The Best Philadelphians 2015
This group of Best Philadelphians should have so many more people on it — several million more — because every Philadelphian is a Best Philadelphian. Every single one of us should get a gold star, dammit, especially when it’s snowing outside and the buses aren’t running and the ramp to 95 is closed. But all yearbooks must have superlatives, so we do want to highlight some people who have made this a banner year — starting with the guy who kind of runs things in this town.
Yes, yes, it is incumbent upon a populace to complain about its leaders, but history will likely remember Mayor Michael Nutter as one of the city’s most successful. Governing magazine summed it up when it named him one of the country’s nine top public officials in 2014: “Philadelphia isn’t an easy place to govern. But Mayor Michael Nutter has undoubtedly made an outsized impact on the city, creating a Philadelphia that’s cleaner, safer, smarter and more fiscally sound than the city he began leading in 2008.” … And it’s not just Nutter: People in his administration have made the city a more progressive, interesting place. Take Story Bellows. The director of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics is in charge of one of the city’s most exciting projects: the Bloomberg Philanthropies-backed innovation accelerator FastFWD, whose first cohort brought start-ups from around the world together with Philadelphia government officials to address issues like crime and recidivism. … Then there’s Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who was the subject of some discussion during the Democratic mayoral primary. When candidate Tony Williams said he’d fire Ramsey as a result of the chief’s unpopular Stop and Frisk campaign, he lost much local support. Whatever people think of Stop and Frisk, they clearly see Ramsey’s legacy as much more than that. There are very few popular police commissioners — and none without flaws — but Ramsey is viewed as both fair and effectual, clearly forging new territory here, which is no small feat. … Another winner in the face of challenge? Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who spent another year as the most effective person on City Council, a designation so rare, it’s almost an oxymoron. … She’ll soon be joined by several new members, two of whom — Allan Domb and Helen Gym — developed such passion for single issues (tax reform and education, respectively) that they’re taking a sabbatical from civilian life to tilt at windmills. Real estate baron Domb, who won’t take a salary while in Council, leaves behind plenty of people to soldier on with Center City development. … That includes Carl Dranoff, whose eponymous company will bring a dramatic 47-story tower designed by renowned architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox to Broad and Spruce. The building — which will be the tallest on Broad Street — will be one of just six exclusive SLS International boutique hotels in the world (the others are in Beverly Hills, Las Vegas, New York, South Beach and the Bahamas) and boast interiors by French design rock star Philippe Starck.
As much as we love high-profile Center City high-rises, there’s plenty of other exciting development happening elsewhere. Surely by now you’ve been to Spruce Street Harbor Park? Tom Corcoran, head of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, has actually done the unthinkable: He’s made the riverfront relevant for the first time in centuries, not only with the hammock-strewn SSHP, but also with the Race Street and Washington Avenue piers — and more to come. … Meantime, Kathryn Ott Lovell, executive director of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, is helping grow and rehab public parks around the city while also planning a much-needed and massive user-friendly digital guide to the entire park system, taking our beloved parks and squares into the 21st century. … South Kensington got something of a modern makeover of its own this summer when Courtney and Chad Ludeman of Postgreen Homes held an open house for their adorably named, sleekly attractive, environmentally sound bi-level condos: Duplexellence 2. More than a hundred people came out to see the units, which Postgreen built because its first round of Duplexellence homes in that area was so popular, lauded by developers and neighbors alike. The Ludemans continue to create affordable modern housing in burgeoning neighborhoods (Fishtown, Francisville and East Kensington), which is terrific for the city and its future homeowners.
Meantime, over in Brewerytown, Lisa Miccolis, former AmeriCorps teacher, barista and world traveler, opened the Monkey & the Elephant cafe on West Girard as a way to help kids in the foster-care system, who, when they turn 18, are suddenly without supports. The Monkey & the Elephant program uses employment at the coffee shop to build job and life skills. … Another name on the cafe front, La Colombe founder Todd Carmichael, opened a gorgeous wholesale joint in Fishtown this year and invented a draft latte — a sweet, thick coffee/milk combo poured from a keg. He’s planning on taking a big swig out of the Starbucks bottled coffee business by packaging and selling cans of the stuff all around the country. At this point, Carmichael has achieved true Philly-celebrity-level fame, i.e., that of a chef or newscaster. Who would have thought a guy who sells coffee could do it?
Philly’s indie rock band War on Drugs, led by Adam Granduciel, soared into the actual celebrity stratosphere in the past year with their Lost in the Dream album, which landed them on every Top 10 Albums list, earned them guest spots on Ellen and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, got them top billing at concerts like Bonnaroo and Coachella, and nabbed them a contract with Atlantic Records. They’ve done more than their part to boost hometown pride around here … as has soccer super-hero Carli Lloyd. The midfielder from Delran didn’t just help lead the U.S. Women’s National Team to its triumphant World Cup win in July — she’s the first woman ever to score a hat trick in a final match. (Hey, Treasury! Still looking for a badass woman to feature on that $10 bill?) … Equally badass (in a different way) is street artist Kid Hazo, whose outrageous pranks — like posting “Selfie Zone” street signs or turning part of Claes Oldenburg’s Paint Torch sculpture into a poop emoji — make the city unpredictable and hilarious. These folks have balls.
Which reminds me: Guess who else got famous in the past year? Mo’ne Davis, a pitcher for the Taney Dragons baseball team — a Philly team she led all the way to the Little League World Series, in which she was, at the age of 13, the first African-American girl ever to play. She even landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which had never featured a Little Leaguer before, and was the subject of a Spike Lee documentary short. … Meanwhile, her onetime coach, Steve Bandura, the subject of a New York Times profile, continues to mentor the next generation of Mo’nes — and not just in baseball. This summer he took her old team, the Anderson Monarchs, on a tour of the South to learn about the history of the civil rights movement.
In terms of our professional sports teams, the less said, the better, though the 76ers’ Nerlens Noel was a legit candidate for Rookie of the Year (and absolute winner of best flattop in the NBA). … In local college sports, Philadelphia University basketball coach Herb Magee this year became the second NCAA hoops coach ever to notch 1,000 wins. He’s been the coach there since 1967. … And State Rep Brian Sims gets a sports honor, too, as he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for a military assistance program. Sims — one of the few people in Harrisburg with a pulse — is now working on legislation to make voter registration easier, and he’ll reintroduce equal pay as part of the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health.
Other political types we feel gratitude toward include Kevin Washo, the executive director of the host committee for the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Washo said last year he’d bring us the DNC, and this year, to nearly everyone’s delight (well, nearly every Democrat’s delight), he did just that. … And then there’s Independence Blue Cross president and CEO Dan Hilferty, who isn’t so much political but whose company did pair up with the city to sponsor the awesome new Indego bike-share program. How’s that for being a true steward of the city’s health?
Speaking of health, countless Philadelphians will benefit from the new brick-and-mortar location that Puentes de Salud finally has in South Philadelphia. Co-founded by Steve Larson, Matthew O’Brien and Jack Ludmir, the new clinic from this health-care nonprofit — admiringly profiled in the New York Times last year and the subject of an upcoming HBO documentary — offers free and low-cost health care to uninsured Philadelphia immigrants while also providing social service programs like domestic violence prevention and educational services like ESL and after-school mentoring. It’s an entirely holistic approach to community wellness.
Of course, a large part of community wellness, one could argue, is happiness, and for contributing to our overall quotient of that, we have to thank the creative class that brings some sparkle to our city — people like Erin Waxman and Megan Brewster, owners of Art Star gallery/boutique and the masterminds behind the annual Art Star Craft Bazaar, Philly’s version of the Brooklyn Flea. This year they’ve spread their wings, taking their moveable arts and crafts show over to Spruce Street Harbor Park and New Jersey’s Asbury Park, slowly conquering the world while giving local artists some love in the process. … In the same vein is Bela Shehu, the designer behind Rittenhouse-based fashion line NINObrand, who does so much more than create (cult-loved) clothes. (Truth: A selfie with Bela in her studio cinches your status as a true Philly fashionista.) She also fosters connections between Philly’s coolest creators, from artists to other fledgling business owners, so that everyone might ride the swell of homegrown excellence.
And finally: There’s nothing more homegrown or excellent in the arts scene than FringeArts. Its magnanimous board president, investor/philanthropist Richard Vague, isn’t just a longtime supporter of the local arts — he also remains one of the more relevant figures in the city (country?). The managing partner of Gabriel Investments (slash author, investor, philanthropist and general good guy) spends his free time lobbying Congress for massive debt restructuring in the U.S., penning economic treatises, raising funds for cancer research at Penn, and recommending good books to the literati via his e-newsletter, Delanceyplace.com. If the Philly of 2015 can claim a modern-day Ben Franklin, it’s this guy.
Originally published in the August 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.