Profile: The Gray Revolution

Forget the hipsters. The biggest force in Philly’s future will be the newly arrived empty-nesters — at least, if they’re anything like super-involved Joe Manko

IT’S A DELICIOUS day. At Love Park, a lunchtime crowd is lazily soaking up sunshine. A young woman in a bright summer dress drapes a bare leg over the knee of her boyfriend. Ah, sweetness. Here, in this place, everyone is enjoying the ultimate luxury: free time.

Everyone but Joe Manko.

Joe’s not here. He’s up there, 18 floors above Love Park, in the city office building at 1515 Arch Street. He’s trapped in a room with dull gray carpeting, faded blue vinyl chairs and sagging ceiling tiles. People are starting to occupy those chairs — guys in suits, mostly, but also guys in denim who are built like cement trucks. Now Joe and four other people file into the room from a side door, and take their places at desks facing the suits and the human cement trucks. A call to order. All rise! Welcome to the Wednesday afternoon session of Philadelphia’s Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Oh dear God. You and I, my friend, would rather drink from a pothole than sit through a zoning hearing. If the name itself doesn’t put you to sleep, the chatter will.

Setbacks, footprints, frontage …

Hours of this. Hours on end.

Parking spaces, lot lines …

On today’s docket: 29 cases, everything from an illegal sundeck to a small hotel. Oh, Jesus, look at that! Joe’s actually paying attention.

Will-serve agreement. Non-opposition.

Zoning is Dull But Important. It’s vital to our democracy and our community that distinguished citizens serve on these boards. Especially this board, whose rulings shape the physical quality of our city. But would you do it?

G-2, C-5, tab 2, tab 5, tab 8 …

No. You wouldn’t. You’ll let Joe do it.

Visual articulation. Fenestration …

Even though he’s 68. And he’s been trying to retire. His wife, Lynn, has been bugging him: How ’bout that slowdown? When is it coming? For the past four years he’s been cutting back at the office — Manko, Gold, Katcher & Fox, an environmental law firm he founded in 1989. Scaling down, he calls it — not a bad idea for a guy who already had his first heart attack, in a step aerobics class in 2001. That cheap plastic watch on his left wrist is actually a heart monitor.

“Right now, it’s 70 percent impervious. … ”

He’s not doing it for the money, that’s for sure. The position pays $100 a day. But he has to share that with his law firm. If he needed the money, he’d go back to working full-time, where he bills himself out at $500 an hour. But that’s not the point.

“Is the signage in conformity … ”

So why does he do it?

“ … to mitigate storm-water management issues … ”

He does it because Michael Nutter asked him to. “I’ve always had trouble disappointing people, and saying no,” says Joe Manko. “And especially saying no to a mayor I adore.”