Best of Philly 2014: The Best Philadelphians

For our Best of Philly issue, we choose 23 young guns (folks under 40) who are shaking — and shaping — things up around here.

Katherine Gajewski and Connor Barwin. / Photography by Joseph Balestra

Katherine Gajewski and Connor Barwin. / Photography by Joseph Balestra

Best Athlete: Connor Barwin, 27

Six-foot-four, 264-pound linebackers don’t usually make headlines for their social consciousness, but Barwin is a different breed of football beast. The Detroit native has earned cheers off the field for his Make the World Better Foundation, aimed at bringing sports and arts to kids; a benefit concert he staged at Union Transfer in June raised $170,000 to revitalize a run-down South Philly park. He’s fearlessly outspoken (tweeting praise for marriage equality) and bleeds green in more ways than one — bicycling to work, driving an electric car and promoting SEPTA.

Best Civic All-Star: Katherine Gajewski, 34

Chicago native Gajewski got her local start in public policy on what she figured was a short-term campaign to ban smoking in public places. A decade later, she’s still trying to clear the air — only now she’s focused on particulates and greenhouse gases. As director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, Gajewski is the public face and principal driver of Nutter’s green agenda, one of the administration’s clear success stories.

Best Beat Reporter: Dave Gambacorta, 30

“Maybe the crab cakes will taste better in the slammer,” opens one Gambacorta story on the Mob. Another piece, on the viral video of a seemingly drugged-out mom on SEPTA and her distraught daughter, likens the scene to “a depressing two-person ballet.” Nine years after his start at the Daily News, he’s one of the city’s finest reporters: breaking news and writing with empathy and wisdom that belie his age, in prose that reads like the sidewalk chatter of his native South Philadelphia.

Best Art Curator: Conrad Benner, 29

This photojournalist is the chronicler/champion of the city’s mushrooming street-art community. But his blog,, is more than a mere triptych of gritty-gorgeous ephemerality; it’s a showcase for Benner’s explorations into abandoned spaces and a platform for his civic activism. (His online petition pushed SEPTA to deliver 24-hour weekend subways.) Next, he’s spinning his buzzed-about TEDx Philly walks into a series of neighborhood graffiti explorations.

Best Connector: Archna Sahay, 35

A decade into doling out advice to entrepreneurs, Sahay, an Indian-born financial adviser for Morgan Stanley, was sick and tired of being the only woman at business meetings and events. She started asking around, wanting to pinpoint exactly what keeps women from entering the business and STEM worlds. The answer was simple: access. So earlier this year, she launched the Female Founders Network, a group that fosters mentorship-type connections and the exchange of information and ideas amongst women, with the goal of launching an accelerator fund sometime soon. The first event had 50 women; the second had twice that. Expect her success to keep on multiplying.

Best Style Setter: Dom Streater, 25

When Streater won last season’s Project Runway, it was clear she was headed for greatness — and probably for New York. But she stayed here, proving that you can be an acclaimed designer without a 212 area code. The West Philly native has launched two well-received collections, collaborated with local boutiques, and been a vocal supporter of bringing (affordable!) clothing manufacturing options to the city in order to retain our cache of talented designers. Make it work, indeed.

Best Rapper: Chill Moody, 29

What makes this Overbrook High grad stand out in a city so rich in hip-hop history is not just his rhyme flow, but his attitude. After dabbling in guns-and-drugs rap as a teen, Moody changed his tune to stay true to his own positive outlook. His uplifting message has been well received — from collaborations with top acts like Mack Wild and a slot on this summer’s Roots Picnic, to partnering with Visit Philadelphia to promote his hometown’s music scene at South by Southwest and the Grammys. Catch Moody’s smooth style and smart lyricism at this month’s Night Market.

Best Renaissance Man: Ben Stango, 25

It’s hard not to like Ben Stango, the bubbly, articulate Merion native, Yale grad, do-gooder and Democratic committeeman who’s dedicated to seeing Philly live up to its potential. After consulting with the likes of David L. Cohen, Paul Levy and Rich Negrin — those he hopes to emulate — the United Way campaign program manager heads to Penn this fall for a joint JD/MBA. He’ll be mayor — if not president — someday.

Best Education Innovator: Alejandro Gac-Artigas, 25

After two years teaching in North Philly, this Harvard/UPenn grad was frustrated by the lapse in his students’ reading skills over the summer. In 2011, he launched Springboard, a program designed to keep kids pre-K through third grade interested in books when school’s out. The results? Instead of losing ground, students made strides. With funding from M. Night Shyamalan’s foundation, Gac-Artigas expanded the program to Camden this summer, and is eyeing D.C., Baltimore and the Bay Area for future page-turning success stories.

Best LGBT Champion: Anna Aagenes, 26

As Brian Sims’s whip-smart deputy chief of staff, Anna Aagenes is the woman behind one of Philly’s most talked-about lawmakers, but the state rep suggests it’s only a matter of time before he’s calling her boss. The openly bisexual former Penn track star divides her time between Sims’s Center City office and serving as co-founder and executive director of GO! Athletes, the nation’s first nonprofit created by and for LGBTQ student athletes to end discrimination in sports.

Best Digital Visionary: Josh Goldblum, 36

When Goldblum — who spent years in digital media design for the Smithsonian Institute — decided to launch his own firm in 2007, he was determined to open it in his hometown, sensing that Philly was embarking on an era of renewed creativity. Seven years later, his company, Bluecadet, is an industry leader, designing impressive interactive installations and high-tech components for institutions like MoMA, the Getty and the Franklin Institute. (It even won an Emmy!) Goldblum is also on a personal journey to bolster Philly, rehabbing a Fishtown warehouse into an enviable office space, contracting out jobs to other local firms, and, through events and civic engagement, making networking chic again.

Best Truth-to-Power Player: Gillian McGoldrick, 17

By removing all references to the school’s Native American mascot in the Playwickian, Neshaminy High’s student newspaper, its young editor in chief has done what a certain NFL franchise remains too timid to do: banned the word “redskin.” The paper’s defiant editorial last fall, “Why we don’t publish the R-Word,” infuriated not only the principal but most of the student body. McGoldrick’s tenacity and steady moral compass suggest that the future of journalism is bright.

Best Real Estate Visionary: Matt Stein, 31

As director of the university division of real estate powerhouse MSC, this Temple grad is a new breed of connector, helping colleges all over the country brand themselves, lure students, impress alumni, retain talent and connect to the community … all via the school’s surrounding commercial real estate. (That Federal Donuts near UPenn? That’s the work of MSC University. So is Drexel’s Shake Shack.) Stein’s at the intersection of higher ed and lifestyle — and given MSC’s local client list (Drexel, Jeff, Penn, Temple), that makes him a force in defining just how livable entire neighborhoods can be … for the kids and for the rest of us.

Best Cultural Curator: Josh Dubin, 33

Spend five minutes with this super-bright executive director of Franklin’s Paine Skatepark Fund and you’ll understand why the city, the Knight Foundation and even local schools are eager to help grow Philly’s skating culture. The former special projects coordinator for the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy is evangelical about the connection between skating and a city’s vitality, its tourism, the success of its young people and its creative class — but his civic-cultural engagement doesn’t end there. He’s also executive director of Bloktoberfest, the wildly popular, beer-focused annual Grad Ho block party. Just try to find anyone in this city with a better instinct for cool.

Best Taste Impresarios: Ben Puchowitz, 30, and Shawn Darragh, 31

Apparently no one ever told Puchowitz and Darragh that restaurant empires are supposed to be about building an image. But given that Puchowitz helped put Matyson — a brilliant and innovative neighborhood BYO — on the map, and that the pair then opened the graffiti-tagged Cheu Noodle Bar in Washington Square West, and that they’re now about to open another vastly different spot on East Passyunk (Bing Bing, a dim sum joint), these guys have made a career out of succeeding by doing what no one ever expected — creating restaurants that serve the community and their own passions rather than their brand.

Best New Philanthropists: Brittni Devereaux, 28, and J. Rudy Flesher, 29

Millennials may not be wealthy (see: student loans), but Devereaux and Flesher prove they can be idealistic, energetic and engaged. The co-presidents of the Spruce Foundation are cultivating the next generation of philanthropists by encouraging donations of skills and time when money isn’t an option. This all-volunteer group (ages 25 to 35) prepares young leaders for future seats on local nonprofit boards while partnering with institutions who work with at-risk youth and underserved communities.

Best Politico: Jennifer Kates, 34

A onetime white-collar lawyer turned fierce advocate, the senior aide to Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez is a force within City Hall, fighting for change and hurdling bureaucracies like a civic superhero. Kates played a major role in crafting the city’s rewrite of the tax delinquency law and in setting up the new land bank, where she has been named a member of the inaugural board. Her mantra: “Persistent effort in the face of seeming hopelessness.”

Best Entrepreneur: Daniel Fine, 21

At 11, inspired by his diabetic brother, Fine launched a nonprofit to raise money for juvenile diabetes. Now he runs Glass-U (among other enterprises), which makes customizable, fully foldable sunglasses so cool that he scored a licensing deal with FIFA as the official shades for this year’s World Cup. His latest venture is an app called Dosed that helps diabetics sort nutritional info at more than 500 restaurants and counting. Scary to think he’s just getting started.

Best Party Guy: Kevin Washo, 33

When we called Washo for the latest on his ever-expanding sphere of influence, we reached him on an Amtrak train, where he was sitting next to former Governor Ed Rendell, en route to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with party big shots. He’s already worked for John Kerry, President Obama and Bob Casey, and he ran the state’s Democratic Party for two and a half years. Next up: Washo just opened the Philly office of New Partners, a cutting-edge political consulting firm, and is leading the bid to lure the 2016 Democratic National Convention to town.

Best Scene Makers: Brendan Hartranft, 35, and Leigh Maida, 38

Hartranft and his wife Leigh currently own four drinking establishments across the city (Strangelove’s, Resurrection Ale House, Local 44 and Memphis Taproom), and each one reflects the duo’s personalities, complete with great beer lists courtesy of Hartranft’s intensity and a sense of whimsy from Maida, whose vision and guiding hand defined the look of each space. Together, they’ve created very different and very popular bars, each with the same high standards for food, drink and service.

See the rest of our Best of Philly picks in the August 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine, on newsstands now, or subscribe today. Then join us at the Best of Philly Bash at Citizens Bank Park on August 12th!