In Point Breeze, an agent for political involvement

Developer Ori Feibush has come to personify tensions over gentrification in Point Breeze. He plans to run for Second District Councilman in 2015. SARAH J. GLOVER / File Photograph
Developer Ori Feibush has come to personify tensions over gentrification in Point Breeze. He plans to run for Second District Councilman in 2015. SARAH J. GLOVER / File Photograph
Posted: March 25, 2014

Ori Feibush says he just wants to encourage his friends and neighbors to get involved in politics.

He says he's not even thinking about running for Democratic ward leader in Philadelphia's Point Breeze section, where he has staked out a small real estate empire.

"I'll never say never, but that's not the immediate goal here," he said.

Even so, Feibush has persuaded enough people to run for committee person - the party foot soldiers who ultimately pick the ward leaders - to challenge every seat in the 36th Ward.

He also has people running in the 30th Ward, in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood to the north, and the 48th to the south. The committee person election will be on the May 20 primary ballot.

"I don't know if it's a slate," Feibush said. "These are very independent individuals who think independently."

Though challenges to ward leaders are not uncommon, they usually come from political insiders, reflecting rivalries and disputes within the party.

Feibush's effort is different. His assemblage of more than 100 outsider candidates across three wards presents an insurgency unusual in scope and origin.

The street-level battles for committee seats also are bound to be proxy fights for a 2015 City Council election likely to center on the thorny issues of gentrification, development, and race that in recent years have engulfed these South Philadelphia neighborhoods and other parts of a changing city.

"The politics as we know it are about to go through a big change," said Ralanda King, a current Democratic committee person. "It's all about the money, for the land. . . . We have newcomers coming in trying to squeeze us out."

The three wards where Feibush has focused his energy are in the Second Councilmanic District, where he intends to run against freshman Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, a Democrat.

"It's not about Kenyatta. I think he's a good guy and has a good heart and means well," Feibush said. "These neighborhoods can and should be better."

Asked last week about Feibush's push in the wards, Johnson took the high road, saying he wasn't involved in those contests.

"I support the current ward leaders," he said. "My primary focus right now is being the councilman for the Second District."

Point Breeze has been grappling for years with the tensions that arise when wealthier, mostly white residents move into poorer African American neighborhoods.

During his two years in office, Johnson has advocated for affordable housing and measures to ensure rising taxes don't drive out longtime residents.

Last week, when Council President Darrell L. Clarke presented an affordable-housing strategy, he specifically cited Point Breeze as a place where middle- and lower-class buyers were in danger of being excluded.

Feibush, meanwhile, has become the personification of those tensions - deservedly or not.

In just a handful of years, Feibush and his company, OCF Realty, have helped transform wide swaths of formerly blighted Point Breeze. Of his current projects, he said, he hopes to finish an additional 40 to 50 houses by the end of summer.

Feibush, who hails from the suburbs but who has lived in the neighborhood for years, is also highly visible - OCF operates a well-known real estate blog, Naked Philly, and he was the subject last year of a lengthy Philadelphia Magazine profile depicting his brash and often confrontational style.

But Feibush said many of the people he has encouraged to run for committee person are longtime African American residents tired of the status quo.

"I think it should be a more inclusive process," he said. "The overwhelming majority . . . didn't even know they had an outlet to challenge their committee people."

Steve Sabo, a youth hockey coach who grew up in Northeast Philadelphia's Rhawnhurst section, moved to Point Breeze nearly five years ago. He got to know Feibush around the neighborhood and said he decided to run for committee person because of his frustrations over a number of quality-of-life issues.

"I do know that certain things have been done the same way for a long time," he said. "If a group of people come along and want to do it differently, that's bound to ruffle some feathers."

Sabo said his only goal was to make Point Breeze "nicer."

King, who has lived there all her life, wants the same thing - something she feels the new residents don't acknowledge.

"It's as if we didn't have a vested interested in our community," she said. "The story they won't tell is how I've gotten out there and fought the drug dealers."

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, the longtime city Democratic boss who treasures party unity, said through a spokesman he didn't want to discuss any ward challenges.

The ward leaders in the 30th and 48th - Marcia V. Wilkof and Lee Schwartz - did not return phone calls seeking comment last week.

The ward leader in the 36th is a familiar Philadelphia name - former City Council President Anna C. Verna, who's been in charge there since the late 1970s.

Verna and Feibush both attended hearings Friday at the city commissioners' office on Spring Garden Street, where judges heard challenges to knock candidates off the May 20 ballot.

Verna didn't seem worried about her seat - she said she had met Feibush for the first time that day.

"Why is he running?" she asked. "Of course, he's a developer."


tgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-2730

@troyjgraham

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