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The Mensch & Schlemiel of the Week


Noun, informal. A decent, upright, mature and responsible person.


Noun, slang. An awkward, clumsy, or unlucky person whose endeavors tend to fail; a loser.


Mensch of the Week:

Stephen Starr, Starr Restaurants

I’m a little embarrassed that it’s taken me this long to do a proper post on Philadelphia restaurateur and taste-maker Stephen Starr, whose Starr Restaurants organization has done as much as anyone to revive Philadelphia’s Center City and Old City neighborhoods. Mr. Starr’s development of unique restaurants has boosted the area’s appeal to both locals and visitors, and his many accolades include being named “Restaurateur of the Year” by Zagat and “Mensch of the Week” by the Llenrock Blog.

Since my writing is totally biased in favor of Philadelphia’s CRE news, the establishments driving this area’s culture and reputation are major interests for me.

Mr. Starr has been in the restaurant hospitality business for decades, and his many restaurants include such well-known eateries as the Continental, Buddakan, and Morimoto (co-owned with the Iron Chef of the same name).

It’s not a secret that Philadelphia has a bit of an inferiority complex when it comes to a certain neighbor two hours to the north. While Philly’s unofficial status as New York’s “sixth borrow” has helped attract residents, visitors, and businesses seeking a New York-but-cheaper experience, this status can only do so much. Ultimately, the city’s downtown hotel rates, visitor numbers, and property values can only improve if the area establishes an identity all its own.

Not only has Mr. Starr played a major part in creating a unique identity for the city, in the last few years he’s begun importing his concepts to other markets, including (ha!) Manhattan. Having already brought Philly hotspots Buddakan and Morimoto to New York City, he is now developing a version of El Vez in Manhattan’s Financial District. Last month, The New York Times said,

El Vez is a splashy affair, with tastes of Tijuana on the menu. The New York edition will be much the same and should appeal not only to downtown bankers and brokers after hours but also to families living in the neighborhood.

Philly is not New York, nor should it try to be. The fact that restaurants original to Philadelphia are finding their way into other markets shows a lot of growth in the Center City restaurant scene. Now, if only we could do something about the city’s retail situation.

Schlemiel (and also possibly Mensch) of the Week:

The Barnes Foundation

For next week’s Mensch & Schlemiel, I promise to branch out a little. But today’s Schlemiel (and also kind of Mensch) of the Week is once again in Philly: the internationally renowned art collection known as the Barnes Foundation.

Curbed Philly recently posted an article called “The Magic 8-Ball Answers 10 Big Questions for Philly in 2013,” in which the reader must click on the image of a magic 8-ball to find out what’s in store for this year (they’re fun like that, over at Curbed). The first question is:

Will the battle to keep the Barnes Foundation in Merion fade from memory, only to be resurrected when an out-of-town relative sees The Art of the Steal on Netflix?

 According to the Magic 8-ball (when I tried it), the answer is, “Sadly, Yes.” If you’re local to Philadelphia, you’re certainly familiar with the protracted battle for the future of Albert C. Barnes’ $25 billion art collection, formerly located in a residential area outside the city. After a very public legal fight between community groups and better-funded organizations and commercial interests, the Barnes ended up on Ben Franklin Parkway with the rest of Philly’s big museums. While the collection’s new home is a beautiful piece of architecture, and certainly more accessible, there’s still some bad blood between the city and suburbs regarding the foundation’s relocation.

The Art of the Steal, a well-received documentary released in 2010, details the battle over this collection (there’s a clear agenda to the film, bear in mind, so don’t expect a glowing portrayal of the Pew Charitable Trusts or the City of Philadelphia).

For Philadelphia’s art scene–a major driver of tourism and commerce in the city–the Barnes was a coup. Now that it’s here, the ongoing controversy over which community should host the museum seems largely academic.  Still, the national media coverage the Barnes received a couple years ago (along with the documentary) haven’t put it in the most positive light.

Will the controversy diminish the gallery’s strength as an economic driver for the area?

Probably not.

And in case you’re wondering if this whole conversation started from a crudely animated magic 8-ball I found online, let’s check the magic 8-ball…

“Sadly, Yes.”

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