Ori Feibush first came to wide public attention in 2012 as a developer who cleaned up and beautified a trash-filled city-owned lot without permission. Instead of being applauded for spending $23,000 and hauling away 40 tons of trash, he got hassled by the city for “trespassing.” That made international news.
That was an early chapter in the story of the Fresh Prince of Point Breeze.
The latest chapter was written this week, when some villain torched Feibush’s townhouses under construction at 20th and Wharton Streets. That firebombing should be treated as domestic terrorism — an attack designed to make an evil political statement.
It was the latest in an escalating string of vandalisms that started in 2012 when a dead pit bull was left on the doorstep of his Point Breeze home and windows in some of his properties were smashed. A lot has happened between then and now.
Some neighborhood people hate him and his real estate empire. Let’s see why.
The Temple graduate moved into Point Breeze in 2005, seeking a home and a business opportunity. The contrast between gritty Point Breeze and green and white Upper Dublin, where he grew up, was night and day.
He bought properties and lots in Point Breeze because they were cheap. And they were cheap because the neighborhood was in deep decay, with abandoned properties, crack houses, trash-strewn vacant lots, and violence.
He rolled up his sleeves (and his bankroll) and transformed empty lots or dilapidated properties in Point Breeze and elsewhere into townhouses selling from $250,000 to $1 million.
It was good for city tax rolls, but it wasn’t always good for the residents who had remained in their homes.
As real estate values in the neighborhood rose, so did real estate taxes, which proved burdensome for some of the original residents who were on fixed incomes.
This is a dark element of gentrification: What’s good for new residents may be bad for old ones. And when the new are mostly rich and white, and the old are mostly poor and nonwhite, that can be explosive. The reality that longtime residents could sell their homes for more than they ever imagined doesn’t change the fact that they are being forced out. (There is a city program that can protect long-term residents from big tax increases.)
“The problem with Point Breeze is, it seems everything gets opposition,” said John Longacre, another developer. “There’s a small, vocal minority that tends to hold up the process. It makes it a very unfriendly place.”
The more civil of Feibush’s critics — the ones who use words instead of dead dogs and Molotov cocktails — accuse him of being a greedhead and a lousy landlord who’s been sued a few times.
In reality, the feisty Feibush, 33, is more often a plaintiff than a defendant.
“If he thinks he’s right, he will fight all the way, and you have to admire someone who will fight for his convictions,” says City Councilman Allan Domb, a fellow developer, who was elected in 2015, the same year Feibush ran against Kenyatta Johnson for the Second District seat.
Feibush had previously challenged beloved Councilwoman Anna Verna's political machine without much success, but that didn’t deter him from taking on Johnson.
Pundits predicted a close race, but Johnson won handily.
Feibush sued Johnson for obstructing his real estate ventures (he was awarded $34,000), he sued his own campaign consultant, he’s threatened to sue neighborhood critics who “spread falsehoods,” and he questioned the integrity of former Mayor Michael Nutter’s chief integrity officer. He tells me he loves Philadelphia but it is “designed to make people fail.”
Despite that, Feibush keeps coming at you. I don’t defend every last thing he has done, but he reminds me of Teddy Roosevelt’s “man in the arena,” who stands and fights.
The firebombing was “a call to arms,” he says. “We have accelerated our efforts to build more homes. We are doubling down.”
He’s not scooping up his money and living in a safe, leafy suburb. He’s become a part of the fabric of Point Breeze. He’s bought in, sunk roots.
Philly needs more people like Feibush, not fewer.
And we can’t allow people who bring so much to the table to be driven off by vigilante domestic terrorists.
(Editor's note: An earlier version of this column misidentified John Longacre as Kevin Longacre.)