It’s Not Really a Gamble, Is It, Kenny?

The music mogul-turned-redeveloper’s “new” plan for Southwest Philly is old hat

There was something so familiar about the opening paragraphs of this morning’s Inquirer story about Kenny Gamble and his big plans for Southwest Philly:

“Hey, brother,” a man calls from across the street, waving as he pushes a shopping cart toward the dreary Harvest Supermarket.
“Hey there,” says Gamble, in a thick brown coat, his familiar kufi, and schoolboy glasses, his arm outstretched.

Where have I seen that kufi before? Oh yeah—in the opening paragraphs of a Philly Mag story on “King Kenny” back in 2007:

He’s tall and broad, and wears an all-black tunic and a black crown cap called a kufi. His black horn-rimmed glasses recall Malcolm X.

And what was that story by Matt Teague about? Why, it was all about Kenny Gamble and his big plans for Southwest Philly. The two stories even recount the same touching anecdote about Gamble taking a tour of his old neighborhood, years after he achieved fame and fortune as part of the songwriting team Gamble and Huff (“Backstabbers,” “Love Train,” “Me and Mrs. Jones”), and running into his old landlord outside his dilapidated childhood home. “Sam, it’s me, Kenny … Ruby’s son,” Gamble says in Philly Mag, and “Remember me? I’m Ruby’s boy,” he says in the Inquirer. But this isn’t a story about plagiarism. It’s about how habit wears grooves, in a man’s memory and in the way money flows.

Gamble’s nonprofit organization, Universal Companies, has just won a Promise Neighborhoods grant from the U.S. Department of Education—$500,000 for a study of how to improve Point Breeze and Grays Ferry, with the possibility of millions more to follow. He stood on Monday to make the announcement with Mayor Nutter and Arlene Ackerman beside him. They’re among what he calls “the awakened ones”—those who, along with U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah and the usual community groups and local universities and think tanks, have identified the problem that’s keeping Southwest Philly impoverished and downtrodden. And … guess! Go ahead and guess what it is! No, wait, let Gamble tell you: “What we came up with was that education, education was the key.”

Gamble has been the recipient of government largesse before, big-time. A 2002 article in Black Enterprise noted that Universal in 2001 employed 180 people and grossed $15 million: “75 percent of which came from government grants and private sector donations.” He got $31 million last year from the state to develop South Street’s Royal Theater complex. Gee, that has a familiar ring, too. Universal bought the Royal all the way back in 2000. Three years ago, South Philly activist Lisa Parsley complained to Teague about the glacial development pace on that project—or nonproject, as may be the case. And now, more tax dollars will be flowing Gamble’s way, to prop up the scaffolding of the vast enterprise he’s got going. A smart man with friends in high places—remember the dust-up between Gamble and Carl Greene?—can keep the tax-dollar spigot turned on indefinitely in Philly. “This is a lifestyle for us, not a job,” Gamble told the Inquirer. Exactly right.