On Frankford Chocolate, Journalistic Integrity, And Hidden City

 

This past weekend the real estate developer Ori Feibush began demolishing the circa 1865 Frankford Chocolate factory at 22nd Street and Washington Avenue. How and why Feibush acquired the building and gained approval to knock it down despite it being nominated as an historic landmark and therefore under the legal oversight of the Historical Commission is a matter that our reporter, Starr Herr-Cardillo, explained in a detailed report last week. Part of the answer, as many readers are now aware, both through Herr-Cardillo’s story and through the column by Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron that was published today, revolves around Dennis Carlisle, who since 2012 has been contributing stories about the evolving lives of buildings in Philadelphia under the features column “The Shadow Knows” and under the pseudonym “GroJLart.” One of those stories, coincidentally, was this, history of the Frankford Chocolate building written in 2012.

Since we place exceptional value on the trust of our readers and hope to earn it every day, Peter Woodall and I, co-founders of the Hidden City Daily, and Michael Bixler, our managing editor, felt that we should explain why Carlisle was allowed to write under a pseudonym and what we’re doing about the issue going forward.

Beginning in January 2012, Carlisle began writing the Shadow Knows column two to three times a month. He was hired as freelance writer. His columns, as his many readers can attest, traced the history of particular buildings through time. The series of articles was initiated on his own blog, PhilaPhilia, where he wrote under “GroJLart” and regularly used profanity in discussing buildings he didn’t like, and why. As a high school art teacher, he didn’t want his students or supervisors in the school to know about his blog, even when, published on the Hidden City Daily, the prose was carefully edited and the profanity removed. This was his wish and we acquiesced. Carlisle worked as a high school art teacher, as far as we know, until last year. Starting in 2014 he also gave tours for Hidden City that he devised. In both roles, though always a freelancer, Carlisle contributed substantially to our work; the stories he told about buildings emphasized, to our delight and interest, the way architecture changes over time as structures get adapted for various purposes.

Within the last two years we learned that Carlisle was doing some commercial real estate work, but our understanding of it was vague and he didn’t disclose any specifics. As his work for our website was substantially historical in nature, we didn’t immediately recognize the potential conflict and he was allowed to continue writing under the pseudonym (only one other writer, Nicholas Phillippi, an urban explorer, was allowed to write stories under a pseudonym, “Shadowbat”). This was our mistake. Although it seems to us unlikely that Carlisle used the pseudonym as cover to enhance any real estate or business deals in the years prior to his involvement with the Frankford Chocolate building, we do not know and thus can not say—which is precisely the problem.

When, in December 2017, Carlisle submitted a nomination to the Historical Commission for the Frankford Chocolate Building, we learned of it when everyone else did, at the Commission’s meeting. Strangely, though he of course knew that our editorial team at Hidden City would be interested in the nomination, he didn’t disclose the information to us. If he had, though, we may not have acted: several writers who have contributed articles to the Hidden City Daily have submitted landmark nominations to the Historical Commission. The only difference is that they wrote under their real names. Whether Carlisle wrote that nomination and then tried to pull it to materially aid Feibush or himself, we don’t know. But, as Saffron reported, Feibush hired him in January less than a month after the nomination was submitted. Carlisle never informed us, fully four months ago, that he was working for Feibush, whose work draws frequent coverage from the Hidden City Daily and many other news organizations in Philadelphia. Carlisle should have informed us of this fact no matter if he was or was not writing under a pseudonym. However, the pseudonym protected Carlisle from earlier scrutiny.

The result of all this is that someone who appeared to be a great advocate of Philadelphia’s legacy architecture has facilitated the destruction of a neighborhood icon, an old factory that always held latent potential and that, as many knowledgeable people have noted, could have been saved.

On Monday, we discontinued Carlisle’s column on the Hidden City Daily and today we changed the byline on all of his archived stories to his real name. Going forward, all writers for our website will have to use their legal names.

About the author

Nathaniel Popkin is co-founder of the Hidden City Daily and author of three books of non-fiction, including Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City (with Peter Woodall and Joseph E.B. Elliott) and two novels, Everything is Borrowed and Lion and Leopard. He is co-editor of Who Will Speak for America, an anthology forthcoming in June 2018, and the senior writer of the film documentary "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment."



11 Comments


  1. Terribly disappointing. I feel betrayed, and I’m sure you all do too. Not only was it a serious breach of ethics, it feels antithetical to the great work you all have done for preservation. I think his work probably needs to be removed from here, or at least put in an archive where it is put into context. Or let him publish them on his own blog.

  2. I never met GroJLart but I did communicate with him about some of his columns. Like others I am appalled by his recent behavior. That said, I must say that as a historian I found his research to be top notch and he was generous in sharing sources with me. I for one hope that his work will not be removed from Hidden City.

  3. Thank you for correcting this unfortunate situation. There is enough of this going on in Washington – we don’t need it at Hidden City.

  4. PETER LLOYD JONES

    Although this is a hideous betrayal, censorship does not seem like the appropriate solution. Perhaps a link to this article will suffice, and this story will surely be used widely as a precautionary tale in journalism school and elsewhere? I intend to remain as a reader of Hidden City. I for one accept your apology/explanation, and will read on.

  5. Michael McGettigan

    Keep all of the work by Carlisle/GroJ/Ori’sBoy up on your site–but please tag every single one at the top with a note and a link to this disclosure, and to Inga’s story.

    GroJ ‘s ethics aside, the most disturbing part was in the past year or so, he seemed to echo the all-to-common cliche putdown, “If you want to save it, YOU put up the money, otherwise shut up.”

    We knew Ori was good at demolishing history… but here he also managed to demolish a reputation. How long will Mr. Carlisle collect a check after the Chocolate Factory is replaced by Lego?

  6. Appalling situation, but fresh air and transparency is always the best remedy. Please do leave his non-pseudonymed columns–along with links to your (above explanation) and to Inge Saffon’s article on the website. Censoring it only protects his shadowy behavior.

  7. I applaud the HCP editorial team’s decisive action once it clearly became necessary and also your transparency about your path to the new real-names policy. This is a model for how such matters should be handled and disclosed on all websites that ask to be taken seriously as journalistic efforts.

  8. What happened with Carlisle is unfortunate. And with Feibush’s history of wanting to tear down any building over 25 years old, I have to wonder, to actually suspect that something underhanded went on between Carlisle and Feibush regarding the Frankford Chocolate buildings very recent past and the steps taken that have lead to it’s demolition. Feibush of late has been generating larger development projects and has shown himself to be just as slippery in his methods of doing business as most developers, but that unfortunately is to be expected.
    But I think there is a forest and trees problem here. As shady as all the Carlisle/Feibush store might be, the real tragedy is yet another important building in our fair City has been lost. If Carlisle’s actions played a part in this, it probably was a small part (and if so, I hope somehow Karma catches up with him). But we live in a City where the voices of preservation are barely spoken and even more infrequently heard and acted on. We have a City gov’t that only occasionally will say the right thing but there is no reason to believe that historic preservation is at all an important consideration in it’s work, or in it’s DNA. We have a City Historic Commission that consistently over many years gives all sorts of weak reasons why they can’t do much (or nearly anything). We have news outlets, such as Hidden City, that much like City gov’t are willing to do publically say the right thing, such as having nice little solid stories about this building or that one, but for whatever reasons, is not going to fully commit and buy fully into the need to change the state of preservation in the area. And we have organizations, the Preservation Alliance to name the largest (but still not very large) that at best tries to put band aids on serious wounds, while still taking care of other, in my opinion, much less important tasks like issuing awards and having cocktail parties.
    It’s gotten to the point where nobody is responsible and few seem to have any sense of how to take even small steps toward seriously improving matters. We as a City, as a region, have seemingly lost hope that outside of a solo individual occasionally acting on their own, that there is a future where one of the most interesting features of Philly, that being our built history, can resist the forces of Feibush and his type.
    Yes, Carlisle might have sold his soul to the devil in a very public way, and his actions might have helped Feibush in his quest to rebuild from the ground up as much of Philly as he can, but I’m much more concerned that although nearly everyone loves ‘the old buildings in Philly, they have so much character’, but we as a community don’t seem able to build on that broad based love, and find ways save meaningful buildings like Frankford Chocolate.

  9. David Brownlee

    Facts, like those which Dennis Carlisle has contributed to our understanding of this city, are always good. But facts are amoral things, and we need to pay attention to the moral consequences of what people do with them. Kudos to Hidden City both for increasing our encyclopedia of facts and also for being attentive to the transparency that is needed when we put these facts to work.

  10. Mike McLaughlin

    Well, damn. Just…damn.

  11. Looks like the people weren’t in danger around this building until Ori started demolition.

    http://www.philly.com/philly/news/peco-lost-power-washington-avenue-chocolate-factory-ori-feibush-20180602.html

Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
Infill Philadelphia Brings Communities Together By Design

Infill Philadelphia Brings Communities Together By Design

August 17, 2018  |  News

Sacred Places/Civic Spaces helps three houses of worship plan for the future by opening their doors to the neighborhood. Starr Herr-Cardillo has the story > more

Our History Compels Us: We Stand United For A Free Press

Our History Compels Us: We Stand United For A Free Press

August 16, 2018  |  Soapbox

We join with hundreds of news organizations in defense of the free press, under dangerous attack by the President of the United States > more

For The Birds: An Ode To Philly's Old Goose Signs

For The Birds: An Ode To Philly’s Old Goose Signs

August 13, 2018  |  Harry K's Encyclopedia

Harry K. reminisces about the Bicentennial-era bridge signs that still point the way to the Delaware River > more

Legal Fund Fights Developers That Game The System

Legal Fund Fights Developers That Game The System

August 9, 2018  |  Vantage

The price of preservation is high when building owners undermine the authority of the Historical Commission through legal loopholes. Dana Rice unpacks the issue with this report > more

North Broad's

North Broad’s “Lion Of Zion” Finds Strength In Design

August 8, 2018  |  News

Zion Baptist Church opens its doors to a sustainable future and a North Philly revival. Rachel Hildebrandt has the story > more

Diorama Restoration At The Academy of Natural Sciences Confronts Loss & Conquest

Diorama Restoration At The Academy of Natural Sciences Confronts Loss & Conquest

August 6, 2018  |  News

Conservators on the Parkway give 80-year-old specimens a good scrubbing, while examining science's shady past with new interpretation. Mabel Rosenheck has the story > more