By Ada Kulesza
This is a story about lovers.
It's no love story; rather, it is a story about people who love a city they have inherited, an ancient place founded by Quakers and built by Revolutionaries. Pockets of that old world are still scattered around Philadelphia, but the men who first built it wouldn't recognize it.
Philadelphia is the bone yard of the Industrial Revolution. The ruins of extinct businesses stand like empty monuments to an economy that's gone. But, many of the young people living here today see beauty in its post-industrial shell. Look inside and you'll see people working, slowly, to create the city's new economy - and with that, its new culture.
Young people today are like those who created our country. They want to do things their own way. They see blight as potential for green development. They see idle teenagers as potential entrepreneurs. They see a tanking economy as the signal to follow their hearts.
The young people featured in this story may not know each other, but they keep saying the same thing. There's something really great going on here. There's an exciting energy humming through the city.
"I love Philadelphia."
Their declarations of love are almost always followed by "even though..." Philadelphia has problems. We offer 12 stories about young people who are working to solve these problems. Most of them are in their 20s, a number of them are émigrés who grew up elsewhere. Some are profiting nicely; some are just starting out on very long journeys, with no certainty of success. All of them are part of a city on the rise because it's doing things a little differently.
They bring to their missions originality, vitality and optimism. but something else is threading through each of these tales: they aren't doing it alone. Strict individualism may have worked in the past; but this is the cooperative generation. They're reaching out to each other and to the many groups and communities that comprise the city. They're listening. And they're doing it themselves. They are the source of energy that has the power to make this a story with a happy ending -- for them and for the city they love.
Welcome to Philadelphia's next generation.
John Fazio, 23
Chris Alfano, 24
Matt Monihan, 24
If you build it, they will come.
Come they do. On a hot afternoon on North Third Street in Northern Liberties, all of the computers at Devnuts are occupied by some 20-somethings. Their screens glow with meticulously designed graphics, or incomprehensible cyber language. Someone might lean over and take a look at a friend's screen, offering input, if he asks for it.
A pack of four saunter over to the foyer, grab Vitamin Water out of the fridge, and settle into overstuffed leather couches to play Nintendo on a massive flat screen TV that hangs on the exposed brick walls.
This is the home of the collaborative hackerspace, Devnuts, and Jarv.us, a company that designs computer-based business solutions for mid-sized companies. Neither the Devnuts co-founders nor partner Matt Mohihan have yet hit 25, but they're already aiming to be a Philly tech giant.
It's a familiar story. Go to college, make friends, drop out. Find a sweet space in an old glassblowing studio in an up-and-coming part of town. Renovate it with your own hands. Stock it with wicked fast modems and the latest technology. Open it to students and young freelancers to create a hacker's paradise.
The two companies are testaments to the power of collaboration. In fact, collaboration may be part of the genius of this new generation of Philadelphians.
"We created Devnuts as a way to conjoin freelance operations, to allow freelancers to come together to work on bigger projects than they can do by themselves," said John Fazio, 23, who co-founded Devnuts along with Chris Alfano, 24. "We created two separate companies. Devnuts became a cool collaborative workspace where we bring freelancers together. Jarv.us we created as a means to sell software externally from Devnuts."
Companies that need tech help - inventories or management, say - contract the seven full-time employees at Jarv.us, who handle projects at a certain price range. Smaller projects will be directed to freelancers at Devnuts, which offers tech solutions at food cart prices - because Devnuts has talent as young as 17. They can also tap the expertise of other companies housed at the space: Little Giant Creative, Grand Round Table, and FountainISS.
Money that Jarv.us makes goes into Devnuts, whose philosophy (besides being "Nuts about development) is teaching. They look for people to educate.
Devnuts reaches out to Drexel's co-op program and the Science Leadership Academy, one of the Philadelphia school district's new magnet high schools. A Devnuts student member gets desk space, projects, and access to other people with the same drive to share knowledge. And Jarv.us gets a talent pool of flexible minds to dip into.
"What we realized early on is the pace of technology changing and adapting so fast leaves you in a place where sitting and knowing a certain language for 10 years is not nearly as effective as the ability to learn a new language," says Fazio.
It's not just about overhead. "It's also tremendously harder to teach a 30-year-old who has 10 years of experience how to code into a new language than it is to teach a 17-year-old with no coding experience how to code in two different languages," he says.
It's not just about philanthropy, either. John says he sees young up-starts as brimming with potential - even if hair-brained schemes may surface from time to time. As Matt Monihan says, they fail quickly, and move on.
"Computer science departments are a bit behind in terms of what they're teaching," Monihan said.
Jarv.us seeks solutions to clients' problems, but their particular brand of cooperative tech attempts to resolve the conflict between getting a college degree - and college debt - and keeping pace with a rapidly evolving industry.
Holly Otterbein, 25
She's the last person in America to get a job in journalism - so jokes a former Temple professor when he introduces his guest Holly Otterbein to his college class. A City Paper staff writer at 25, she represents an anomaly within an ailing industry. Independent newspapers are shrinking, the Woodwards of yore have passed the torch to sexy newscasters and celebrity gossip. But rather than allow her craft to sink, Otterbein pumps out story after story for the free alt-weekly, leading a print institution into the digital world armed with a voice and her tool of choice: Twitter.
In the run-up to the mayoral election this autumn, Otterbein covered the spring primaries, what she calls the most important city elections in decades. Sitting in the seats at election forums, her wavy hair tumbling down her shoulders, she'd fire off Tweets about all the "juicy" bits.
Five council incumbents didn't seek reelection, unprecedented in Philly where, as a colleague joked, City Council members leave "in handcuffs or a coffin." A 25-year-old candidate, an openly gay contender, and two Asian-Americans ran. The sheriff's race included a candidate who wanted to abolish the office upon winning it, and housing activists Cheri Honkala, "who's gotten arrested, like, hundreds of times," Otterbein marvels, and who wanted to call off sheriff's sales.
Otterbein talks the way she writes: her voice is level and to-the-point, but inflected with awe as she describes our local democratic process. "It's just like national politics, but a smaller slice of the pie," she says. "There are all these intertwining narratives, an interesting web of nonsense."
Before Otterbein had mastered her ABCs, the alternative weekly golden age, along with print journalism itself, was waning. Once robust budgets were cut; bureaus shrank. The alt-weekly voice - funny, street, four-letter peppered - stayed the same, but business wasn't good when Otterbein started covering Philly as a prolific student reporter at Temple. She interned at City Paper and was hired as a listings editor. She's been dishing the dirt on the "fascinating" city she covers ever since.
"I don't like to trivialize people's lives, but it's interesting when a Mayor candidate filed for bankruptcy four times, and broke campaign finance laws," Otterbein says.
As an incorrigibly optimistic person, she's confident that journalism will live (if it finds the right balance between print and web). And she's confident that Philadelphia is on the rise.
Although she's paid to write about the city's shortcomings and foibles, Otterbein says she's in love with the place, "the way you'd be in love with a person" - despite its flaws.
Something about this city makes it a draw. Otterbein writes, "It has the highest poverty rate of any major American city; political corruption occurs here far too often; it has too many blighted properties; its public school system is rife with problems; its arts scene is incestuous; its subway doesn't run 24/7; my street is always dirty."
"And somehow it's the best city in the world.
Every little neighborhood is unique and a world upon itself; every person's
story is so damn interesting; it's bike-able; when the art (and music, and
writing) is good, it's really fucking good; it has great food; it has great
bars; and it has great characters like Milton Street and the Tiberino family
and Frank Rizzo...who you couldn't find anywhere else."
Charlie K, 30
Chris Conway, 30
Kush Shalimar, 30
Three blocks from a blighted street in Atlantic City, the Showboat Casino rises, full of lights, bells, and lingerie-clad girls dancing atop pedestals at eye level with blackjack players.
Members of the audience for Snoop Dogg at the House of Blues cluster around the lobby, making their way up the narrow escalator to the doors, as opening act Writtenhouse starts their set.
Given the artistry of the trio's album While You Were Sleeping, it makes sense to see them open for Snoop. Their manager, self-proclaimed bulldog Damian Leigh of Greenlyte Management, has gotten the Philadelphia group on bills with De La Soul, the Roots, and Wu Tang.
While You Were Sleeping is spun with crafted lyricism around themes like redemption and destiny. Writtenhouse has substance and a message and, even more rare for hip-hop, their music is virtually devoid of expletives. There are no bitches, bling, gangstas, drugs or violence in their music. Instead, their lyrics are about loneliness, a longing for greatest, and the human condition.
Writtenhouse is trying to make their way in the world of independent music. Right now, they find themselves in limbo: well known enough to be an opening act for big-name groups, but they still have to keep their day jobs. For instance, Charlie K., 30, is a public school teacher, who goes by the name of Aaron Lamb by day.
On the other hand, mainstream music teeters on the verge of utter waterlog.
"Not to be too harsh, but the music industry seems over-saturated and watered-down," Charlie says. "It seems like that's 90 percent of what is being driven or force fed to the masses."
In their own way, Writtenhouse is a repudiation of that mainstream, corporate hip-hop. They are committed to influencing their audience and their community - and not in bad ways. None of this celebration of violence-materialism-mysogeny. Writtenhouse wants to make you dance but they also want to make you think.
Charlie K., who favors Buddy Holly glasses and a hoodie, has been collaborating with producer Chris Conway, 30, for over a decade. He met the second half of the production team, Kush Shalimar, five years ago. Both producers grew up in Mt. Airy around the same time, listening to Dr. Premier, Pete Rock and Eric Sadler of Public Enemy, trying to mimic the music they heard on keyboards or drum machines.
"I'd learn how to use their high hats, how they do their snares," says Conway. "Not jack their style," he says; more like learning by ear.
Charlie K wrote his lyrics onto the beats that the producers wove from their influences, which were decidedly melodic: the live drums and soul hooks that became signature Philly hip-hop in the '90s.
"What I came to love about CK as an emcee is his voice," Shalimar, 30, says. "When you're listening to your headphones, in your crib or your car, you can appreciate his vocal tone."
And the message. "I don't have spare raps," Charlie K. says. "I make the song to the beat. It makes every rhyme tailor-made for that beat."
The Showboat that paid for Snoop Dogg may not catch all of Charlie's rapping, but their hips understand the universal language of rhythm. Hypeman Somerville Sleeves fills out the vocals and stokes the crowd, who are loving this band.
So one show at a time, Writtenhouse is making fans. It's not as fast as getting onto a major label, which will want to change their sound to turn a profit, but Writtenhouse wants to grow into craftsmen. "Take it to a certain level, hopefully that people connect to," Charlie K. says. "It has to be a passion, and a love."
Photos: Ada Kulesza