Eric Blumenfeld Is Crazy Enough to Revitalize North Broad Street

Wandering through the rusty, funky skeleton of the Divine Lorraine Hotel is a hallucinatory experience, as if someone had unsunk the Titanic, dragged it through Center City, and plopped it nose-first at the corner of Broad and Fairmount. It doesn’t help that it’s almost 100 degrees outside, and since there are no intact windows, outside is now inside. What’s left of the walls and ironwork has eroded to the point where everything looks a little blurry, and the only really flat surfaces on the floor are pieces of distressed plywood you don’t want to stand on, because there’s nothing left underneath.

Eric Blumenfeld, the 49-year-old excitable boy of Philadelphia real estate development, is taking me on the tour I imagine many will get this fall as he tries to, in his words, “hypnotize” all the powerful people he needs to share his ballsy vision for the future of North Broad Street. The idea is for the crusty blocks between Rodeph Shalom synagogue, near Mount Vernon (where he was bar mitzvahed), and Temple University (his dad’s alma mater) to become more than just the next cool comeback neighborhood. That’s already started happening, in large part because of Blumenfeld’s creative reimagining of the hulking shell of 640 North Broad, which he turned into a successful apartment building and the home of Marc Vetri’s watershed restaurant Osteria. Blumenfeld believes the old Divine Lorraine building—for which he now owns the in-arrears mortgage, and which he hopes to have the title to after the sheriff’s sale this month—could not only become another buzzy apartment-and-restaurant complex, but the four acres he owns behind it could one day soon anchor, of all things, a new public-school campus between Broad and 13th. This novel NoBro Edu-Hood would include new facilities for Masterman—the city’s most in-demand public high school—and potentially three other nearby high schools: Ben Franklin, Parkway and the Franklin Learning Center. He wants to build them new schools and whatever else they agree to share (sports fields, food prep, science
labs) plus buy the outdated school structures, and use historic tax credits to rehab them into cool apartment buildings.

If he can pull that off, he might be able to finally join the pantheon of the “transformational”—and as he knows, being viewed as a transformer is the highest achievement for any real estate developer (although vast wealth is very nice, also).

As Blumenfeld energetically pitches his plan, he gestures out a busted window to an audience of empty buildings and overgrown fields, pulls out his iPhone to play me a message from Chaka Fattah to prove that the Congressman is “championing this cause,” and does everything short of breaking into song. His enthusiasm isn’t so much contagious as relentless, a flurry of punched good ideas. That matches his overall vibe as a combination of a smart rich-guy’s son and a retired athlete of some kind. He drives around in outrageously expensive and handsome cars—more of them than can fit comfortably in the four-car garage of his Gladwyne mansion—and dresses in casual but snug-fitting pants and a button-down shirt. He keeps sunglasses perennially perched in his close-cropped hair, almost never pulling them down to cover the kind of puffy slits that Ball Four writer Jim Bouton referred to as “ass eyes.”

When he finishes his pitch, we walk into a gymnasium-sized room with a massive vaulted ceiling and pass an enclosed staircase that leads all the way to the roof. Graffiti artists, who’ve had their way with so many surfaces on the inside of the Divine Lorraine, chose this spot for their most ambitious creation: a 20-foot-high bright orange and blue rendering of Bart Simpson smoking a joint. Blumenfeld looks up at it looming over his shoulder.

“What’s Bart doing here?” he asks.

It’s a funny question for two very personal reasons. One is that anybody who knows Blumenfeld knows that his close friend, surrogate older brother (because he barely speaks to his actual older brother), idol and sometimes-competitor is Bart Blatstein, the 57-year-old developer who is also godfather to Blumenfeld’s first child. The only person in his life Blumenfeld has looked up to more than Blatstein is his dad, Jack W. Blumenfeld, whose career arc is somewhat less enviable. A stocky, high-energy character with a stutter he simply ignored, Jack created landmark developments in Center City (1500 Locust), Society Hill/Queen Village (Abbotts Square) and City Line (Executive House) during the 1970s, but fell into bankruptcy after the tumultuous late ’80s.

The other reason is that Eric Blumenfeld, by his own admission, has a good bit of Bart Simpson in him. He describes himself as the “fuckup” kid in his family, a classic third and last child. In fact, he didn’t even take the undergrad business classes his dad wanted him to at Tulane because, he says, the line for accounting was too long at freshman sign-up (so he got a degree in English Lit, with a minor in partying). He was in no way the boy-most-likely to salvage and rehab his dad’s company.

And even now among his growing group of admirers, there’s a sense of some shock that Blumenfeld grew up at all, let alone that he might be turning into a businessman of substance and vision. There are those who still see him, in the words of someone who likes him, “as Daddy’s little rich kid who got set up in the business, and if it weren’t for Daddy, he’d be lifeguarding somewhere.”

Blumenfeld doesn’t apologize for making a lot of money from the projects he bought from his dad’s bankruptcy, or the ones he created with partners of his own, like 640 North Broad. “I can’t live any better than I already live,” he says. “The net, just on 640 North Broad, is over a couple million dollars a year. I’m successful enough to have the ability to do the things I want to do. … But I’m not happy with that. It’s not about making money. This neighborhood needs to be transformed … and I’m telling you, I am crazy enough to make this happen.”

The history of cities is written by the obsessions of crazy rich people—esp­ecially those who get their hands dirty and get in people’s faces, while also listening and learning from their mistakes. While Eric Blumenfeld may be in way over his head, even his detractors will admit that right now, his learning curve is becoming a force to be reckoned with.

And his story seems to be getting more dramatic, emotional and intriguing by the day. In just the past few months, he has broken up with and sued his major business partner, attempted to reconcile his most painful family relationship, and lost the most important person in his life.

Tyrone Gilliams: Ivy League Scam Artist

In December 2010, a tall, puffy 40-something ex-Penn basketball player named Tyrone L. Gilliams Jr. announced that it was time for him—for all of us—to “give back.”

He did this through a slickly produced five-minute video that identified him as a “mogul,” “philanthropist” and “self-starter” and rotated him through four different wardrobe changes, including one topped by a white wool hat and scarf and another accented by a bright orange hoodie vest. But Gilliams seemed most comfortable in a stylish gray suit with a French-cuffed white shirt and red tie, a look accessorized with a pile of bundled $20 bills.

“This,” he proclaimed, “is what we’re giving back.”

The video was to announce the “Joy to the World Fest,” a series of high-profile events around the city due to take place in mere days. There would be a food giveaway for 5,000 needy people, a children’s spectacular at the Convention Center, a gospel concert, a star-studded bowling party at North Bowl in Northern Liberties with a Ciroc Vodka bar open until 2 a.m., and an album-release party with Oscar- and Grammy-winner Jamie Foxx.

But the main event would be a fund-raising gala the Saturday night before Christmas at the Ritz-Carlton, with tickets ranging from $250 to $1,200. “And it’s not just a black-tie gala,” Gilliams declared in yet another outfit, “it’s red-carpet.” Rap superstar Sean “Diddy” Combs would headline; Kim Kardashian was coming.

Amazingly, everything came off pretty much without a hitch. Kardashian bailed, replaced by a Real Housewife of Atlanta, Sheree. But a who’s who of black Philadelphia showed up at the events: Eagle DeSean Jackson, basketball legend Sonny Hill, State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams, Congressman Chaka Fattah and his wife, glamorous TV anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah. Diddy was late to the gala, but his tardiness was quickly forgotten when he grabbed the mic and began talking about his old pal “Fly Ty Gilliams.” (Pals, yes, though not close enough for Diddy to waive his standard five-figure appearance fee.)

“Fly Ty took my girl back in ’94, and now he’s givin’ back to the community,” Diddy announced. “This is my nigger, he’s one of my brothers, give him some applause y’all, Tyrone Gilliams, he’s my man Tyrone.” The two embraced, then raised their clasped hands together awkwardly.

It was an auspicious debut on the philanthropic scene for Gilliams, the son of a well-regarded local clergyman and an ordained minister himself. “It was as much a coming-out party for him as it was an event for everyone else,” says a Philadelphia society writer who covered the affair. “It was like a hip-hop Academy Ball.”

Afterward, it appeared that Tyrone Gilliams might be on his way to fulfilling the rather lofty promise in his website bio, which portrayed him as the second coming of, among others, Andrew Carnegie, George Steinbrenner, Walter Annenberg and Kenny Gamble. The fact that nobody quite knew where he had been for the past 20 years, or exactly how he had made all his money, seemed almost immaterial.

Until the following April, when his name surfaced at the very end of a Reuters wire-service story about the FBI’s pursuit of unusual financial fraud cases in the aftermath of the Bernie Madoff scandal. As the feds have pulled at the threads of Gilliams’s patchwork financial world in the year since, they’ve uncovered a bizarre tale of financial intrigue and emotional bankruptcy, centered on a man who they claim bilked people across the country out of millions and then spent their money to enhance his own lifestyle and image—like the $1.3 million he “gave back” for the Joy to the World Fest. It’s a still-unfolding mystery that includes the alleged defrauding of an unsuspecting millionaire philanthropist in Cincinnati; an aging Greek national with a questionable account at JPMorgan; a handful of screaming New York civil litigators; and a crusading Wall Street prosecutor recently profiled on the cover of Time magazine, whose office set out to connect the absurdly disparate dots. It’s a story that stretches from brokers in New York and Palm Beach to a medicinal marijuana farm in Denver to a gold mine in Ghana to, finally, the attractive Art Museum-area house that Tyrone Gilliams shares with his two young kids and their mother. He was arrested last October, and is now charged with masterminding a $5 million Ponzi scheme that could land him in prison for years. He has pleaded not guilty, but the brazenness of the purported scheme has left many of the principals breathless. “In all my years of practicing law, I’ve never seen anything like this,” says one attorney involved in the case. “Most scam artists, they take your money and then they steal off into the jungle. But we’re starting to see more cases like Gilliams’s, where the crooks just stand there and say, ‘Come get me.’”

A former friend says that over the past few years, he saw Gilliams becoming delusional, “addicted to attention” and obsessed with the success of others, especially those in the music business. He wondered where it would end. He says people have no idea just how deep the twisted psychology of Tyrone Gilliams really goes. He’s even heard people suggest Gilliams is some kind of hero.

“They talk about Ty,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief, “like he’s the black Robin Hood.”

Patrick Kennedy and the Jersey Girl

 

ON MARCH 31, 2010, PATRICK KENNEDY came to Atlantic City to give a speech.

In the previous nine months, he had buried both his father, Senator Edward Kennedy, and his aunt, Eunice Kennedy Shriver. While Ted had been his hero, it was his aunt’s stigma-busting work in children’s health and disability issues that had in part inspired his own powerful advocacy for mental health and addiction­ services, which he had personally relied upon. He had also just announced that after 16 years—most of his adult life—representing­ Rhode Island in Congress, he wouldn’t run for reelection. The Obama health-care plan, based on ideas Ted Kennedy had fought for throughout his career, had finally been passed. Patrick had gone to his father’s grave and left a handwritten note: “Dad, the unfinished business is done.”

Now, he had to figure out what to do next.

After the speech—the finale of a $125-a-plate fund-raiser at Caesars for the developmentally disabled—he was mobbed by folks wanting a Kennedy moment. Among them was a tall, beautiful 30-year-old junior-high-school history teacher from Absecon­ named Amy Petitgout. A recently single mom out for the first time since her separation, she was attending as a last-minute replacement­ for her father, a retired special-ed teacher and longtime local Democratic pol who had come down with a bad cold. She wanted an autograph for him.

As subtly as possible—which for Patrick isn’t very subtle at all—he hit on her. In the note to her father, he scribbled, “Sorry I missed you, but it was a pleasure meeting your beautiful daughter.” She beamed at him, then headed back into the throng of 250.

Patrick Kennedy is really bad at hiding his emotions. He’s tall, red-haired and freckled, with broody, distractible eyes and a smile that never quite turns all the way up, and his feelings are largely unmodulated and unfiltered. He lives on the brink of crying for joy or sadness, and being a Kennedy with a mood disorder, he usually has ample reason for both. So the 42-year-old lifelong­ bachelor did his best to appear placid as he carefully watched Amy Petitgout thread her way back to table 123.

“I had to play it cool,” he recalls, laughing. “I couldn’t beeline right over to her or they’d all say, ‘There goes that Kennedy, after the pretty girls.’ So I had to shake hands with all different kinds of people at different tables, trying not to make it too obvious.” When he finally reached her table, he diplomatically struck up a conversation with her mother first. But it was clear why he was there.

He told Amy that if she ever wanted to, you know, bring her class to Washington, he was still in Congress for a few more months and would be happy to show them around. As she was thinking that her school couldn’t afford anything like that, he handed her his card, relaying something that intrigued her.

“Please call me,” he said. “But pretend I called you first.”

What If the Philadelphia Orchestra Can’t Be Saved?

In Allison Vulgamore’s 16th-floor office at the Philadelphia Orchestra, there’s a battery-operated toy chicken that hops around singing “Ring of Fire” in Johnny Cash’s voice.

It was a gift from her younger sister, to remind her of the songs they used to sing as kids in central Ohio. Part of the reason Vulgamore trained as a soprano in college, before heading into arts management, was that her family was constantly singing. They sang religious songs, folk songs (“Ali,” as friends and family still call her, did a killer “Sweet Betsy from Pike”), show tunes, Mozart lieder. But her dad had a soft spot for Johnny Cash, so “Ring of Fire” became a family favorite.

At the Atlanta Symphony, where she was president for 16 years, she liked to take the singing chicken into her colleagues’ offices to make them laugh. But since she arrived here almost two years ago to run the Philadelphia Orchestra, “Ring of Fire” has taken on a new meaning. It now seems like a description of her everyday life.

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Upside the Head

Corey Calicat-Wayans looks like he was born to cause concussions.

A noseguard at the Haverford School, he’s a six-two, 330-pound freshman, with room to grow. If you saw him playing in one of the $200 helmets that Haverford buys its team, he’d look like a monster. But on this Thursday in early summer, dressed only in a white sleeveless T-shirt and long black shorts, he looks surprisingly vulnerable from the neck up, with a big-baby face, a skull barely shielded by very close-cropped hair, and wide, uneasy eyes.

Corey is here before practice as a subject in a scientific experiment—one that’s largely unknown to a public deluged by media coverage of sports head injuries, but that’s being closely watched by experts around the world because it could revolutionize the diagnosis of concussions. He stands not on the football field, but along the carpeted bleachers for the school’s squash courts, surrounded not by coaches, but by earnest, preppy students holding clipboards and stopwatches.

One of the eager young men hands Corey a set of four laminated cards bound with a white spiral. On each card is a set of random numbers in varying positions. Corey is told to read the numbers in order, out loud, as fast as he can. “Two, five, eight, zero, seven,” he begins. His time is recorded as his baseline.

Later, during football season, if he takes a powerful blow to the head—actually, it’s more like when he takes a blow, since the average high-school player gets hit on the helmet up to 1,400 times each season—he can quickly be retested on the sideline. All the other sideline tests used to diagnose concussions involve a battery of complex questions and subjective scoring—and they often take longer than the time left in the game. This test—named the King-Devick for the pair of optometry students who developed it in 1976—takes less than a minute, and it’s pass/fail. A team mascot could administer it: The athlete just reads the cards again. If he’s concussed, he won’t be able to say the numbers as quickly as before.

King-Devick is believed to be able to diagnose concussions even in athletes without traditional symptoms. Moving your eyes together rapidly, reading quickly, and saying the numbers out loud accesses about 50 percent of the brain’s functional areas. No matter how hard they try, athletes with head injuries won’t be able to replicate their baseline speed.

Corey doesn’t understand much of this. He’s just a freshman hoping to get some playing time. But this test could save his life.

The number of concussions in high-school athletes is high, and rising—more than 136,000 are diagnosed each year, with the highest rate among the nation’s estimated 1.2 million high-school football players. Yet one of the biggest problems with sports head injuries is that concussions frequently go untreated—because the player doesn’t immediately feel hurt, or won’t admit to feeling hurt.

(Studies show more than 50 percent of student athletes will lie about symptoms to stay in the game.) And the brain is most vulnerable to serious, irreversible injury when the athlete already has an unhealed concussion.

Which is why any incremental improvement in understanding, treating or diagnosing concussions is such a big deal—and why the King-Devick test in particular is so important. So far, in two small studies published in the past eight months in top neurology journals, the test has performed as well as or better than other tests identifying concussions—and it can be administered during a time-out. The results have been so positive, in fact, that the Flyers have signed on to be part of a wider study this fall, joining the varsity football teams at Penn and the Haverford School. Flyers and Eagles team doctor Gary Dorshimer expects other NHL and NFL teams to use the test more informally this year, to see what it adds to their armamentaria.

And the two Penn neuro-ophthalmologists testing King-Devick—Steven Galetta and Laura Balcer—are starting to draw attention for their work. Based on their studies, Ralph Nader just called for mandatory use of the test in all high-school and youth sports. In May, Balcer and Galetta presented at the One Mind conference in Boston—a sort of Woodstock for the future of brain sciences—appearing on a special panel alongside the most renowned, high-profile researchers in sports head injuries, including neurologist Robert Cantu and his colleagues from the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) at Boston University.

Researchers there have been performing autopsies on athletes’ brains—including that of Penn football star Owen Thomas, who hanged himself last year. His was among the first autopsies to find early-stage trauma-related damage in a young football player’s brain. CSTE has been generating headlines across the country for years with a very loud safety message that has raised awareness and forced some rule changes, but it has also fueled a good bit of fear and confusion—to the point where it’s much harder for kids to convince their parents to let them play contact sports anymore. (“Not long ago,” laments one Philadelphia-area football coach, “we’d have over a hundred kids come out. This year, I’m not sure we’ll have enough for a team, and it’s mostly because of concern with concussions.”)

Lanky, loping, contagiously affable Galetta, 54, and his energetically serious 46-year-old colleague Balcer are new to this hard-hitting world of concussions, and surprisingly easygoing. Neuro-ophthalmologists are considered the dorks of neurology, Galetta explains: “We’re like the Rodney Dangerfields of the brain, no respect.” He views the new field of sports concussion research he’s entered as dominated by “expert opinion, the lowest form of medical evidence.” He and Balcer didn’t become interested in King-Devick and concussion testing because of all the headlines. In fact, they were sought out by King-Devick’s inventor because they’d spent more than a decade doing pro bono research in the decidedly unglamorous field of analyzing eye tests to see how well they pick up early symptoms of neurological conditions.

Besides being new to the concussion industrial complex—which has a surprising number of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania ties, going back to old Flyers, Eagles and Steelers head injuries, both suffered and inflicted—this group adds a very family-style, very Penn operation to the field. Laura Balcer was Steve Galetta’s resident at HUP (where, among other jobs, he runs the neurology residency program) and rose in the department as his protégée. Kristin Galetta—daughter of Steve—is a medical student at Penn and was lead author on both papers on the King-Devick research. (Another Penn connection: I’ve known Galetta since he and I were freshman there, and he has treated members of my family.)

A big part of the reason the research has been done at Penn and the Haverford School is that Galetta played on a football team at Penn, and is a longtime adviser to the university’s athletic program. He sent his two sons to Haverford. (The younger is currently a junior.)