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A look at Philadelphia financier Albert M. Greenfield

Albert Monroe Greenfield may have lied about attending Philadelphia's elite Central High School. But the immigrant kid learned enough at other cash-strapped (then as now) city public schools to model himself on Benjamin Franklin, John Wanamaker, and other

"The Outsider: Albert M. Greenfield and the Fall of the Protestant Establishment" by Dan Rottenberg. (From the book jacket)
"The Outsider: Albert M. Greenfield and the Fall of the Protestant Establishment" by Dan Rottenberg. (From the book jacket)Read more

The Outsider

Albert M. Greenfield and the Fall of the Protestant Establishment

By Dan Rottenberg

Temple University Press. 368 pp. $35

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Reviewed by Joseph N. DiStefano

Albert Monroe Greenfield may have lied about attending Philadelphia's elite Central High School. But the immigrant kid learned enough at other cash-strapped (then as now) city public schools to model himself on Benjamin Franklin, John Wanamaker, and other Philadelphia business owners who aligned public interests with their own. As "Mr. Philadelphia," he became a dominant figure on a shrinking stage.

In his book about another immigrant-turned-millionaire power broker, The Man Who Made Wall Street (2001), Dan Rottenberg had to fill in blanks to resurrect secretive financier Anthony J. Drexel. With The Outsider, Rottenberg faced an opposite challenge: Greenfield carefully managed his public image, from the time of his emergence as a real estate trader pledged to the corrupt Vare Republican political gang of the 1910s and '20s, through his emergence as a banking and retail baron and patron of FDR's New Deal, to his post-World War II national prominence. Forty-seven years after his death, Greenberg's foundation helped pay for this book, though Rottenberg says he wasn't told what to write.

Backed by investors who knew his father from the old country (Ukraine), Greenfield was a teenager when he set up his first real estate firm. He assembled the 52d Street business district by the new-built Market Street El, found cinema sites for Hollywood mogul William Fox and parish sites for builder-archbishop Cardinal Dennis Dougherty, then plowed his profits into Philadelphia banks, offices, and hotels of varying quality, plus department stores from New York to New Orleans.

When the stock market crash of 1929 crushed Greenfield's banks, larger, more conservative lenders (the "Protestant Establishment" of Rottenberg's title) wouldn't bail him out. Greenfield reorganized and joined the Democrats.

Like Philadelphia, Greenfield's empire went hollow in the 1950s as people with money left for the suburbs. What redeems Greenfield from obscurity is his role as a supporter, strategist, and planning-commission chief for the Dilworth-Clark reform movement that led the Penn Center and Society Hill redevelopments, benefiting many landlords besides Greenfield.

None of which stopped the rest of Philadelphia from two generations of economic and social decline, which Rottenberg touches on briefly. In backing, first, Philadelphia's cynical Republican machine and then its relatively brief wave of Democratic reformers, Greenfield and his allies failed to engage, inspire, or replace the city's manufacturers. They left, seeking higher returns elsewhere, leaving holes that still haven't been filled.

Greenfield's career proved there were fortunes to be made even amid decay and stagnant rents, through government-subsidized and tax-incentivized office and apartment towers, stadiums, retail, and convention centers. He should be remembered for this, and for his foundation, which still gives away a million dollars a year.

JoeD@phillynews.com 215-854-5194 @PhillyJoeD www.inquirer.com/phillydeals.

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