and plump-lipped and trying to launch a music career. I followed in Schoolly’s wake with a pen and notepad, awkwardly interviewing the women he had engaged, asking the first blonde how she knew Schoolly (“Schoolly?” she said, confused. “No, I don’t know him at all”) and getting a quote from the second blonde, from Schiff, the Idol girl. “Schoolly’s not just the gangster,” Schiff said. “He has these other sides. He’s sweet.” Then I sat down at a table in the corner next to a heavyset guy with bulging eyes, and I watched Schoolly and the Idol girl start to dance. I took a sip of beer and looked up, and he was kissing her. Not amorously. Not exactly. Just a peck on the lips. Then another peck. She was laughing and throwing her hair back.

After a time, the heavyset guy next to me, who was drinking a vodka on the rocks, and who had been silent up until now, started to talk. It was late, a little after 1 a.m., and this was the third bar/party that Schoolly and I had visited that night, and I was pretty buzzed. The heavyset guy said something like—I’m paraphrasing—“A lot of the stuff on those early records, the hustling, the lifestyle, Schoolly got that from me, okay? It was my experience he was talking about.” He pointed to his heart with both hands.

The heavyset guy told me that he was a figure of importance from Schoolly’s past. He told me about how he had been struggling lately, in the recession. How he had a kid. How he had tried to support his family by starting an appliance service but the company had fallen through. How things were looking up because he had a package coming through in the near future. As soon as the package came through, he said, everything was going to be all right. He nodded his head vigorously and glanced at Schoolly D, who was still dancing with the Idol girl.

Later that same night, I mentioned this conversation to Schoolly. He was lucid. All along, Schoolly had been drinking water and passing it off as vodka. He has found, over the years, that people like to see musicians drinking, and although he doesn’t binge—not anymore—he doesn’t wish to disappoint. This was what the original gangster rapper had meant by getting into trouble: drinking water and dancing. (Although a few days hence, in the shotgun seat of my car, he will suddenly shoot me a nervous glance and ask if any of my sources are telling me that Schoolly D is a coke fiend. He’ll look relieved when I tell him no.)

That night, Schoolly D thought for a moment about the heavyset guy, then said, “He’s one of those cats who believed it when people told him that there were some places he couldn’t go.”

The Indy Hall Experiment

The tattoo on Alex Hillman’s right forearm reads “JFDI,” in letters two inches high. The letters are his bare skin, reversed out of a black stamp tattooed around them. In a recent picture he took of himself and uploaded to his personal website,, Hillman brandished his arm in such a way as to nearly fill the frame of the picture with the letters. On Twitter, he calls himself a “JFDI Master.”

JFDI stands for “Just Fucking Do It.” JFDI starts to explain why Hillman has brought me to North Philadelphia on this humid weekday morning in August; why he has led me down a half-mile of cracked sidewalk and broken glass; and why he has now stopped in front of an empty, grassy lot between two rowhouses and across from a yarn-and-silk-dyeing factory. He squints and looks around.

“So this is us,” he says.

By “us,” he’s referring to his buddies at Indy Hall, a remarkable business that Hillman co-founded in 2007. On the simplest level, Indy Hall is an office space for ­freelancers—a 4,400-square-foot loft in Old City peopled by website developers, computer programmers, marketers, video-­game makers and artists, part of a movement known as “co-working.”­ They pay by the month for the right to work there. A “basic” membership costs $25 and includes one workday, while hard-core users can get a full-time desk at Indy Hall for $275. Altogether, the Hall’s 136 members pay just shy of $15,000 each month in membership fees. Rules for use of the space are few and informal: Chip in for coffee now and then. Keep the fridge clean.

And above all, be friendly. Indy Hallers believe that business is too ruthless, too mechanical, too secretive, so they strive to make business friendly, casual and open. They are inverse corporate raiders, with all of the same drive and desire but none of the core beliefs. They share information publicly, even sensitive information about their finances—“Enough to make my bookkeeper uncomfortable,” Hillman says. They drink coffee and beer. Lots and lots of coffee and beer. Then they collect data on how much coffee and beer they drink and share it. They are hyper-social geeks who Show & Tell and Lunch & Learn and work alongside each other for 10 hours at a time and then go out to bars together and drink till dawn. And the solution to any problem at the Hall is to become even more social. Last year, when $2,000 worth of equipment was stolen during off-hours, Hillman and co-Hall-founder Geoff DiMasi, a Web designer and civic activist in South Philly, held a town hall at which they explained they wouldn’t be installing security cameras. Security cameras would change the vibe. Instead, DiMasi­ suggested, the members should redouble their efforts to get to know each other. “It’s an excuse to pretend you are in Minnesota,” he said. “Everyone says Philly is cool once you get past the shell, so let’s get past it quicker.”

There are other co-working sites in other­ cities, but Indy Hall is one of the fastest-growing, and Hillman has become a sought-after guru of the movement. This month he’s giving the keynote speech at a large conference in Berlin, and the online retailer recently flew him to Las Vegas to deliver a co-working talk. In Vegas he met with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and rode in a Zappos Escalade. (As Hillman later e-mailed, Hsieh “was more aware of what we do (and how) than I expected. Not really sure what comes next yet. But woah [sic]. A totally surreal experience.”)

Indy Hall has spawned dozens of start-up companies. It has convinced people to stay in Philly who otherwise would have decamped to Austin or New York or San Francisco. In four short years, Hillman has built one of the city’s most innovative communities and a powerful technology brand. Now, in an act of staggering ambition (JFDI!), in a blighted section of North Philadelphia, he’s going to try to build something else: a neighborhood.

On a recent Thursday morning at the Indy Hall office on North 3rd Street, Hillman and Geoff DiMasi sat in chairs in a lounge area near the front door, their backs to a 50-inch HDTV and an XBox 360. DiMasi’s t-shirt said INDEPENDENTS HALL, and Hillman’s said CHANGE THE WORLD.

Hillman reached across a nearby table and picked up a copy of a thick magazine called Scenario. “It’s out of Copenhagen,” he explained to DiMasi. “They do the coolest shit all the time … big stuff … a guy out of a hangar in Copenhagen is building, like, manned rocket ships, out of parts from junkyards. It’s awesome. He talks about how innovation is bullshit, stuff on whiteboards—you’re not really doing anything if you don’t get into the garage and build something. Which is pretty cool.” Hillman paused. “He’s clearly bat-shit crazy, but I appreciate that.”

Sitting on a blue wraparound couch across from Hillman and DiMasi were four architects and developers from the architecture firm DIGSAU and from Postgreen Homes, an eco-friendly developer in the city. One of the architects now unfurled a large blueprint on the table. It depicted three different layouts for a three-story house.

The house represented the first phase of the Hall’s expansion into North Philadelphia. It was to be a co-housing space for Hall members­—a sort of dorm for geeks, with a mixture of private and public spaces. Co-housing projects are popular in European cities, and there are some in America, too, but they tend to be in suburbs, not in cities. The design for the house called for six one- and two-bedroom apartments. On each floor would be a shared kitchen, dining room and living room. The idea was to create a continuum of spaces, from private (the bedroom) to semi-private (the shared kitchen) to public (the patch of lawn outside, with room for bike racks). And a glass facade would reveal the shared spaces, giving the outside world a peek at goings-on inside the house—embodying­ in architecture the crucial Indy Hall values of transparency and openness. Hillman had named the project K’House, short for “co-house” and pronounced “Ka-HOUSE,” like “Ka-BOOM.”

Feature: Is NJ Governor Chris Christie A Mad Man?

It’s a Friday night in mid-October, 18 days before the midterm elections, and Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is out on the stump, expertly inhabiting what has now got to be the most famous body in American politics: the big arms and legs, the umpire shoulders, the triangular face welded to a bulging neck, the hooded eyes and double chin, the pinkish lips on a potholed turnpike of skin. Below the belt, he seems carved from one seamless rectangle of dark cloth.

“Well,” Christie says, “I came up here to Connecticut tonight, not because I’m lost, okay? … Because I want to show all of you a living, breathing example of what is gonna happen on November 2nd.”

I followed Christie here, to this high-school gymnasium in Stamford, Connecticut, on the promise of an only-in-America sort of spectacle — Linda McMahon, the multi-millionaire ex-CEO of WWE wrestling and a candidate for U.S. Senate, appearing with the man they’re calling the “Trenton Thunder” and “Governor Wrecking Ball.” But McMahon disappoints; in her purple suit and peroxide hair, she’s too icily poised. Rather, it’s Christie who fills the room with a version of the crackling energy that has made him a viral-video sensation. On YouTube, you can see him shout down a heckler who confronted GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman in California, or telling a reporter who accused him of being “confrontational” that if the reporter thought the Governor was confrontational now, “You should really see me when I’m pissed.” Before Christie arrived tonight, I mingled with the crowd, and many had seen his videos. “He should be president,” said Kathy Bertasso, a retired teacher. “He’s putting his foot down. He’s not letting anybody get away with anything.” I got back in my press seat and noticed the woman in front of me reading The Roots of Obama’s Rage. Her name was Tricia Galloway; she said she’d heard about Christie from right-wing talk radio. (Glenn Beck: “Chris Christie, I’ve been watching you from across the river … you may be George Washington. … [whispering] Help us.”) Because Galloway described herself as a social conservative, I asked her if Christie’s moderate social stances give her pause. No, she said; right now, fighting debt and spending is the most important thing: “If we don’t solve that one problem, we’re done.”

In America, we’re experiencing one of these weightless moments that come along every so often: Liquid crawls up walls, the center does not hold, the skinny black guy with the chilled-out demeanor is the one who’s full of rage, and the passionate fat guy from Jersey is the new face of sobriety. “I don’t think President Obama does angry well,” Christie recently told NBC Nightly News, and it was hard not to read between the lines: Guy, relax, leave this to me. Christie does angry well, and in this sour environment, he’s thriving. Ten months into his gubernatorial administration, his approval rating is 51 percent. Obama’s is 45 percent. Democrats can’t seem to touch Christie, despite crude attempts to brand him as a “bully” (the New Jersey teachers union) and a “coldhearted fat slob” (MSNBC host Ed Schultz). And, perhaps most remarkably, Christie has threaded the needle of the civil war transforming his own GOP.


Emanuel Freeman: The Man Who Duped City Hall

“Miss Rogers, there’s flies, there’s flies.”

“What? What are you talking about?”

Sherri Rogers (not her real name) figured the girl in the back of the class was messing with her. She loved her students, but they had such a hard time paying attention. As she approached the girl’s desk, she expected to see nothing except the grin of a fifth-grader who has just punked her teacher.

But then there it was. A fly. A gnat?

Rogers peered closer.
Something flashed in her peripheral vision, down low, near the floor.
The floor seemed to twitch.

She looked again. The floor resolved into a rippling mass of what she would later learn were termites: thousands of them, writhing in the wood. She could no longer see the floor at all.

All of this took just a couple of seconds. “I disassociated from my body,” Rogers told me. She screamed a little, then her students screamed, too. She got on her walkie-talkie and radioed over to the administration. Rogers was told to take her class of fifth- and sixth-graders into the chapel of the church that was next door to the school.

It wasn’t the first time she’d been forced into the chapel. She and her students had spent weeks there over the previous winter, when something had gone wrong with the heat, and the kids had frozen in their parkas, exuding visible puffs of breath. The charter school was funny like that: One end of the main classroom building had no heat, and the other end had no air-conditioning. At a separate campus a mile away, a woman named Cindy Cole taught on the second floor of a dilapidated building. She remembers how one of her students had a medical condition that had left him on crutches. Every day, to get to his class, he had to scoot up the stairs on his butt, like a baby, facing backwards, because the building had a broken elevator that wasn’t fixed.

Something had obviously gone horribly wrong here. Emanuel Freeman launched Germantown Settlement Charter School in 1999 and had renewed his charter in 2003 with the support of his many powerful friends and allies — not just Democrats like Congressman Chaka Fattah and Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller, who praised Freeman to the skies, but also Republicans in the suburbs, like ex-Governor Mark Schweiker, who adored the idea of helping a black guy make the city’s public school system look bad. Freeman’s goal was to vault poor children in the city’s Northwest to “world class standards of academic excellence.” But the school ran into trouble almost immediately. Freeman wasn’t an educator. Not only was the school falling apart; it couldn’t supply enough paper or pencils or chalk. Settlement Charter failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress in state test scores in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2008. Between 2003 and 2007, the number of children who scored “below basic” in reading actually increased, from 40.6 percent to 45.3 percent. The children were drowning.

Tigre Hill’s Mumia Abu-Jamal Doc Barrel of a Gun: “Deeply, viscerally bad”

On Tuesday night, Tigre Hill debuted his Mumia Abu-Jamal documentary The Barrel of a Gun at the Merriam Theatre. Writer-at-large Jason Fagone was there and has a few things to say about it.

So you know where I’m coming from, here are two things I believe:

1. Mumia Abu-Jamal is a murderer. He shot and killed police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981.

2. The filmmaker Tigre Hill is a talented, hard-working guy.

I like Tigre. I’ve had beers with him. He’s a Facebook friend. (Although maybe not after this post.) I sent him a fan note after watching his first feature-length documentary, The Shame of a City, which chronicled Philly’s 2003 mayoral election and managed to capture the slapstick weirdness of that political moment. So that’s why this is review is hard for me to write.
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Revolt of the Bruppies

ON A RECENT SATURDAY MORNING IN GERMANTOWN, Denise Palko, an information technology specialist with a round face, straight hair and curly bangs, stood next to something beautiful she was making with her hands. It was a Hepplewhite butler’s chest — about three feet wide, two feet deep and three feet tall — resting on a workbench lined with clamps. The chest was about one-third of the way finished. Planks of mahogany, poplar and hard maple were joined in places with dovetail corners she had cut by hand, the planks zippered together like pieces of a puzzle.


Palko, 42, was one of eight students taking a master class at the Philadelphia Furniture Workshop, a local woodworking school. In her day job, she’s a manager at a small local firm, but these days she spends most of her free time either cutting joints in her own shop, the one she set up in her home in Collegeville, or reading books about woodworking. She’s no dabbler. The class cost $3,250. (Beginner classes at PFW are substantially less expensive.) She had poured more than 100 hours into the chest already and would probably devote 200 to 250 more.

True, her piece wasn’t as beautiful as the butler’s chest her teacher had made, and which was his original design — the chest whose joints were so seamless they had given one of her classmates, Ernain Gil, goose bumps. (Gil: “The engineering, the expansion, the way it will expand together. It’s like reunifying the wood. It’s not glued together, because it speaks to a time when glue wasn’t used. And also saying, look at me, you know? Look at me, I’m a beautiful thing.”) Still, her chest was a difficult piece, containing exactly 154 hand-cut dovetails in all, and Palko had executed it competently. She knew this because her children were already arguing about who would get it when she died. Palko considered this “the highest compliment a woodworker could receive.” She said, “The code I write is going to be dead and obsolete in a few years. My father worked for the phone company for 40 years. He could point to a pole and say, ‘I hung that pole.’ I get something here that I can’t get from my job.”

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