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.